Modern education systems around the world were designed on the backdrop of the global economy. The relentless pursuit of competitive advantage and the religious obsession with profit led to education regimes whose top priority is to factory-fit the incoming freshman class with tools to beat rising giants like China in an economic arms race.

As a result, the major players on the economic world stage built education regimes without the client in mind: the students. Progressive education models that incorporate culture, critical thought, and human enterprise were not a priority during the industrial revolution, the time at which the current system was taking shape. Case in point: The United States and Taiwan.

Recently, I wrote a short editorial explaining my view on the standardized testing methods in the United States. I argued that standardized testing discourages more than it encourages, measures the wrong things, bolsters the factory education complex, and falls short as a success meter for teachers. “Teaching for the test,” or forcing students to focus on rote memorization, strips the joyful pursuit of knowledge and truth from kids at an early age.

Unfortunately for the United States, fitting our students into the global economic ladder comes first. We are too used to being number one, too afraid of letting that slip away, to really commit to preparing our children for the things that matter to us as a united community.

On the other side of the Pacific, Taiwanese youth have taken to the streets, against the grain of patriarchal Confucian values, to undermine their own regime of regressive education. Their struggle might be illustrated best by a video that surfaced earlier this week showing a young man named Chou Tien-kuan, with his father in a headlock. Chou is struggling to evade his parents, who berate him with disgraceful sentiment and try to snap him back into line.

Their fight takes place in a crowded protest, where high school students organized against the Ministry of Education, which recently revised the curriculum in a way that has been described as China-centric. 60% of a standardized history textbook was edited to “mute truth and establish Chinese dominance over Taiwan,” according to National Taiwan University history professor Chou Wan-yao.

On the surface, the history curriculum fight is yet another battle in the war over Taiwan’s national identity. There is a generational clash between those who remember vividly the Chinese Nationalists’ exodus to Formosa Island and the dramatic shift to democracy in the 1990s, and the generation that was born into a democracy and frustrated with the existing system’s flaws. There are those who want to be the China, and there are those who want to be the Taiwan. To many, this was just another politically motivated conflict in a series of other similar public tantrums.

That misses the point entirely. The altercation between Chou and his parents displays in microcosm the struggle of a young generation in a society where pervasive Confucian thought stresses cohesion, unity, and passivity. As was pointed out by on Thinking Taiwan:

The protesters…decried the lack of transparency in the [government’s] revision process, as they connect transparency and public participation with good outcomes and distrust patriarchal authority figures who could be (and in this case at least, are) captured by special interests. They believe they have as much a right to political participation as anyone.

It is incredibly difficult for the older generation to understand why an “educated” person would protest the system at all. “My son always did very well in school, got good grades, and was the best in his class,” the mother of the student in the video said later in a statement. “I don’t know what has happened to him in the last two or three months.”

But even more importantly, the battle for education is not just a political battle; it speaks directly to the core of Taiwan’s economic identity. It is no surprise that Taiwan’s repressive education system produces one of the world’s most “competitive” labor forces—overworked and underpaid manufacturing workers. The Confucian ideals of piety and the absolute authority of superiors just so happen to fit perfectly within a mass producing factory.

Education in Taiwan, under Confucianism, is not much more than a sorting machine for the global social assembly belt.

Ketagalan Media spoke with Prof. Wenling Tu, a professor of public administration, and Ms. Hsin-I Lin, a researcher with Citizens of the Earth Taiwan, on their interpretation of the manufacturing push that Taiwan has endured over the last decade (link). The question at hand often focused on why Taiwan is pushing for so much manufacturing when neither the labor force nor the environment condones it.

The answer has to do with the close reliance Taiwan has on China, as 40% of their manufactured output is exported to China. As Taiwan and China develop economic ties, the cross-strait relationship became dictated and manipulated by the global market. Vulnerability, politically and socially, follows for Taiwan as the major player in the East continues to close in on Taiwan.

But the answer also lies in just how well Taiwan’s Confucian labor values are perpetuated by the grownups, which includes the government, through education. Taiwan’s youth are being educated for precisely the same kind of manufacturing that has been holding Taiwan back—and not much else. Stimulating innovation, not to mention a functioning self-sustaining democratic state, requires the youth to question authority and be self-critical.

And what is impressive is that the young people in Taiwan understand this. They understand that their individuality, a centerpiece of democracy, is threatened by Taiwan’s economic handcuffs. Now, even what they learn in school is being determined by the Red Dragon. The students recognize that this does not only blunt their present-day progress, but also the progress that they expect their children to make. American students could learn a valuable lesson from the resilient Taiwanese youth. The island of 23 million has reminded the world what it means to be an individual, a value that America claims for purport. The individual, as displayed in Taiwan, would fight against institutions gone astray in a centralized, top-down state.

(Feature photo by ken19991210, CC 0)


Evan Chethik

Evan Chethik is a student at New York University studying International Relations and Mandarin. He will be entering graduate school in the spring to further his studies of the Pacific Rim. He most recently was an ambassador of the Formosa Foundation, a non-profit that advocates in the United States for human rights and democracy in Taiwan.

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