What you need to know
Three young students share their views on an environment that often fosters more confusion and apprehension than success.
It was a typical winter day in Taipei, and you could not possibly miss the humid and windy atmosphere hovering around the streets.
“You can never get used to the weather in Taipei,” Jane said, rubbing her hands to keep warm. Walking faster than usual, she was heading for her first class in the early morning on campus.
A freshman at National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei, like other students, Jane spent her first year in college by participating in clubs and societies, but she is still trying to figure out her own path. She was beginning to lose interest in her major, and felt that attending the best university in Taiwan did not guarantee her a bright future like she had been told.
It has always been a dilemma to speak about education in Taiwan. Experts with a background in education often complain that college students in Taiwan lack the motivation for learning, and that the exam-oriented teaching environment suppresses students’ opportunities to pursue their interests.
Earlier this year, an article about a Taiwanese story artist working at Pixar sparked discussions on the deep-rooted education system in Taiwan. According to an interview with the artist in The Reporter, Chang Yung-han (張永翰) said he did not deserve the title of “pride of Taiwan,” because the things he achieved contradicted the success as defined by the education he received from his family and school.
“I am more like the loser in this system. Taiwan’s education focus on pursuing scores to fulfill the standard answers, and I achieved neither of them,” he said.
Chang asked why Taiwanese society and institutions were so guided by a form of utilitarianism that neglects individuals’ personal traits.
Adrift in popular majors
The problems with education in Taiwan are a rather complicated interaction of family, schools and society. Students experience and develop through stages of education, but when asked about it, most people remain silent or are confused for a while, like something hovering in the dead air. Perhaps we also cannot really explain it.
I talked to Jane at a café near her campus. She was rather quiet in the beginning, but after a little chat about her high school years she began to tell me more about her past year. When asked about her year preparing to retake her college entrance exam, Jane shook her head, as if she was trying to deny something.
“It is depressing. I mean, I felt that I could actually go mad a week before the exam,” Jane said.
She emphasizes the word depressing. Some high school students in Taiwan spend one or more years preparing for the exam after underperforming in senior year during high school. As for Jane, she decided to devote one more year, in hope of getting into medical school.
Does she regret spending an additional year? Or feel depressed that she did not get into medical school in the end?
“I don’t think I regret it,” she says. “I remember my teacher once told us that when you feel regretful about something, it is because it was not the decision made by yourself.”
She takes a sip from her fruit tea. “And this is my decision. There is nothing wrong about spending one more year over there. What’s wrong is that you don’t even know why you are doing it.”
Jane said she met many different people in the cram school, and each one of them has their own story.
“I saw a guy whose parents wanted him to get into medical school no matter how many years it took,” she says.
I asked her whether she thought it was problem when good students want to get into medical school regardless of their interests. Indeed, students in Taiwan are educated to study harder from a very young age so they can get a steady job when they graduate from college. The definition of success seems apparent and deeply rooted.
“I don’t know,” Jane says, and then pauses for a while. “I don’t think most students want to be doctors because they want to help others. Getting into medical school feels like something to be proud of. You will have social status, higher salaries and a guarantee of steady life.”
I nodded as I reflect upon my years in high school while students with good grades would set medical schools as their top priority.
“When I was preparing to retake the exam, for once I really thought if I got into medical school everything would be fine and all right,” Jane says. “And I would be happy. My parents would also be happy.”
Perhaps what we are looking for is stability and something to reassure ourselves as we face an unknown future.
Neglecting individual characteristics
We stood up to greet our friend Rachel, who is currently a sophomore in Taichung. Rachel came to Taipei on a trip and joined our conversation.
A little bit unlike Jane, Rachel tended to listen rather than talk. Continuing on the topic, I asked Jane whether schools were responsible for telling us what constitutes success and that as a result we may not even know what goals we are chasing after.
“I guess. I mean before high school I would not think that getting into medical school would be considered impressive. But I think when you got into high school, especially those good ones, you would be influenced by what teachers say and the atmosphere that celebrates certain rationales and expectations,” Jane said.
Rachel nodded in agreement. “Not just in high school,” she added. “Even in junior high school. I guess the exam-orientated way of teaching neglects the individuality of students. Some people may not be good at studying, but they are good at doing other things. However, they are not paid attention to.”
The reason is that society does not value technical and vocational education. We are taught to study and get good grades, and that is how we meet the requirements for “success.” It seems that all we have to do is focus on our studies, but in reality that is not the case.
“I am just lucky to fit into the definition of good students because I adapt to the system better. The system in which grades represent everything,” Rachel says, as if she was reading our thoughts.
We are the lucky ones who are better at studying and are considered successful, even though we were all confused about our future during high school years.
“I remember there was a student in our school who decided to study drama. When we heard of it, we were all surprised and somehow admired her courage, but it shouldn’t be like this, right? I mean it should be normal for students to choose what they like,” Jane said.
Regarding the expectations from society, it takes courage to take a different path. There are professions considered successful, such as doctors, lawyers and businesspeople. We, to a certain degree, feel that we need to meet the expectations from families or societies when we have the ability to do so.
“It is like there is a frame or something to categorize us. We think those who jump outside the box are different, but there shouldn’t be a box at all,” Rachel said as she finished her milk tea.
Where else do the expectations come from? When I asked the question, the three of us stared at each other and smiled.
“My parents don’t really give me any pressure,” Rachel said. “Maybe because I was never rebellious or what. I guess they don’t exert their expectations on me.”
“For mine it’s different,” Jane said. “My mom wanted me to go to medical school. When I finished my exam last year she even asked me if I want to retake it again this year.”
We could not help but laugh.
“I told her I really couldn’t. I would go nuts,” she said.
When Jane spoke about this she mentioned it in a light tone and mimicked her mom’s way of speaking.
“However, my dad is totally opposite from her. He thinks that we should do whatever we like. As long as I really like what I do and concentrate on it, he believes that I can achieve it,” she said.
Rachel asked Jane how she coped with it when her parents had such different perspectives.
“Well, for a time it was a lot of pressure. Especially when I attended university, but I was still unsure about the major I chose,” Jane said. “My mom would sometimes blame my dad for causing that.”
“But now I am somehow thankful for her,” she said.
Jane said she was touched when her mother called her a week ago and told her that she would support what Jane decided to do.
“She changed. She is still very worried about my future, but she changed,” she said.
Suddenly we were all quiet. I observed that perhaps all the pressure that we blamed on them could simply be just a disguise for their worries — worrying about our future, our jobs and life in the future. It is easy to blame our parents for giving us too much pressure on schoolwork, or suppressing our desire to do what we want to do, but sometimes we realize that our parents and us are learning together to figure out the future when everything is blurry.
“You know, it is their first time being parents, so they are also learning,” Rachel said. “Perhaps one day when we become parents, we will exert our expectations and perspective on our children as well, but eventually we have to compromise, because we love them, and we just want our children to be happy.”
Jane waved at the waitress for the bill.
“I am thankful for my parents now because they support me, when I am even not sure of myself,” she said.
When we left the café, I asked Jane and Rachel what they had learned in high school. They frowned and tried to come up with an answer.
“What about you?” Jane asked me.
I realized it was difficult for me to answer as well. I told her I learned a lot about different things from many subjects, but somehow none were really applicable, especially now that I had forgotten about most of them.
“Probably friendship?” I said. “I learn a lot from my friends and sometimes when I recall those times, I just feel it was magical when I got to know them.”
Jane smiled, probably because she felt that my answer was irrelevant to the question.
“I agree with your point about that knowledge,” Rachel said. “We study for exams and most of the time we don’t know why we have to learn so deep into every subject. I think they want us to be all-rounded people, but in fact we don’t have time to reflect upon what we have learnt.”
We were still without a conclusion to that question as we took a walk on campus.
“What I have learned is the socialization of the environment. We attend high schools according to our grades, so to an extent our classmates come from similar backgrounds. Somehow we are all well protected, and we socialize in a similar environment, as if it were our whole world,” I said.
But as it turns out that wasn’t completely true. Some day we had to get out and realize that the world has many more things for us to explore.
College and the challenges ahead
We turned our discussion to life in university. The three of us agreed that university gave us more freedom to explore and the opportunity to actually reflect on what we want to do with our lives.
“We all had expectations before coming to college,” Jane said. “For me, it is somewhere to get away from the life I had. Before, in high school, I studied for exams, but now it seems like I have to be responsible for my choices. No one is going to give you guidelines now.”
I asked Rachel whether she had expectations or disappointments when she went to college last year. She said she enjoyed club activities, which she did not have much time to participate in before, and that she liked the much more flexibility in class selections.
“However, for me, many classes are similar to high school in terms of teaching. Probably because I am a science major, so there is more one-way teaching instead of interaction,” she said.
“I saw many things in university, including people and different perspectives of life,” Jane said. “But we can’t really break away from what we were taught before. Even though you attend the best university in Taiwan, you find out that it doesn’t mean things are better.”
University students in Taiwan are more passive and quiet during class, or perhaps even more afraid to express their opinions.
“I know people would criticize that we don’t have critical thinking, but I think we are capable of it. It’s just no one has asked us to do so before. All we are taught before is pursuing a correct answer, but in real life there is no such thing as a correct answer,” Jane said.
Rachel interjected, “Last semester I took a jazz music introduction class. It was one of the few classes I had that we can engage in small group discussions. But most of the time we are quiet and no one spoke about their opinions.”
She mentioned an embarrassing moment during a short presentation.
“I totally panicked. I said I didn’t know when the tutor asked me how I felt about a certain song. Of course I do have some thoughts, but I was too afraid I might say something stupid or something wrong, so I said I didn’t know,” she said.
The reason why students do not actively engage in conversations is probably because they are afraid of making mistakes, because we are taught that making mistakes means you are worse than others. You would have worse grades and even embarrass yourself.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” Rachel told me. “Why can we only speak when we have good ideas? We should speak when we have opinions, because no one should set standards for us.”
Although universities offer students greater freedom to explore their interests and plan their own schedule, students may be reluctant to take control of it because they are not used to doing so.
“Maybe in general, but I know many students are not like this,” Rachel said. “Due to previous education, we are not used to learn actively when exams are the main motivation for studying. Most of the time we don’t know what we are studying for and whether we like it or not.”
“So even when we have more freedom to explore now, our thoughts are somehow narrowed and we don’t know what to do,” she said.
When students lack the opportunity to explore their interests and are not used to actively pursuing their goals, somehow it becomes a vicious circle that exams are the purpose for studying, but somehow the future is blurred and unclear.
Can we change something that is so deeply rooted in our education? Jane and Rachel agreed that it is possible, but that it would take time.
“From the institutions and system, it will take a long time, especially when you want to change it fundamentally,” Jane said. “But I think starting from evaluation criteria and teaching styles in courses would be a good start. However, after party alteration, policies would probably change all over again and make it hard to keep the policies consistent.”
“Many people play a part in this problem. The media does, and parents of course. But it is hard to change such perspectives in the society. If you want to change the environment we have to start from ourselves,” she said.
Rachel agreed that the environment matters, but that we have to step outside our comfort zone and recognize that there are problems in our education system.
“So basically it comes back to the same question of whether students can utilize the freedom given by the system and walk their own path,” she said.
The three of us were silent for a while, watching the trees and bushes across from us wave in the wind.
“Besides what we have mentioned, there are also good sides to Taiwan’s education,” Jane said hesitantly. “There are problems, but we cannot solely compare it to other countries because there is no such thing as a perfect system.”
She said we should recognize the problems, but also understand that to a certain extent there are better parts of it. We spent the rest of our time talking about things that occurred last year, our high school years and our fears for future as well.
“I am not an optimistic person,” Jane said. “I don’t think I can truly devote to something just because I really like it. I am afraid of not getting jobs, my future, and salaries, and whether a diploma could actually get me anywhere. But I guess what I can do now is concentrate on what I am doing.”
It was clear that Jane wanted to switch to another topic.
Rachel said, “I want to know more about the world. Many things matter other than scores, but I am worried whether I will be able to accept and adapt to it when I actually step out of my comfort zone.”
As the moon became bright in the dark sky, we said goodbye to each other. Jane was heading back to her dorm to finish her assignment while Rachel had to meet up with friends who came along with her to Taipei. I stood up and watched them disappear into the night. I remembered what Jane had said earlier about how hard it was to get used to the weather in Taipei. At this point I realized that although it is hard to adapt to a new environment when nothing we have been taught before is practical, we can still try to comprehend our world by engaging in it.
The problems with education in Taiwan may be complicated, but when we decide to recognize and speak about them, perhaps we can start to make a little difference. I turned around and headed towards the MRT station. The three of us were walking in different directions, just like tens of thousands of students in Taiwan who are all trying to figure out their own paths and future. Only this time, we know we are on our own to face the future ahead.
First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang