Monday, 4 February 2013

Question Obedience


Why is it generally accepted that Taiwanese students can be compelled by school or university authorities to perform menial tasks such as cleaning classrooms, libraries and stairwells? Students do not perform these tasks voluntarily, or receive payment for having performed them. Rather, they are compelled to perform them on threat of punishment by school authorities.

Why are these tasks not performed by paid staff, such as migrant workers from South East Asia?

Against the claim that having students clean their school promotes a sense of responsibility, it should be flatly stated that this can only be true if the tasks are undertaken voluntarily - for it is a travesty to ascribe the adjective of "responsible", with its positive civic connotations, to a student forced into sweeping a stairwell: in such cases the student has only responded to her wish to avoid punishment, rather than to the school's need for clean stairwells. The only accurate adjective for such students is "obedient".

And the only accurate adjective for this practice is "slavery". It may be relatively petty in scope, but it is slavery nonetheless.

Rather than questioning "authority", democratically dressed or otherwise, perhaps it is time Taiwanese question their own obedience.

Yours freely,
Michael Fagan.
(Sent: Monday 4th February 2013. Unpublished)


  1. And the only accurate adjective for this practice is "slavery".
    Uh ... don't you mean noun?

  2. Mike,
    I recall American students had to clean up hallway or class rooms after school for getting too many demerit slips. I also recall in Twn all elementary students had to pitch in at the beginning of a term and had cleaning and yard duties. Custodians are fairly scarce then may be take care of student offices etc. They had to serve hot water doubling as door man as all other responsibilities as assigned.

    Knowing most American children do not mow their own lawn or often make their own bed, I wish students need to be taught very early on they need to clean up their own mess.

    Sam S

  3. "Uh ... don't you mean noun?"

    Yeah, my attention must have slipped.

  4. Sam,

    Thanks for the comment, I am glad to see you still read my blog (there will be more posts on reservoirs in the future).

    As I see it there are at least two (but probably three) seperable issues here. One is the question of responsibility, i.e. people should be responsible for their own actions (as you say "clean up their own mess"). But the other is the point that this practice is compulsory rather than voluntary, and it is not as if students have a choice as to whether they attend school or not.

    I think the two points are incompatible: responsibility cannot be "taught" by simply applying force to people. All that does is teach children that might = right. If the chores were undertaken voluntarily (or refused voluntarily), e.g. with some kind of compensation on offer, then there would be nothing to object to.

    The other issue is the apparently unexamined premise that mess is bad, and cleanliness is good. What is missing here is recognition of the opportunity costs of cleaning up and the fact that keeping a room clean is only one value among others that demand a person's time. I clean up my apartment a little almost every day (washing dishes, vaccuming the floor, doing laundry etc...), but there are times when I simply have more important things to do within a limited time frame. Given the notion that students supposedly go to school to learn, I would think most of them could spend their time more profitably in reading books than sweeping stairwells.

  5. Food for thought:

    Sweeping stairwells is pretty tame, did you know the students are also responsible for the restrooms?

    Since the students provide the labor, surely the school sees fit to provide them with cleaning tools in proper condition? Sweeps with soft straight bristles, rollers mops (which are so popular here) with healthy green heads which have yet to turn grey and black from dirt and grim, fresh rags and sponges, buckets which carry water without leaking, cleaning fluid, rubber gloves ...
    After all, school administrators are really into that stuff right?

  6. For more than 50 years, Taiwanese youth have been forced to serve in the ROC millitary, whose main purpose is to crack down any Taiwanese up-rising. Some Taiwanese youth has even been tortured and killed by their superior officers in the millitary.

  7. Yes, I know. The forced "military service" is another example of the discrete practice of slavery. I was thinking to write about this too, but I've been too busy the last couple of days.


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