What do students bring to the occupation of the legislative chamber and other protests? Many things, including energy and sincerity, but they have two particular assets:
They have an education, composed of both specific aspects, such as current affairs or ways of analyzing complex events and processes, but also made up of what we might call a tenor or style, in which — hopefully — habits of inspection and criticism develop.
Second, they bring their own communal and electronic cultures of communication and discourse, derived from family and neighborhood, as well as social networks, friendships and gangs, reading, traveling and so on.
The importance of the past few days in Taipei lies not only (or even principally) in the issue of the trade pact. The effectiveness of the students has exposed the character of their assets and therefore also the changing nature of student life and culture. As for their education, in the advanced international political economy class that I teach undergraduates, on Thursday last week I opened up a discussion on the student occupation by posing six questions that I believe they and we should be thinking about.
One, is the student occupation the right tactic and manner of challenge?
Two, is it possible to capture benefits from extending the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, whilst minimizing negative political impacts?
Three, have the latter been exaggerated?
Four, look carefully at the agreement and the new proposals. How does it seem to balance out?
Five, is the problem as much one of incorrect and authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) procedure and attitudes as one of the agreement itself?
Six, does this reflect any departure and improvement in social movements in Taiwan?
My class will answer such questions during the coming weeks as we consider topics on China, Taiwan and regional economic development. I am sure that similar discussions are taking place, or will soon take place throughout Taiwan. Hopefully the public will now be prompted by the activity of the students to consider these issues. In particular their original printed statements were thoughtful and sincere and worthy of further examination.
As I suggested, there is more to education than formal lectures. Taiwan has been criticized along with other parts of East Asia for having a “narrow gate” approach to all levels of education, in which rather rigid and often turgid textbook repetition and memory dominate even in humanities and social sciences. In contrast in other regions, there is more focus on open-ended, but properly prepared class discussion, criticism of the published word, debate amongst peers and with teachers, lecturers and professors.
Purportedly, the latter system is better at producing scientific and technological innovation as well as artistic and humanist creativity and integrity. Does the virulence of the present student movement contradict this view, perhaps suggesting that Taiwanese education is now less likely to dampen dissent or innovation?
I am afraid it does not. Much of Taiwanese education is still mired within a system of memorization and repetition, examination, standardization and regulation, rather than critical discussion and evaluative methodology — cramming still dominates and is well-supported by large financial outlays across a huge cross-section of the parental population. What has changed is the character of that other asset — student culture itself.