Salute to the Ministry of Education

By Linda Gail Arrigo 艾琳達  / 

Tue, Dec 11, 2012 - Page 8

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.

However, the varied and multicultural content of the general education under this program is supposed to lead to critical thinking, and even creativity and stimulus for professional performances. Some students and teachers are “moved” by the group activities, the presenters say. Occasionally a student notes morosely that he or she would like to help the elderly homeless seen in a park, but must hurry to cram for a science exam. Is it any surprise that the presenters almost uniformly bemoan the difficulty in generating enthusiasm for the program among students, and highlight student resentment if they are required to attend a one-credit class in “citizenship,” which will cut either into their study, or their recreation?

I think we need to ask more deeply, what kind of citizenship, and what kind of critical thinking, this is.

We should look at the direction of education in the globalized economy, and strip away the mantle of moralized self-justification that never seems to be challenged within the nation — we should not expect that education has anything to do with citizenship in the sense of mass responsibility, citizen entitlements and social democracy.

The US has taken the lead in producing universities that are the handmaidens of research and development for industry. Students have been suppressed and government support for higher education has decreased; tuition fees have steadily increased until now attending university is a major investment that perpetuates an increasingly class-polarized technocratic society.

Higher education is a global commodity, with universities in the business of creating a multicultural technocratic elite in the service of global capital.

It seems disingenuous that Taiwan’s “cultivation of citizenship” has taken no note of the increasing polarization of wealth within Taiwan nor of its eroding industrial base and high youth unemployment as well as decreasing opportunities and falling standards of living for many. Also overlooked are the question of national identity, the trivialization of mass media and increasing ideological control from China.

At the same time, it is clear that in producing future professionals the universities face the material of the “strawberry generation”: Young people that have been force-fed information to the point where their intrinsic interest and curiosity have expired; youth that have been relatively pampered and have little knowledge of the world; youth that have no history and no idea of what their useful role in society may be, and thus little justifiable motivation other than what they are told: career. In this light the program for “cultivation of citizenship” makes more sense. It is for teamwork within the technocratic elite, not beyond.

The repeated mobilization of faculties to meet the demands of the ministry may have a role that is more in honing the mechanism, making the faculty an obedient instrument, than in the message of universality. Even blatant dictatorships do not neglect to parrot such platitudes. The dysfunction or function of this is in jerking the faculty from one short campaign to another.

My final comment will take on a more insinuating note: The last slide presented by National Chengchi University — originally founded as a the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) cadres school — at the meeting was a picture of hundreds of students with arms raised in salute, as they pledged their identity with university and classmates. Shades of fascism?

I wonder whether anyone in my university or in the ministry will read what I have written, and whether their version of critical thinking encompasses such musings as does my poison pen.

Linda Gail Arrigo is an assistant professor at Taipei Medical University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.