Sunday, 2 August 2015

On The Anti-Curriculum Protests

In the news this week has been an ongoing protest at the ministry of education by groups of senior high school students. So far as I can gather, the cause seems to have been recent alterations to the curriculum and specifically an alteration to the ministry's approved history textbooks in which "the Taiwan area" is identified as part of China with Nanjing as the capital, rather than Taipei. The students appear to have two aims; to have those alterations removed, and to have a new procedure established for future alterations to the curriculum.

Of course, this is a political shit-storm: among the 外省人 ("Waishengren", i.e. post-1945 immigrants to Taiwan from China) and the KMT there is the belief that the students are being covertly manipulated by the DPP, even whilst the students themselves repudiate any connection to the DPP. This has been further exacerbated by the recent suicide of one of the students in protest at the changes to the curriculum.

I have found this whole thing to be frustratingly bizarre on several levels.

First, the idea that a State education system could ever be "free from political interference", which is what the students seem to think of themselves as striving toward, is obviously nonsense. The very fact that it is a "system" in which there is a national curriculum, regardless of the details of its contents, is a political feature. An education that was indeed from political interference would be one in which the students were free to learn about whatever they liked, perhaps with some parental guidance. With that in mind the notion of a politics-free education system, especially given the context, does indeed look like a DPP trope: the one in which a DPP politician accuses a KMT politician of "playing politics", or of "political interference"... basically politician A accusing politician B of being a politician. The idea is the confusion of the inherently political nature of an institution (State education) with a narrowly partisan (blue vs green) concept of politics.

Second, I think what is going on here is quite subtle: I don't think the DPP does have any overt influence over the students, but the premise of de-facto Taiwan independence is just so obvious everywhere in Taiwan; few people consider themselves to be "Chinese" except the relatively small number of Waishengren, and even some of those are hesitant about self-identifying as Chinese. Against that background the alterations to the history textbooks to declare Taiwan part of China with a capital in Nanjing are... utterly bizarre, quite apart from any offense they cause to overt Taiwanese nationalists.

Third, I think that were I twenty years younger and a high school student in Taiwan, I couldn't possibly join the protesters in Taipei. What they are campaigning for, ultimately, is maintaining the status quo - a State run education system. I would prefer there be no State involvement in education whatsoever because education is not so much a classic "public good", as a private good with positive externalities. If it is a private good, then it can and should be produced privately with no political involvement whatsoever.

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