Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Against Professor Duh Bau-ruei (杜保瑞)

Work is getting busy again which means I'll have more money at the cost of less time and less energy. I've already planned this weekend's trip. which will be another short one just to move the motorbike further north from Miaoli to Hsinchu. There are still shots of minor importance to be taken at all five reservoirs within range of Hsinchu, and hopefully I will be the happy recipient of the best possible weather when I undertake those trips.

Yesterday I noticed an editorial in the Taipei Times written by a professor of philosophy, one Duh Bau-ruei (杜保瑞) at National Taiwan University, and translated by Ethan Zhan*. Entitled "Academics wasted in government", I opened it with a mild curiosity which quickly turned into disappointment. But it is a curious kind of disappointment because there are so many things wrong with it, and yet not entirely wrong, that I am momentarily struggling to tie it all together.

Briefly, the professor's basic point is that political institutions and academic institutions would both be better off if academics kept out of politics.

What's wrong with that? With respect to the first part - the benefit to academic institutions of remaining non-politicized - he's closing the stable door after the horse has bolted; it is too late. Yet this is not just a naive view; it's also a partial view obscured on one side by a very Taiwanese parochialism wherein Taiwan's twenty year old "democratic era" justifies freedom of speech, and obscured on the other side by an extreme ivory-tower parochialism in which teaching staff are blamed for the intrusion of politics into the classroom. These two forms of parochialism are evinced by one passage in particular. For ease of comprehension I parse it into two quotations. The first one...
"In the democratic era everyone has the freedom to voice their opinions, but we should express our personal political opinions as individuals in the political arena.For instance, everyone can participate in demonstrations, sign petitions and vote..."
It is in fact the internet, not "democracy", that allows people (though not "everyone") to voice their opinions and any allusions to freedom of speech being "guaranteed" by, "provided" by, or "justified" by a democratic political order are misleading.** Moreover, Taiwan's democratic order does not in fact allow "everyone" to participate in the designated "political arena" of voting, petitioning and protesting. I am legally prohibited from participating in such things - as are all other foreigners who do not hold R.O.C citizenship.

The second quotation...
"...but it would be inappropriate for an academic to criticize politics in the classroom, especially when the issue being criticized is not what the class or the instructor’s expertise is about. If they do that, it is a sign that they are doing more than teaching their class and that the school does not focus on education."
Whilst that view is readily understandable in, for example, a high school mathematics class or an undergraduate course in a STEM subject, it does not hold up to scrutiny in other subjects. The intrusion of politics into the classroom does not begin with the teacher, but further up the sausage factory line with the government's education department and with the boards and principals of schools, colleges and universities, and with the infusion of "default" political views throughout the academic publishing industry. That is a vast quantity of poison, and it is no more clearly evident than in the English teaching industry and its' associated publications such as the monthly magazines aimed at lower high school students such as the "Studio Classroom" series of titles.

For example, I was recently tasked with having students read through a particular article in the April edition of "Let's Talk In English" about water conservation. The article was only several short paragraphs in length and began by describing the problem thus: 2.7 billion people do not "always" have enough clean water because they live in dry places where there is insufficient rain. That description of the problem is both factually incorrect (it is refuted for example, by both Las Vegas and Tel Aviv which are desert cities with plenty of clean water made possible through expensive engineering projects) and likely reflects a political bias in not mentioning the lack of development and government corruption in the poorer countries that typically suffer the most severe water problems. The article then went on to propose "solutions" to this problem that involved people in rich countries taking shorter showers and turning off the water when brushing their teeth! There was not even the pretense of any logic to it. It was simply a rambling collection of politically vetted opinions ostensibly and vaguely related to water conservation which was then dumbed-down as far as possible for the purpose of student "comprehension".

Read that last sentence back again.

What can men do against such reckless imbecility?***

The second part of professor Duh's thesis is that political institutions themselves would be better off without academics whom he believes tend to be "unprofessional" and unsuited to the functions expected of a government office. In this the professor is probably thinking of Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), the gaffe-prone mayor of Taipei. Professor Duh believes instead that political institutions should be ordered and managed by a class of professional politicians rather than by academics playing at being politicians. I don't necessarily disagree with the observation that academics likely make poor high profile politicians, but I certainly disagree with the blithely reasoned conclusion that therefore all government offices should be run by professional politicians. Nonetheless I think professor Duh has actually glimpsed an underlying part of the reality here, and then simply misunderstood it.
"In the past, sovereignty was enjoyed by kings and emperors, and while members of the general public could become government officials by passing examinations, they only had administrative powers. Today, Taiwan is a democracy, so sovereignty rests with the people, and governing power is exercised by elected officials and representatives."
What he seems to be alluding to there is that past Chinese political institutions were more stable than current democratic political institutions due to the overall social order in which they were embedded. Although we must allow for changes in technology and so forth, this view is not an unreasonable one. But the implication is not followed up and considered properly: if the current political order is more unstable, why is this? How much of the instability in the present social order is down to the democratic nature of politics and the appeasement of various lobbies and pressure groups, and how much is down to markets and changing cultural preferences enabled by an online world market economy?

That question does not seem to occur to professor Duh.

*I can't help but notice the misfortune of being known in English as "professor Duh".

**A democratic political order does not "guarantee" freedom of expression, or any other set of individual rights. A politician for example (though it could equally be an academic or media columnist), will publicly recognize the glamour of these rights in order to benefit from the "reflected glory", even while arguing for further restriction of individual rights through legislation.

***If not intervene by pointing out the factual errors and logical disconnect between problem and solution?

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