The failures of college education in Taiwan

Back when I was teenager considering my academic future in the USA, I would obsessively read through college catalogs and practically drool on the sections that included department descriptions and course offerings. Since I was mainly interested in the humanities I focused on History, Philosophy, English and even toyed with idea of studying Art. Invariably these descriptions began or ended with a phrase like “the main goal the X Department at Y University is to prepare students to pursue graduate level studies in the future.” It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now realize this simple phrase summarized the key difference between the values upheld by liberal arts colleges and vocational or technical schools: the former prepares you to become a scholar, the latter to become a tradesman or technician. The liberal arts college I finally attended was a large, state-sponsored research institute in the south where we were required to study a diverse set of subjects (including history, science, mathematics, English, the arts, etc.) intended to give us the broad understanding of the world necessary for future scholars.

I feel like that’s what I got, and today, as a professor with more than a decade of teaching in Taiwanese universities behind me, one of the saddest things about working in the educational system here is that it does not assume that our students will go on to become scholars. On the contrary, it largely understands Education (教育) as vocational or remedial training. I’m on the faculty of a fairly large (23 member) Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at a national university and the biggest news lately is that we will soon undergo major down-sizing because the official trend is to have English become an elective course at all national universities like ours. This trend is baffling to many us, particularly since President Tsai has said she plans to make Taiwan a bilingual (Mandarin & English) nation by 2030, but also because it means dramatic cutbacks will be made to our branch of the humanities across Taiwan. Demoting English from a 3 credit required course for all freshmen means less faculty are needed so, according to the Dean of Liberal Arts at my university, we will likely shrink from a faculty of 30 to one of 16. English, which Taiwanese students mainly learn as a skill and universities like mine treat as a vocational subject, will thereby be marginalized even further.

Although we are treated as a vocational department, most of our faculty were trained in the study of literature at good US liberal arts colleges and share a deep respect for scholarship in the humanities. Unfortunately, no one else in the university or government does. I’m not being at all facetious when I say this because our College of Liberal Arts (文學院) currently consists of just three departments: History, Chinese, and Foreign Languages and these are just barely holding on. Just for the sake of contrast, at my home university in the US, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences was on an equal footing with the College of Science and housed the Departments of English, Drama, History, Philosophy, Art, Anthropology, etc.—in five or six large buildings. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, which underwent state-driven modernization in the 50s-60s by promoting engineering and techno-science in its educational system, it’s simply impossible to imagine the liberal arts on par with the sciences. For example, if a scholar in the liberal arts wants to apply for a grant, s/he must do so through the Ministry of Science and Technology—not to the Ministry of Culture or a National Endowment for the Arts (which doesn’t exist).

A big part of the problem with the scenario I’m describing is that the college entrance exam system remains firmly in place so every university in Taiwan is packed with students who don’t want to be in their respective departments. That is, the students in my department didn’t sort through college catalogs and drool over course offerings in Detective Fiction or Native American Literature, but instead were able to pick a college/department based on their exam scores (the goal being to get into the ‘best’ college, regardless of the department). If they want to get out of a department they hate or find a real interest in something else and want to change departments, they must then take an exam which is even more difficult than the first one! If nothing else, this system teaches students that “getting ahead” is more important than scholarship or pursuing your interests, and besides, no one wants to let their parents down by studying Art at some no-name college in Pingtung.
Another important outgrowth of the exam system is that it also teaches students that they’re not expected to learn anything in university in the first place, or as the Taiwanese play on the word for university goes, “it’s up to you to play for four years” (由你玩四年). Your reward for getting into that ‘good university’ is that you can cruise through 4 years of courses that probably do not matter to you in the least since it’s nearly impossible to “flunk out” of this system. Most laughably is, if, for some reason, you do feel the urge to go to graduate school and have the financial ability to do so, you probably will need to go to a cram-school (補習班) to prepare for the entrance exams! Yes, alongside the entire state system of education in Taiwan there is a private education industry whose entire existence proves the official system has utterly failed–otherwise, why would people need to go to cram-schools after 4 years of college?!

It’s all very exasperating, but if you consider all of the above I think it’s pretty obvious what needs to be done: a) universities in Taiwan should all be fairly funded throughout the country (Taipei’s ‘good’ universities get the lion’s share of government funding), b) public universities should shift to an open admissions policy, and c) academic standards should be upheld so that students who underperform do get “flunked out.” In addition, it would be great if the nation would adequately fund the liberal arts, but I dare not dream that big. Probably nothing would ever convince Auntie Chen that her daughter really should major in Dance or Art History if she wants to.

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