The recent debate over a proposed ten percent reduction of classical Chinese material in senior high school is actually a very good thing. It creates an opportunity to discuss a key issue: should a curriculum focus more on serving a pragmatic purpose, such as shaping students' ability to write and express their views in a coherent, easy-to-understand, logical manner? Or should a curriculum be designed to spark students' interest in classical literature? The answer is the former, so under the circumstances the proposed curriculum change is a step in the right direction.
The value of any language study is first and foremost in helping people communicate and get their point across. It is only after people have a good command of the basics that they can do so in an elegant and artistic manner. A widespread problem today is the lack of basic language and writing skills to accomplish even the most elementary objectives. Those who teach in senior high schools and at universities recognize this as a serious problem.
One reason for the deficiency has been the way Chinese literature is taught in schools. Students memorize by rote ancient poems and essays written in classical literary Chinese, and then have to write compositions imitating an ancient literary style. As a result, few students in Taiwan can write a well-structured essay, with a consistent central idea running through it, with supporting facts and arguments and a conclusion. No amount of flowery phrases cited from ancient classical essays can help cover up these fundamental flaws in composition.
This would be unthinkable in Western countries. In the US, although reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is part of the high school English curriculum, students aren't required to memorize particular paragraphs, let alone imitate ancient language used in their own writing. There are good reasons for this. In real life, no one in their right mind writes like that anymore; doing so would simply kill interest and appreciation for the masterpiece.
Granted, mastering traditional Chinese writing is a very good thing. For those with a keen appreciation there is always the option of specializing in Chinese literature at university. But high school level training should be communication-oriented. In most professions, writing serves the practical purpose of conveying ideas and thoughts -- something more efficiently done by using modern-day language. For example, the legal profession in the US was once notorious for using language filled with complex legal jargon -- "legalese." After decades of reform, lawyers are now trained to write in plain English.
Unfortunately, almost nothing can escape politics in Taiwan, and the proposed change to high school curriculum is no exception. Opponents call it an attempt by education minister Tu Cheng-sheng (