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Minister of Education Cheng Jei-cheng

Lacking Passion and Wisdom Is Dangerous


In this exclusive interview, Taiwan's education minister discusses the present shortfalls and future challenges of Taiwanese education, and the ultimate importance of true learning.



Lacking Passion and Wisdom Is Dangerous

By Sherry Lee, Ming-ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 410 )

In his school days Minister of Education Cheng Jei-cheng disliked exams. He also detested teachers who adopted an authoritarian, force-feeding approach to education.

Cheng's negative school experiences considerably influenced his own teaching approach in later life. As a journalism professor Cheng taught in-depth reporting and writing courses. He wracked his brain to find good topics and very seldom used exams and tests to check whether his students had understood what they had learned. Instead, he demanded that students cooperate in small workgroups, read a lot, extensively cover important social issues and write special reports and features.

Cheng believes that education must stir students' passion and wisdom. If either of the two is absent, one's life resembles rootless duckweed unable to grow strong.

Every education minister hopes that his or her nation will be able to cultivate competitive human talent. But Cheng, who grew up in Yilan on Taiwan's northeastern coast, does not view conventional "success" as the ultimate goal of education. Instead, he agrees with Albert Einstein's famous quote, "Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value."

Cheng recently sat down for an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, offering some answers as to why unemployment is high among people with a high education. He also pinpointed the biggest problems that Taiwanese students face in their studies and proposed possible solutions. Following are highlights of the interview.

There are three major reasons for the high unemployment rate among young people:

First, almost 50 percent of students at universities and colleges are studying humanities and social sciences. These fields are not that able to connect with the job market in the first place.

Second, schools in the technical and vocational education system are gradually transforming into ordinary universities. They first become technical colleges, and then turn into universities of science and technology, which have virtually become interchangeable with ordinary universities. And they are gradually losing their practical, hands-on approach.

Third, society places too much emphasis on academic degrees. As long as students have an opportunity, they will go for a master's degree or a doctorate. But in the workplace there are certain jobs that do not require academic degrees that much. This unvarying value system that emphasizes diplomas and academic advancement has made students detached from the demands of the workplace. This has been the trend in Taiwan over the past ten years or more. It was not deliberately created, but it has gradually evolved nonetheless.

The Foundation of Education

Nowadays we face very big external challenges, but just because this is the case we must not overstate the merits of university education and think that since we have an economic crisis the universities should provide enterprises or society with a certain kind of people. It's impossible to train the needed talent within a few days.

Education will always stand on a foundation stone. This foundation clearly is a person's inherent quality – having a quite good general knowledge, good learning of specialist knowledge, a very strong learning ability, and most importantly, curiosity, a spirit of exploration and an urge to get to the root of problems.

Being learned means learning how to ask questions. If someone gets to the root of a problem, he will learn.

Since our students are driven by exams and scores, they care about scores and not necessarily about knowledge as such.

Years ago policymakers thought that by increasing the number of schools, everyone would be able to attend university, and that the pressure on students from having to pass exams into higher schools could be reduced. The problem is that students have internalized the expectations of parents and society. They not only want to study at good schools and good departments, they even want to test into the National Taiwan University College of Medicine, even if they aren't necessarily suited to study medicine, even if they don't dare to dissect a frog.

Our education should emphasize passion for learning. Understanding methods and having a point of view are actually more important than which things a person understands.

If we look at some Nobel Prize laureates, at their enthusiasm and devotion to seeking the truth, their genuine interest in their research subject and how they pursue their research with unflagging persistence, frankly speaking, that's what's missing in Taiwan.

I am even more worried that because we have an official institution for examinations, that institution will not necessarily help us solve the problem, but will probably create problems, because all it can ever think about is how to create even more examinations. When the specialization of the examination institution has reached its height, we can observe a quite interesting phenomenon, namely that it is guided by specialist knowledge, hoping to use all sorts of theories to test students. But to be honest I am very worried and frightened (about this trend).

Our educational culture needs to improve on various fronts.

Changing the school system in its entirety is not that easy, because it pertains to the problem of stable and long-term development. Everyone believes that Harvard University is very strong in research, but that's because they place a strong emphasis on teaching and university education, while the quality of our teaching is anything but ideal.

In the future senior high school and university education faces three major challenges. The first is to find out students' interests and aptitudes. The second is giving students a broad general education that allows them to fully apply knowledge and gain understanding. And thirdly, we need to enhance teachers' competence in the classroom.

Increasing Scope of Knowledge and Passion to Learn

I feel that there is some kind of "fault line" between students' interests and what they study, which is not what they like most.

I hope that in the future students' aptitudes can be explored at an earlier stage like in Germany, where children's potential – whether they are suited to take the academic track or to become skilled workers at the basic level – becomes visible when they reach the fourth grade of elementary school around age 10. I don't know when and based on which standards students could be separated that way into different tracks. Should such an approach be feasible, it could actually solve quite a number of educational problems.

Secondly, we need to give students a broad knowledge and help them understand how to apply it.

The U.S. system, which does not assign students to departments in their first and second year at university, allows students to explore different fields of knowledge and develop respect for different disciplines, which makes them more broadminded. Probably you were originally interested in journalism, but thanks to this system you also come into contact with chemistry and physics. Our knowledge originally comes from the natural sciences, but the richness of the natural sciences is not something that the humanities and social sciences can understand. Think what a big disadvantage students would have to live with in this world if there were no mutual exchange between the two.

I hope students learn to be wise. Students need to understand how to find information. When information is accumulated and efficiently put together it becomes knowledge. But merely having knowledge is not enough. If you don't know how to apply knowledge in a meaningful way, it won't become wisdom.

Teachers Must Not Be Authoritarian

Thirdly, we need to raise teacher quality.

Teachers are crucial for determining the success or failure of education. If teachers still subscribe to the idea of force-feeding students, cling to a pile of knowledge but don't interact with students, are highly authoritarian, don't want to adopt new knowledge and don't have the impetus to learn, then students are unlikely to have the impetus to learn, and it will be impossible to educate them well.

At the university level we've begun to ponder if, when a certain teacher is not teaching well, we should have several other veteran teachers whose teaching is very good to show him how to do it and even videotape the classes. This is something we have to do systematically and patiently.

Teachers definitely need to be open-minded. They must not think that it is an insult to be instructed by others. Many teachers hold such ideas. It's the same thing at senior high schools. As soon as you talk about teacher evaluation, they will suddenly turn hostile. We don't make evaluations to humiliate teachers, but to help them, to find out where they have problems that require help.

I hope very much that Taiwan's students can become more ambitious, because China will become a very big rival.

Some lawmakers say they are very worried over the Ministry of Education's plans to recognize Chinese degrees. But I say we definitely need to allow young people to go out into the world and let others come to Taiwan. And we certainly need to go out and recruit talented people. In the future Chinese students will be able to stay in Taiwan as exchange students for one year.

We need to allow Taiwanese students to learn that there's a world beyond the horizon, that there's always someone out there who's better. If we look at the performance of Chinese students in the United States, it's actually a lot like the performance of our generation of Taiwanese students who studied in the U.S. We dared to do anything and had a very good attitude, so that others were willing to hire us as assistants or associate professors. That's how Chinese students are nowadays. They get up in the middle of the night to memorize their English dictionaries.

Taiwanese students need to take a closer look at the strengths of others. They need to see different worlds.

Even though the future world is full of challenges, I want to share with Taiwanese students a quote by Spanish Nobel Prize laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who once said: "Any thing that you explore with passion and wisdom will reveal its secret to you."

I really think that's wonderful. If we truly lack passion and wisdom, no matter which of the two is missing, it will be a dangerous thing. But if you invest these two things into what you do, I'm convinced you can solve many difficult problems.

If you have a sense of mission, a commitment toward a certain issue, your inner strength will emerge.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 沒熱情沒智慧 是危險的事