There is a tremendous prioritization of academic achievement in Chinese families. This is not new. What needs to be examined is the underlying filial and moral obligation attached to the academic success of Chinese adolescents, which shapes their sense of worth and identity.
Unlike American society, where adolescents have greater freedom to choose from a wide array of activities to legitimately express their competence as individuals, there exists a single positively sanctioned social identity for youth in Taiwan, which is termed “good student”—or, “hao shueh-sheng”. In Taiwan, the student identity not only applies to the student’s academic involvement, but also necessitates his or her obedience to authority, and becomes a fixed social identity that pervades all aspects of their life. Consequently, academic success is a prerequisite of filial piety which is central to Chinese society; to do poorly in school is interpreted as a gesture of ingratitude toward one's parents. To be a “bad student” is to be judged as a socially and morally irresponsible person, and this can deeply scar a youth’s self-image.
I speak from my own experience as a student in Taipei, and can’t assume it’s the same in China (or even across all schools in Taiwan), but I can imagine it is similar, as deep-rooted Confucian values suppose moral cultivation is achieved through social harmony, propriety and education. I also feel that this pressure extends to youth in Asian-American families, although they perhaps do not suffer the same judgment from their Western peers. In this post, I wish to share my experience as a student in Taiwanese public middle/high schools, and how this rigid cultural code (of academic success as a moral obligation) has been extremely harmful to the personal identity of Taiwanese students.
When a young person’s sense of self worth is judged by their ability to fulfill one’s social obligation through successful school performance, students who fail to do well in school, in spite of their inherent moral qualities, often experience the equivalent of moral degradation. This unhealthy dual moral standard of personhood increases the likelihood that a young person will be considered “deviant” in mainstream culture, and drives many students who are considered underachievers at school to seek alternative, usually negative, terms for which competence and power is judged, such as bullying and gang membership. Adolescents who are unable or unwilling to climb the conventional ladder of success through education often identify with the deviant hooligan social category, perhaps attracted by the sense of macho confidence and empowerment in their rejection of authority and social norms.
As a student who went straight into a competitive Chinese junior high school after having received an elementary school education in America, I struggled in my classes and had a huge problem obeying authority (no surprise there). Students had to stand up and bow to the teacher when they entered the classroom, and we were controlled and disciplined to the extreme in every aspect from the way we wore our uniforms to the length of our hair. I was often physically beaten by teachers for small deviances and subject to humiliating disciplinary practices (if you really want to know the details, ask and I’ll elaborate in the comments.)
Despite my semi-foreigner status, I was still subject to the stigma of being a “bad student” and also suffered the disappointment and pressure of my parents. There is still a pervading notion that kids who perform poorly at school are just lazy or not trying hard enough, which reinforces the false idea that bad students "choose" to bad. I have so many harrowing stories of school surveillance, and I witnessed how the academic underachievers in my class were socially outcast and turned to bullying and gang activity as teachers and peers discriminated against them openly. I was in school there from about 1998 to about 2001, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but I have always wanted to voice my experience as a student under this unhealthy moral standard and advocate positive change. But where should we start?
To change the perception of academic underachievement as an indication of moral and social defeat, it is integral to broaden the terms for which competence is judged by offering students more positive expressions of their social selves as persons. This is where the undervalued subject of creative self-expression becomes integral in the goal of education. I would advocate for an arts and media literacy program wherein media production and sharing is promoted as a channel through which Taiwanese youth can reaffirm their individualism by assigning value to personal experience and subjectivity. In a society where academic success is unfortunately viewed as a pre-requisite of legitimate positive personhood, the Taiwanese education program should also promote the egalitarian premise that all lives are valuable, and that society requires a wide range of activities and talents to function so that deviance does not remain the exclusive arena in which alternative “competent” social identities may be sought.
This is where the concept of “participatory cultures” of learning finds its importance in the context of Taiwanese education. Henry Jenkins defines a participatory culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection.”
The traditional didactic approach to teaching and learning in Taiwan neglects the role of education of fostering the social skills, critical skills and cultural sophistication necessary to empower students to become full participants in contemporary society. The lack of young peoples’ interest and involvement in politics and civic debates reflects their perception of disempowerment and devaluation of subjectivity. A new Taiwanese education program should focus on the basic principles of creative production, communication, and learning. By engaging in media production (sharing art, poetry, thoughts, etc through media on and offline), students learn to develop their own voice and reconstruct reality, rather than depend on the authority of traditional media and teachers. By challenging conventional methods of knowledge through production, participatory action research becomes an important agent for youth empowerment and civic engagement.
If this article resonates with any readers who have experienced an Asian education and struggled with similar issues, I would love to hear your perspective. I’m also interested in knowing how this concept varies across Asian cultures. Also, I’m curious as to how this concept might manifest in Asian-American families, so please share this article with anyone you think may find relevance in the topic, and be sure to leave your comments!