It seems that some people in Taiwan have a thing at the moment about criticizing students, saying they are lazy or not showing respect to their teachers. It is as if they are saying in the past Taiwanese were, every last one of them, devoted to their studies, and showed the greatest respect to their superiors. I am now 74 and have been teaching in Taiwan for almost 40 years. I am here to say that the students I teach are neither especially lazy nor disrespectful.
Every year I get together with my former students on three separate occasions, twice around my birthday and the other on Teachers’ Day. Many of them have never missed a single event, and this has been going on for some time now.
These students have very good jobs, and they are certainly not showing up because they need me to write them a reference letter. Some are even university presidents. They are not coming to these events to show respect, they are coming because they want to see me, but as I see it, this is a mark of respect in itself.
I currently teach English to many students, but I don’t really think of them as my students. One is in the Department of Electrical Engineering at National Chi Nan University. He knows a lot about analog circuitry, so I often ask him when I need to clarify certain points. For a long time now I have considered him a friend. I push him to do translation exercises, from Chinese to English and from English to Chinese, every week. He has already graduated, but he always does the translations without fail. I can only recall a couple of occasions when he hasn’t given me a translation; once when he went on honeymoon to Europe, and once when he was down with a cold. I think it terribly unfair when I read in the newspapers that students nowadays are lazy and unmotivated.
I also like to play tennis. For some time I would see a guy at the courts, working part-time to support his studies. I had occasion to meet him elsewhere later, and he came over and struck up a conversation with me. I encouraged him to practice his English too, and before long he had made quite a bit of progress.
Last week he telephoned me and apologized, saying that he could manage the Chinese-to-English translation exercises, but was finding the reverse far too difficult, and wondered whether he could stop doing the English-to-Chinese translations. I didn’t let him stop, because I knew he would do as he was asked, and would continue to do the work I set him. It was unlucky for him, because he was not technically my student, but he knew I was a teacher, and he did it out of respect.
Sometimes we meet the “wrong” person, and it was his misfortune to come across a teacher like me, but at least it demonstrates how hard-working the younger generation can be.
At National Tsing Hua University I taught courses on telecommunications and analog circuitry design, and every course had more than 100 students. One of the professors found this quite remarkable, and dared me to start up a course in a very unpopular subject, to see how many students would sign up. I accepted his challenge and opened an optional course on string-matching algorithms, an extremely unpopular subject. However, 98 students still joined the course.
This demonstrated that these students saw the university as more than just a place for occupational training; many of them also saw it as a place in which they could pursue knowledge, irrespective of whether it would be of any use to them in getting a job. Can we really say this generation is beyond help?
Several years ago, I attended a Christmas Eve midnight Mass so packed there was standing room only. I was standing next to a young man I discovered was in his second year of senior high school. I tried out some English on him but drew a complete blank. I agreed to give him free lessons, not just in English, but also in mathematics. He is now at university, but he still studies English with me every week, and has also found a research student to help him out with programming. He has now written 18 programs, including one with an algorithm he came up with himself, and that I include in my own lecture notes on string matching.
We should stop criticizing the younger generation. As students we were hardly saints ourselves, and I doubt we were all so very hard-working.
I’ll admit, my students do tend to spend more time having fun than I did, and my doctoral students spend an awful lot of time playing badminton — there is one who also plays in a hockey tournament every year — but they are all extremely hard-working, and I appreciate every one of them.
Lee Chia-tung is an honorary professor at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Paul Cooper