One of the government policies initiated after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office is the Ministry of Education’s order saying that schools are not allowed to punish students for not complying with dress codes and rules about general appearance. The policy has sparked a great deal of discussion.
Not long ago, senior-high school students went so far as to occupy the Ministry of Education forecourt to protest against curriculum guideline changes, but when it comes to dress codes and general appearance, high schools still treat their students as if they were attending kindergarten.
The contrast between what happens on and off campus is indeed stark. The debate highlights that the nation’s campuses are in need of further democratization and they need to see students as subjects of regulation rather than objects. Only then can schools cultivate people who are well versed in democracy and the rule of law.
The first point to consider is that democratic education about the rule of law cannot merely use external compulsion to make students obey rules. That can only make them obey out of fear of authority, not because they really accept the values inherent in the rules.
“Education through prohibition” is not real education about the rule of law.
Modern thinking about the rule of law stresses the protection of human rights and the kind of rule of law that it advocates places its main emphasis on public institutions’ abidance by the law. The Constitution even permits people to disobey the law when institutional power is exercised in an unlawful manner. So, education about the rule of law does not stress blind obedience to the regulations and the standard value of laws stresses not their external compulsive power, but their role in maintaining fair and just public order. Therefore, if schools use dress code regulations to force students to obey the rules, it would not be democratic education about the rule of law, but authoritarian education.
The second point is that authoritarian education views students as objects of control and can only foster students who fear and obey authority, and who are themselves authoritarian.
Although many years have passed since the Martial Law era, the specter of militaristic management still persists on campuses. Uniforms, morning assemblies and so on still emphasize obedience to the collective identity and conformity, while exams emphasize standard answers. These repress individuality and diversity, completely contrary to democratic society’s respect for subjectivity and individuality.
Imposed or enforced acceptance, be it in the shape of assemblies or uniforms, can easily become a mere formality, a kind of miseducation in which students learn how to pay lip service without genuinely accepting the rules.
Finally, democratic education sees students as subjects, rather than objects of control. Space for making autonomous decisions is an essential condition for fostering a sense of responsibility in students.
As Harvard University psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote in his book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View: “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.”
In Milgram’s experiment, the test subjects blindly obeyed the instructions they were given. Their response to seeing people who they believed to be in great pain from electric shocks was to continue doing as instructed by pressing a button to deliver even higher voltages.
The experiment is a reminder that when inflicting pain on other people, those who blindly obeyed the orders saw themselves as instruments for carrying out another person’s wishes, resulting in the phenomenon of not taking responsibility for their own actions.
Therefore, if schools wish to foster a sense of responsibility in students, they cannot achieve that by making students obey the rules through external compulsion.
Instead, schools must open a space for students to take part in establishing the rules. Only by allowing students to decide for themselves is it possible to foster a sense of responsibility.
In ordering schools not to punish students for not conforming with dress codes or general appearance regulations, the government hopes to create an opportunity for making campuses more democratic.
It wants schools to gradually move away from the authoritarian education that is still limited by militarized management. It hopes that schools will recognize students’ subjectivity with respect to rules and their studies, and understand that students’ cognition and acceptance of rules and values cannot be achieved through compulsive means of external punishment, but only through a process of internalized education.
To foster cognition and acceptance of values, students must be allowed to freely make proposals, even if the proposals are immature and irrational. Only through such a process can teachers grasp the limits of students’ cognition. Compulsion through external punishment is control, while internal linguistic interaction is teaching.
Let the schools return to their basic character as friendly forums for study that employ trust and tolerance rather than authoritarian threats. Only by putting an end to dress codes and general appearance regulations can teaching of democracy and the rule of law really begin.
Lin Chia-fan is chair of the civic education and leadership department at National Taiwan Normal University and convener of the Ministry of Education’s guidance group on human rights education.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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