Education, Politics

One of the things I try to explain in my dissertation is the failure of Taiwan’s current educational policies. What do I mean by failure? This is a question that came up recently when Scott Sommers tried to answer a similar question. Scott did an admirable job of showing how politics has made it difficult for Taiwan’s ruling party, the DPP, to implement policy when the legislature is arrayed against it. The KMT even opposes DPP policies that were introduced by the KMT when they were in power! Scott argues that this created a situation where party loyalty became more important than competence in appointing policy makers. Scott’s argument is a more nuanced and detailed version of that made by Taiwanese commentator, Nan Fang-shuo (南方朔), which was promptly attacked by Michael Turton. So it isn’t any surprise that Turton would ask Scott what he means by failure.”

I don’t know exactly what Scott means by failure, but I do know what I mean. Contemporary Taiwanese language-in-education-policy is supposedly aimed at two goals: First, teaching native languages. Secondly, teaching English. (There have also been some changes to Mandarin language education, but those are much less controversial.)

Native language education today consists of primary school students receiving one period a week in native language instruction. If the goal of this instruction is to reverse the stigma associated with speaking native languages, then it might be considered a success. However, if it is to actually reverse years of decline in the speaking of Taiwan’s native languages, it is pretty much a failure. In those communities where native languages are widely spoken, the classes are minimally useful, but in communities where children do not speak their native language at home, one hour a week is not enough to make even a minimal impact.

One of the main goals of English language education policy is to reverse years of damage from a curriculum focused on grammar-and-translation. The new curriculum guidelines emphasize communicative competence. But as far as I have seen, there has been little change in this regard, with parents and teachers still concerned more with test results than with actual English ability.

What would it take to succeed in these goals? Teaching core primary school courses in native Taiwanese languages and the complete elimination of standardized testing seem to be impossible goals. Like educational policy in all democratic nations, Taiwan’s policies are the result of political compromises. That political compromises compromise education is not surprising. Much more interesting for me, and discussed in my dissertation, are the ways in which the new curriculum made ideological compromises as well. The very concept of Taiwanese identity embodied in the new curriculum is not, as one might have expected, that of Taiwanese nationalism, but instead:

the formation of Taiwanese identity as a series of nested concentric circles radiating out from local communities to encompass the nation, the larger Chinese community, and eventually the world

This nested view of Taiwanese culture emerged, not with the rise of the DPP, but even earlier, and as the result of internal tensions within the KMT (as well as outside pressure). This ideological compromise means that local education can never be more than local,” and thus inhibits the development of any broad national effort to reverse the decline of local languages.

The problems with English education are more complicated and are much more tied to increased economic inequality in Taiwan. As Shelly Rigger informs us, even if the DPP was a party of its class, it was never a class-based party. As such, it is unable to adequately confront the issues of equitability raised by reforming the national examination system.

There are serious structural changes taking place in Taiwanese society and they go beyond party identification.

UPDATE: Scott has a followup discussion.

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