It was a typical winter day in Taipei, which means that 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 hand to keep the warmth in her hands. Walking rather faster than usual, she was heading towards her first class in the early morning on campus. Currently a freshman in National Taiwan University, Jane spent her first year in college by participating in clubs and societies like other students, but still tries to figure out her own path. She begins to feel uninterested in her own major, and felt that attending the best university in Taiwan does not guarantee her a bright future like she was told before.
Problems in Education Environment
It has always been an unresolved dilemma to speak about education in Taiwan. Experts of education background often criticize that college students in Taiwan lack the motivation for learning, and the exam-orientated teaching environment suppress students’ opportunities to pursue their interests. Recently an article published by a Taiwanese story artist working in Pixar sparked discussions towards the deep-rooted education system in Taiwan. According to the interview from The Reporter, Chuang said that he did not deserve the title as “pride of Taiwan”, because the things he achieved contradicted the success defined by education he received from 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 questioned why the society and institutions as such guided by utilitarianism that neglect individuals’ personal traits.
Lost in Popular Majors
The problems inside education in Taiwan is a rather complicated interaction of families, schools and the society. Students experience and develop through stages of education, but when asked about it, most people would remain silent or confused for a while, like something hovering in the dead air. Perhaps we cannot really explain it as well. I talked to Jane at a café near her campus. She was rather quiet in the beginning, but she began to tell me more her past year after a little chat about her years in high school. When asked about her year preparing for retaking college entrance exam, Jane shook her head, as if she were trying to deny something. “It is depressing. I mean, I felt that I could actually go mad a week before the exam.” She emphasized the word actually. Some high school students in Taiwan spend one or more years preparing for the exam after they did not perform well in senior year during high school. As the case of Jane, she decided to devote one more year, in the hope of getting into medical school.
Does she regret spending one more year? Or feel pity that she did not achieve medical school eventually? “I don’t think I regret it. 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 sipped 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 of them has their own story. “I saw a guy whose parents would want him to get into medical school no matter how many years it took.” I asked her whether she thought it was problem when good students want to get into medical schools regardless of their interests. Indeed, students in Taiwan are educated to study harder since they are young, so that they can get a steady job when they graduate from college. The definition of success seems apparent and deep rooted.
“I don’t know.” She paused for a while, and sighed. “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 for retaking the exam, for once I really thought if I got into medical school everything would be fine and alright.” She stopped for a while. “And I would be happy. My parents would also be happy.” Perhaps what we are searching for are stability and something to assure ourselves when facing the unknown future.
Neglecting Individual Characteristics
We stood up to greet our friend, Rachel, who is currently a sophomore studying in Taichung that came to Taipei on a trip and join our conversation. A little bit unlike Jane, Rachel tended to listen rather than talk. Continuing on the topic, I asked Jane whether schools would be responsible for telling us that what are determined as success thus we may not even know what goals we are running after. “I guess. I mean before high school I would not think that getting into medical schools 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.” Rachel nodded as Jane finished her words and added her comments. “Not just in high school.” Rachel said. “Even in junior high school. I guess the exam-orientated way of teaching neglects 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 the society does not value technical and vocational education. We are taught to study and get good grades, and that is how we fulfill the requirement for success. If seems that all we have to do is focus on our studies, although in reality it is not. “I am just lucky to fit into the definition of good students because I adapt to the system better. The system that grades represent everything.” Rachel pointed out what we were thinking. We are the lucky ones that study better and be considered successful. Although we are 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 rubbed her hands to kept herself warm. Regarding the expectations from society, it takes courage to take a different path. There are professions considered successful, such as doctors, lawyers and businessmen. We, to a certain degree, feel that we need to accomplish the expectations from families or societies when we have the ability to do it. “It is like there is a frame, or something to categorize us. We think those who jump outside the box to be different, but there shouldn’t be a box at all.” Rachel said as she finished her last drop of milk tea.
The Pressure from Parents’ Expectations
Where else do the expectations come from? How about parents? 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 spoke up. “Maybe because I was never rebellious or what. I guess they don’t exert their expectations on me.” “For mine it’s different.” Jane shrugged. “My mom would want 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.” 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.” Rachel asked Jane how she coped with it when her parents had so different perspective. “Well, for a time it was really great pressure. Especially when I attended university but I was still not sure about the major I chose. My mom would sometimes blame my dad for causing that” She laughed when describing the scenario.
“But now I am somehow thankful for her.” Jane said she was touched when her mom called her last week, 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.” Suddenly we were all quiet. I said perhaps all the pressure we blamed them for giving us basically was just a disguise or 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 us from 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 responded to me. “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 her hand to the waitress to bring us the bill and said, “I am thankful for my parents now because they support me, when I am even not sure of myself.”
When we left the café, I asked them what they had learnt in high school. They frowned and tried to come up with an answer. “How about you?” Jane asked me. I realized it was difficult for me to answer as well. I told her I learnt a lot about different knowledge from many subjects, but somehow not really applicable especially now I forgot about most of them. “Probably friendship? Well, I learn a lot from my friends and sometimes when I recall those times, I just feel magical when I get to know them.” Jane smiled because she felt that the answer was irrelevant to the question. “I agreed with your point about those 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.” The question reached no conclusion as we took a walk on campus. “What I have learnt is the socialization of the environment. We attend high schools according to our grades, so to an extent our classmates come from similar background. Somehow we are all well protected, and we socialize in a similar environment, as if it were our whole world.” But it was not true, one day we had to get out and understand that the world has more things for us to explore.
Experiences in College Life and Challenges Ahead
With time passing, the sky gradually became darker. We talked about life in university while we took a walk around campus. The three of us agreed that university gave us more freedom to explore, and the opportunity to actually reflect what we want to do with our lives. Feeling cold, Jane put her hands inside her pocket. “We all had expectations before coming to college. For me, it is somewhere to get away from the life I had. Before in high school I study for exams, but now seems like I have to be responsible for my choices. No one is going to give you guidelines right 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 before, and she liked the much more flexibility in class selection. “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 interactions.”
“I saw many things in university, including people and different perspective of life.” Jane mentioned. “But we can’t really break away from what we are taught before. Even though you attend the best university in Taiwan, you would find out that it doesn’t mean things are better.” University students in Taiwan are more passive and quiet during classes, or even more afraid to speak up their own opinions. “I know people would criticize that we don’t have critical thinking, but I think we are capable of it. It’s just because no one asks us to do so before. All we are taught before is pursuing a correct answer, but in real life there are no such things as correct answers.” Rachel responded to Jane in a rather calm tone. “Last semester I took a jazz music introduction class.” Jane said. “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 speaks about their opinions.” She mentioned her embarrassing moment during a short presentation. “I totally panicked. I said I didn’t know when 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.” The reason behind students 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 excellent ideas? We should speak when we have opinions, because no one should set up the standards for us.”
Although universities offer students a greater freedom to explore their interests and plan their own schedule, students may not be active 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 when she suggested that we sit down for a while. “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 why we are studying for and whether we like them or not.” She paused for a moment. “So even when we have more freedom to explore now, our thoughts are somehow narrowed and we don’t know what to do.” When students lack the chances 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.
Reflection On Our Education System
Can we change the situation that is deep rooted in our education? They agreed that it is possible, but they both said it would take time. “From the institution and system, it would take a long time, especially when you want to change it fundamentally, But I think starting from evaluation criteria and teaching styles in courses would be a good start. However, after party alteration probably policies would change all over again and hard to make the policies consistent.” Jane said. “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.” Rachel told us the environment matters, but we have to step outside our comfort zone and recognize that there are problems of our education. “So basically it comes back to the same question whether students can utilize the freedom given by the system and walk their own path.”
The three of us remained silent for a while, and blows of wind sounded clear as they came across trees and bushes. “Besides what we have mentioned, there are also good sides of Taiwan 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 that 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 occurred last year, our high school years and our fears for future as well. “I am not the kind of 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.” Jane mentioned about other things, wanting to switch to another topic. Rachel listened and told us, “I want to know more about the world. Many things matter other than scores, but I am worried when I actually step out of my comfort zone, will I be able to accept and adapt to it.”
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 her friends that came along with her to Taipei. I stood and watched them disappeared in different paths. I remembered earlier today Jane said it was hard to get used to the weather to Taipei, and at this moment I realized that although it was hard to adapt to a new environment when nothing we are taught before is practical, we can still try to comprehend our world through engaging in it. The problems inside 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 to MRT station. The three of us were walking in different directions, just like tens of thousands of students in Taiwan trying to figure out their own paths and future, only this time we know we are on our own to face the days ahead.