On June 12, unemployed school teachers marched in Taipei, demanding help from the Ministry of Education. Some of them asked for reduced class sizes in public schools, which would open up more job opportunities for them. Others asked for tighter regulation of teacher licensing, to reduce the number of certified teachers competing in the job market.
Although these measures, if implemented, might help some, they probably would not solve the problem. The situation of the unemployed teachers is bad. As widely reported in the media, for each teaching job opening in the public schools, there are about 180 certified, unemployed teachers.
It might be tempting to blame these teachers for being lazy and not having the gumption to try something else. I have heard some people say these things. In my opinion, such criticism is blaming the victim. Because they have spent most of their lives in a classroom, becoming an English teacher is a natural thing to do. If they manage to find a career outside of the teaching profession, it is probably in spite of, not because of, their education. The education system often discourages them from exploring possibilities, from developing marketable job skills for private industry.
In a study that I conducted four years ago among 159 undergraduate English majors and 25 alumni of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature of National Tsing Hua University (NTHU), I found that a substantial number of them wanted the opportunity to take many more electives in language skills and career-oriented English courses. The students believed that they should take fewer required courses in Linguistics and Literature. Courses in Oral Translation, Written Translation, Journalism English, English for Tourism and Business Writing were heavy favorites among the NTHU students.
Clearly, the students were concerned about their job prospects and wanted the university to do a better job of helping them to prepare for careers. In their view, the curriculum was out of step with their needs. One typical survey response was: "I would like to have some practical courses like tourism, hotel management, computer processing -- something that attaches to the real world." (For more detail about the results of this study, see the 2002 Conference Proceedings of the ROC English Teachers' Association.)
It is difficult to convince some faculty members to agree to reform the university curriculum, even when the best interest of students is at stake. Some professors, eager to protect their turf, will fight tooth and nail to keep their favorite courses on the list of graduation requirements. Unfortunately, the more required courses that students must take to graduate, the fewer opportunities they have to study electives in areas that match their personal or career interests. Ideally, there should be some balance between the needs of faculty members to protect the integrity of their academic disciplines and the needs of students to prepare for gainful employment after graduation.
Whenever some faculty hear about the need to reform the curriculum to make it a little more career-oriented, they may reply, defensively, that the purpose of a university is not to act as a vocational training institute.
Of course, this argument has some merit. Obtaining the foundation of a Liberal Arts education is very important, especially in a democratic society, where people need to apply critical thinking in the evaluation of public issues. Nonetheless, a narrow view about the purpose of a university misrepresents its place within society.
The Latin words alma mater, meaning "fostering mother," is a term often used in the West to refer to the university where one receives a degree. It implies a nurturing relationship between the institution and its students. Part of this relationship includes preparing students to assume work after graduation.
To argue that a university should not be bothered with preparing students, even those majoring in the humanities, for gainful employment is cruel and ridiculous. Proponents of this argument, often professors in the humanities, seem to ignore the widespread presence of academic programs in practical fields such as architecture, business administration, journalism, law and medicine. Would anyone dare to argue that the students majoring in business administration at, say, Harvard University are attending a vocational training institute?
Although teaching is a rewarding occupation, it is not for everyone. Here in Taiwan, there simply aren't enough full-time teaching jobs to go around. To address the unemployment problem among qualified teachers, the Ministry of Education -- with bipartisan support from political leaders -- could encourage universities to place more emphasis upon career education for students, especially for those majoring in the humanities.
Reforms might include providing students with more opportunities to take electives in career-related fields, developing opportunities for students to take supervised internships in private industry for credit, including student voices in the planning of department curriculums, and elevating the role of teaching and service in the evaluation of faculty for tenure and promotion.
These reforms should help encourage universities to become more sensitive to the needs of students. To overcome likely resistance from conservative faculty members in public universities, it might be helpful for the political leadership to expedite curriculum reform by tying this issue to future appropriations.
To put it bluntly, the Ministry of Education could present the universities with choices: "No reform, no money. More reform, more money." Even the most recalcitrant administrators and faculty would have difficulty ignoring for long the pressure of a shrinking budget.
Teaching students here in Taiwan for the past 15 years has been one of my life's greatest pleasures. I hope that much more can be done to prepare them for the realities of life beyond the Ivory Tower. Toward this end, I hope that this article might spur some thoughtful debate about how to reform the university curriculum in Taiwan for the benefit of students.
Nathan Jones is an associate professor in the department of foreign languages and literature at National Tsing Hua University.
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