On Sept. 28, the birthday of Confucius, Teacher’s Day is celebrated in Taiwan. On this day, teachers receive congratulations, often together with small gifts from students and parents to express their gratitude. One may wonder why a specific professional group deserves such a public honor, as if teachers, who are already privileged with respect to salary, holidays and social reputation, are a particularly precious species. There is, for instance, no Doctor’s Days or Shoemaker’s Days.
It is of course true that formal education lies behind any profession. There is no doctor or shoemaker who did not have a teacher at various levels and stages of their (professional) education. And later, they may become teachers themselves when conveying their professional knowledge and experience to a new generation. Teaching is an important job indeed.
However, just like it is with people in other professions, there are good teachers and bad ones. Teacher’s Day, semi-officially celebrated across the island, honors teachers no matter if they are good or bad.
One may wonder why this ritual, which is repeated every year, continues without dispute, despite growing discontent — especially among young students — with regard to the qualifications of teachers.
It seems, therefore, that what is honored is the teaching profession itself. This might be explained by the prevailing Confucian culture that holds teachers in high esteem, with Confucius as the Sinic patron saint of educators.
The Confucian culture is a teacher’s culture; “teacher” in a broad sense, that is. In “thick” traditions, ie, in cultures with a strong respect for the past, professional expertise is seen as closely tied to personal experiences, in ways, however, that differ from modern ones. In thick cultures, teachers (often implicitly) believe that their personal experience is the crucial path leading to knowledge, which they themselves received from their teachers, and so on.
This long line of succession of “experienced” teachers, they insist, deserves respect, and the only option they offer to their students is simply to follow their personal examples as the safe path to truth. Students become disciples; life and learning form a unit; the best teachers are considered to be those with the richest life experience.
Life cannot be taught like facts; it needs to be emulated, a process which takes time. Respect and obedience, traditionalists think, are therefore the most important ingredients for a student’s success in learning. With such a pedagogical constellation the teacher becomes the super-ego for learners, with little room for students to explore things on their own.
This might explain why the term “wisdom” is still present in the contemporary educational discourse in Taiwan, guided by, as he is still respectfully called, Confucius the “sage.” Hence the remarkably high respect held for older teachers in this culture — as if they know better today when they often only know how things have been done in the past.
Modern thinking and science do not work like this. Scientific and social progress is made by breaking with past models and concepts. In modern learning, the teacher inspires and facilitates, rather than functions, as the path. The life experience of others is of less value in a world where it is important to be different and to understand differences. The modern world is a world of individuals, not of clones.
In Taiwan, there is not much awareness that, despite decades of experiences, one might still draw wrong conclusions and thus make things difficult not only for science and students, but also for the ethical state of a given society. There is often too much belief in and respect for personal or traditional wisdom based on length of experience.
President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration recently recommended an intensified teaching of Confucian writings in schools as a well-meant moral remedy against increasing social misbehavior. Meanwhile, it has become a mandatory part of the curriculum for high-school students. Read more Confucius and you become a better person, the Ministry of Education suggests, but nothing could be more wrong. Officials responsible for education policies in this country should begin to consider that Confucianism is not the solution, but the problem.
Traditional Confucian writings are complex, but in reality, the way “Confucianism” is lived today is not complex enough. Too often it is too simple, the ministry’s pedagogically devastating ideal being just one example. However, there is a hidden agenda that is being played out whenever traditional domains in traditional societies are at stake.
One cannot avoid the perception that, here in Taiwan, people in “superior” positions — vis-a-vis their students, children, employees, wives, etc — often act like traditional teachers. They talk, and the others (have to) listen. Their authority comes with the position or the rank they hold. Professional competence is secondary because they use their position to avoid having their competence questioned.
Traditional teachers argue that criticism from “below” undermines their authority; they would lose face and, subsequently, the respect of their students. However, such teachers do not deserve respect and what we have instead is a fertile ground for corruption.
Teacher’s Day honors authority and respecting it at any cost. The result is that there are people who always speak and people who always listen to those who speak. This is the situation in classrooms in colleges and universities, with teachers always talking to an audience, which always listens. This lamentable situation in schools obviously reflects the mental disposition of traditional ministry politicians, who believe that solutions for problems can be found in the past.
Critical thinking — definitely not a virtue in the past — is still hugely discouraged by the “experienced” since one might find out that the authorities are wrong. People in Taiwan often think that they will lose face if they are criticized. However, in a modern society, people lose face if they are not able to provide appropriate answers to critical questions.
Just take a look at the freshmen who have entered college this year (and the years before): Most of them are very nice young people, yet intellectually they are blank slates with little idea of or interest in what is going on around them. Furthermore, they do not seem to have sufficiently developed analytical thinking skills or the ability to think independently; that is, to think and understand without the help of teachers and textbooks.
Such students depend on their teachers, like children depending on their mothers.
Apparently they have had too much Confucian teaching in high schools, leading them to follow their teachers and textbooks as undisputed authorities that they must emulate or memorize, rather than learn how to find things out on their own. However, the educational goal of any teacher should be to teach students in a way so that they no longer need their teachers once they have left the classroom.
Good teachers aim to marginalize their influence and authority on the minds of their students, while good students have to find their own way during their studies because in the end, they will have to leave their teachers behind — as we should leave Teacher’s Day behind.
Herbert Hanreich is an assistant professor at I-Shou University in Greater Kaohsiung.
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