A Facebook campaign launched by teachers concerned about a Ministry of Education decision to make study of the Confucian classics mandatory in high schools asks an interesting question — is there an ulterior political motive to forcing students to study the “Four Books”? The ministry’s stated goal in making the ancient textbooks required reading is to combat widespread bullying, drug use and gang problems among high school students. However, academics and teachers question whether studying the books would solve these problems, and point out that it would take time away from the study of elective courses.
What is the real reason for railroading through mandatory study of four books that were chosen as the most important Confucian texts by a Song Dynasty scholar about 900 years ago? Written more than 2,000 years ago, the books are unlikely to touch on modern themes such as peer pressure, gang dynamics, drug use, teenage pregnancies, broken families, pollution, the declining birthrate and other issues facing young people today.
The ministry summed up its stance on the issue when it described The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸), The Great Learning (大學), The Analects of Confucius (論語) and Mencius (孟子) as the “basic materials of Chinese culture.” But as Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Wong Chin-chu (翁金珠) has pointed out, classical Chinese texts have come to comprise 65 percent of the books read by high school students since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office, compared with making up 45 percent of required reading before his administration. If the Four Books were to graduate from being the topic of elective courses to mandatory subjects, that percentage would increase even further.
The Ma administration has apparently packed the ministry’s Curriculum Committee with loyal members whose goal is to push through an emphasis on reading Chinese classics. Curriculum Committee member Lin Lih-yun (林麗雲) said the committee submitted a curriculum that heavily emphasized Chinese classics in September last year shortly after several committee members were replaced, culminating five years of study on what high school students should be reading. The committee then overruled its own curriculum early this year to make the Four Books mandatory, starting next year. These sudden revisions seem overly hasty considering how much time had been put into planning the curriculum.
The Ma administration’s decision to emphasize Chinese classics did not start overnight, and it certainly is not a response to bullying in schools, which was only really elevated to the national agenda when Taoyuan’s former Bade Junior High School principal Wu Chia-ku (於家穀) was fired in late December for turning a blind eye to brutal bullying and gangsterism on campus. After that, the issue of bullying in schools polarized the media, but Ma’s campaign to force students to study ancient Chinese texts has been going on for at least the past three years.
In what looked like a kneejerk reaction at the time, but is more than likely a well thought out plan to capitalize on public indignation, education officials revised the required reading list at the beginning of this year, saying the Four Books would build character, instill morals and stop high school students from bullying each other, taking drugs and joining gangs. However, the ministry’s actions and its words don’t match up, which begs the question: Is requiring study of the Fours Books really meant to combat bullying, or is it meant to make Taiwan’s high school students more Chinese?