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Learning Independence, Having an Impact


How are we to cultivate the talent that will be needed in an unpredictable future? Around the world, societies are considering new ways to foster initiative and creativity in the next generation.



Learning Independence, Having an Impact

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 384 )

For the German consulate in Shanghai , it's been a particularly hectic year. On a weekly basis, it arranges open houses to welcome German university students arriving in Shanghai to study.

Young people from France , the United States and other parts of the world are coming to Asia to take advantage of study and training opportunities. For many, the next stop will be Latin America, followed by India .

Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan would have a hard time fathoming the huge numbers of teenagers and twenty-somethings crossing borders to explore the world, filled with as great a sense of adventure as they were in their twenties when they set out to conquer new frontiers.

Their goals and those of today's students, of course, are different. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan risked everything for conquest and the glory of their empires. Today's young generation has different motivations, exploring the world out of curiosity, to be more competitive, to find themselves, or simply to make new friends and learn more about the world.

The Beauty and Misery of Globalization

The environment in which young people are raised today has dictated their incredible diversity and explosiveness.

The United Nations defines “youth” as individuals aged between 15 and 24. Some 1.1 billion people around the world and 3.3 million in Taiwan fall into this age bracket. This generation grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, welcomed into a world experiencing the early stages of globalization and seeing national boundaries being torn down.

This young generation also bid farewell to a world guided by books and the printed word.

“When they are on their PDAs, or on their computers, or forwarding e-mails, they are all reading,” said Locus Publishing Company publisher Rex How. He says the arrival of the Internet has sparked a new kind of imagination, as “even the room for dreaming has grown bigger.”

This generation's values are also more three-dimensional and complex. The world is no longer defined by the great dichotomies of the Cold War era – freedom vs. communism, East vs. West, good vs. evil. The legacy of globalization has been ambiguity, creating an environment for the young generation filled with choices, excessive competition, and an uncertainty over life's direction.

Cheap Technology, Breakneck Competition

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't yet been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet.”

This line is from a YouTube video called “Did You Know?” that has been widely circulated on Taiwan 's campuses and gotten more than a million hits. It reflects the trepidation students feel over future changes in the world.

This anxiety is a reality. Governments everywhere, business owners and educators all sense that today' younger generation, more than any of its predecessors, is mired in a spiral of ruthless competition.

To accumulate human capital, Europe, North America and Asia are rapidly expanding their higher education systems. China is producing 5 million graduates a year, and India even more.

The father of Taiwan 's semiconductor industry, TSMC chairman Morris Chang said this generation is facing a time of “intensifying competition.” After students graduate, they will compete with people of similar ages across the globe, in an environment where one careless mistake can very quickly cause a whole industry or enterprise to be taken over by another country or locale.

Generation Me: Confidence and Doubt

But this generation also has bigger dreams and sense of self than any generation before it. Jean M. Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University , describes it as “Generation Me.”

With families having fewer children, these young people have been raised to have very high levels of self-esteem and stress the primacy of the “individual.” Twenge observes that this generation that has grown up with the Internet is naturally anti-authoritarian, attaches great importance to self-expression, and transfers the goodness and possibilities that occur in the virtual world to real life.

Without question, this generation is:

The best educated, with the most diversified knowledge

The most competitive

The generation having the most diverse and chaotic values

The most doted on and at the same time the loneliest

The most confident but with considerable doubts

These factors have prompted governments in advanced countries to turn their attention toward youth over the past five years.

The United Nations has noted that in this 15-24-year-old age bracket, which accounts for 18 percent of the world's population, unemployment is climbing. Some 40 percent of the world's unemployed now come from this age group, an indication that this generation is being more easily marginalized than any before it.

The European Union has estimated that in 2020, the 15-24 age bracket will account for 11 percent of its total population, down from 12.5 percent in 2000. Senior citizens (over 65), on the other hand, will make up 21 percent of the population in 2020, up from 16 percent in 2000. When this generation is fully grown, it will undoubtedly face an “unaffordable future.”

Many countries have recognized the merciless blows that external conditions have delivered against youth and started to take action.

Finland last year passed a Youth Act. The Shanghai city government included “youth development” as a priority in its 11th five-year plan. These initiatives were conceived to spur the growth and independence of young people and help them become active citizens while preventing their marginalization.

Singapore has proposed a youth policy that would train the island-state's young people into becoming “world-ready youth” and give them the skills they can actively put into practice. One of the attributes that this policy, “Vision for Youth in the 21st Century,” seeks to encourage is a “never say die” spirit, a willingness to persevere even in the face of disappointment.

Finland 's education system is currently recognized as the best in responding to the tide of globalization. Since 2000, Finnish students have consistently finished in the top three in OECD and other international evaluation programs.

Education officials from Japan , Sweden , Britain and continental Europe have made pilgrimages to Finland to learn more about its system.

Put simply, the goal of Finland 's education reform is to nurture the creative skills necessary for international jobs, and they have pursued it by focusing from the beginning on teachers and effective teaching methods. Finland 's elementary and junior high school teachers must speak at least two foreign languages, and general curriculum teachers must have master's degrees (demonstrating their ability to research a specific topic.). Teachers and students participate in seminars that encourage students to read, write essays and express a point of view.

In stark contrast with Finland , Taiwan 's education system has been slow to respond to the changing skill requirements imposed by globalization.

Where Taiwan 's education system stands may become clearer by the end of the year. That is when the results of two international proficiency tests will be released – the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for fourth-graders, at the end of November, and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year-old students, at the end of December. Taiwan is taking part in both tests for the first time this year.

Although the results are not yet in, more than a few professors revealed that Taiwanese students test well in math and science but when it comes to reading comprehension, their international ranking is not ideal, finishing slightly below the average.

Some of these professors believe that Taiwanese students perform well in international math and science contests, but because of the excessive competition and the constant emphasis on grades, the students lose interest in the subject and their confidence level falls. They attribute the reading literacy deficiencies in Taiwan to local students' inability to express themselves, think, and solve problems.

In addition to the education system's glacial pace of change, family and social norms that are also failing to keep up with the times are also proving an impediment to the advancement of Taiwan 's youth today. Are the lives of Taiwanese young people moving in the right direction?

National Sun Yat-sen University associate professor Lio Monchi has been researching and interviewing youths born in the 1980s, and has authored the book I Was Born in the Eighties, but I'm Not a Strawberry . (The title makes reference to a common critical term for this age group, the “strawberry generation,” alleging they are overly concerned with outward appearance and also overly fragile.) He believes that a majority of young adults born in the 1980s are passionate and willing to pursue their dreams, but have not had enough opportunities for exploration in school, making it difficult for them to find direction in their lives.

Some statistics indicate that Taiwan 's youth lack a sense of the future.

For example, only 53 percent of Taiwanese aged 20-24 have had a job, trailing far behind the 74 percent in the United States , 79 percent in Canada , and 72 percent in Singapore and Hong Kong, while approaching South Korea 's 57 percent. The figures show that Taiwanese enter the job market relatively late.

Also, unemployment in the 15-24 age bracket has risen quickly in recent years, to 10.49 percent in September 2007 from 7.36 percent in 2000. This far exceeds the average unemployment rate of 3.92 percent.

Searching for One's Own Spiritual Values

In past generations, the emphasis in life was on competition and getting ahead in a fast-growing economy. It was only later in life that people became conscious of “finding themselves.”

How does this generation see itself?

Ming Dao High School junior Chang Chia-wei, whose class participated in the U.S. State Department's “Doors to Diplomacy” website contest and won the platinum award, has a number of observations about her generation. She says many people describe today's youth as delicate “strawberries” who are unable to handle pressure. But she feels the “softness” of the “strawberries” is perfectly suited to meshing with and flavoring many types of foods.

“Our softness is the most important asset we have in fighting pressure, and our fragrant aroma is like a breath of fresh air for society,” she insists.

With competition today not following a set formula, education systems must not only respond quickly to the challenges of globalization, they must also help the current generation build spiritual values they can call their own.

Aside from helping them find the internal drive to survive, society must also give them a stage, provide them with role models, and help them make friends that share common ideals.

Jimmy Wu, the head of the Service-Learning Office and an associate professor at Chung Yuan Christian University , encourages students there to serve their community and learn while doing it. His main impression of students in recent years is that they have one amazing talent – an unlimited reservoir of creativity.

“Today's youth have an uncontrollable energy inside them. It's just like in martial arts novels where if you can clear passage of the ren and du energy channels in the body, you can become a grand master,” Wu says. He believes the key to opening up and harnessing these “energy channels” is to help young people build communities and find the resources they need to be successful and gain confidence. His most recent project is for students to use a Web 2.0 system to help doctors and teachers in the distant African country of Malawi to improve their environment.

The many stories like this that CommonWealth Magazine has discovered clearly attest that once we stop saying members of the next generation are still too young, they will demonstrate more ability to change themselves and society than we could have imagined.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier