On Saturday, I attended a meeting, sponsored by the Ministry of Education, at Cheng Kung University in Tainan. It was entitled: “Tao-Su Sophisticated Citizens Initiative,” and reported on the first year of grants for this program.
After five years in medical humanities at Taipei Medical University, I have come to know what to expect from such meetings: Teachers defending and justifying expenditure with long lists of vague “core competence” achievements and pictures of happy students participating in group activities such as visiting disadvantaged indigenous children and climbing trees. These would all seem to be laudable efforts to promote school spirit, team cooperation and student involvement with real issues.
Saturday’s meeting included presentations by universities that received substantial funding over the past year to teach “cultivation of citizenship,” and I was very curious to find out how they construed this.
In the past 15 years or so Taiwan has taken on the rationalized trappings of the US’ system of higher education, but with the even more technocratic edge that is beloved of the other “Asian tigers,” such as South Korea.
These trappings are: internationalized ranking of universities; “cutting edge” research measures, especially in the field of biomedicine; requirements that professors publish large numbers of articles in high-impact English-language research journals in order to advance in their careers; biannual evaluations of universities by the Ministry of Education that entail choreographed prepping of faculty and students before the formal review visits; continual rallying of the faculty to write up lengthy grant applications before deadlines; and all the administrative reports and meetings that go along with this, under conditions of decreasing numbers of administrative personnel and support services as well as increasingly computerized systems.
Some experienced teachers I know have chosen to quit teaching, despite their love for their craft and students, due to this avalanche of requirements and administrative procedures.
Among the majority of Taiwanese professors facing these career advancement pressures it is clear that efforts to achieve SCI and SSCI — Science/Social Science Citations Index — rankings takes precedence over engagement with real problems within Taiwan, and even takes precedence over teaching. So it follows that most are reluctant to participate in the “cultivation of citizenship” activities that propagate intense interaction of faculty with students.
So, what are the goals, internal logic and vision behind all these “busywork” programs that the ministry has been promoting? I mulled this over with critical, even cynical, inner musings, while observing cookie-cutter presentations decorated with listings of Chinese characters like armies of marching ants. What does the ministry consider “cultivation of citizenship” to be?
It quickly becomes apparent that its vision of citizenship does not extend much beyond the gates of the university. Encouragement of self-governance for students extends to conditions in the dormitories, choice of food in the cafeterias and to some relatively green practices on campus. Some more progressive programs have even moved toward improving the environment and services on the doorsteps of the campuses in cooperation with local communities.