Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Politics of Fifth Grade: For Their Own Good

I've been reading a lot of Alice Miller lately, sent to me by a loving friend in the US. Miller is a psychotherapist who has spent her career arguing that the harsh discipline and humiliation so many of our young experience results in the inexplicable need for power and control over others found among so many full-grown humans. I recently finished her very fine For Your Own Good, where she writes:
"It is the tragedy of well-raised people that they are unaware as adults of what was done to them and what they do themselves if they were not allowed to be aware as children. Countless institutions in our society profit from this fact, and not least among them are totalitarian regimes."
It is one of the themes of her work that brutal child-rearing methods -- the kind that parents here in Taiwan justify on the grounds that life is harsh and school should prepare kids for that reality -- create personalities that engage in brutality. Recent events at my daughter's school, small though they are, remind me of how adults in this society, in every society, are created as children.

Our drama began when CY., in the other class, left his wallet containing NT$900 in a desk in the social studies classroom. His class had vacated the room, my daughter's had already occupied it, and class had begun, when CY returned to say his wallet had been left at the desk. My daughter's teacher then decided to play bad-cop, bad-cop...

"Does anyone know where his wallet is?"
Silence. HT is sitting at the desk CY had formerly occupied.
"HT. Do you have his wallet?"
"No"
"Class, did anyone see HT with CY's wallet?" Not Did anyone see someone with CY's wallet? or Is it possible you might remember seeing it in someone's hand or backpack? In front of the whole class, he accused HT of stealing the wallet. Supremely humiliated, HT said nothing. The teacher then moved over to her desk, and searched her backpack, and only hers. Several of the students protested at this point; it was true they were the next class, but there was a ten minute recess, and students from many grades went in and out. Anyone could have taken the wallet.

My daughter came home and described this to my wife, who decided to wait a day before she called HT's mom to see if HT would report the incident to her. But this morning my wife bumped into her while discussing the case with another parent, and it turned out that HT hadn't told her mom....and the tale solved the puzzling question of why the principal had stopped at her house yesterday, out of the blue, to ask whether her daughter was happy at school. The interesting thing is that while the principal appears to have found out what happened, he apparently did not take any corrective action.

As soon as she heard, HT's mother went in to have a little meeting with the Fifth Grade Teacher (HT's Dad is on the board of the PTA and both parents are alumni of my daughter's school -- that's forty years of clout between them). I have no idea what was said, but the fifth grade teacher totally lost it over this affair, according to my daughter. He got up in front of class later and said "HT's mom came to see me today! I didn't turn HT's backpack upside down, I just flipped through the books! Like this!" he said, hands flipping through the air. "That wallet had to go missing somehow!" he shouted. "Did the other teacher steal it? Did the principal steal it? Did I steal it?" My daughter's class watched in awed silence, HT looking for a crack in the earth to swallow her up.

I don't know how, as an adult, I would deal with humiliation like that. But how can a child? And the teacher cannot see that he too is passing on the humiliations that he suffered in this cruel system. When I ask my classes if they were hit in school, everyone raises their hands -- sheepishly, furtively, reluctantly. Because the humiliation and guilt and powerlessness is too great to think about. Yet people wonder where all the tremendous anger in Taiwan comes from....

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Clyde Said:

This type of action is so totally common I'm surprised it is an issue at all at this school. Isn't it possible that humiliation is not the goal Michael, but rather a teacher looking through the bag at that moment lets everyone see this person does not have the wallet? This reinforces the signal of the class collective, which is threatened by the missing wallet.

It is hard for me to adjust to, but when we proctor exams this is exactly the behavior that is expected of us--rifle through any personal possessions on desks, etc., because the goal is not to catch cheating, but to stop it. It is not an accusation of guilt, but a public proof of belonging to the group. My son went through many such events and rather than showing anger, I think he is too passive, allowing anyone in authority to lay down the law to him. Not such a great result, but he did get along with the group very well.

Just a thought.

keauxgeigh said...

there's a character of a teacher in the movie "Yiyi" that is just like this, so if movies are a reflection of our societies, this may be pretty typical and widespread. I think we refer to them as tin-plated dictators.

ivy said...

I have no idea what exactly Clyde meant; perhaps it is my inability in understanding English. But I do know that there was never any emphasis of preserving a child's self-esteem (or self-anything) in a TW classroom. What a teacher said/ decided was much weightier than what a student said. There was not "two sides of a story." Humiliating treatments were common and accepted by all parties. You see the results by observing countless TW graduate students in the US. Most of them keep their mouths shut, no matter what happens to them. What occurred in your daughter's classroom was how they learned to weather adversity in later life! I despise TW education for it beat us down and made us coward under all authorities. If you have not grown a backbone by yourself, you would always have that lingering fear of an authority figure, especially at a moment of panic.

Holly said...

I see the exact same behaviors in my workplace, where the Taiwanese employees are treated much like HT was. When a mistake is made, they are publicly berated, and rarely utter a word of protest. Often, the blame lies somewhere else, but fairness is not involved in this form of "discipline." The foreign employees, on the other hand, are almost never spoken to in the same manner, since experience has taught the boss that, for the most part, foreigners will not stand for such behavior.

The work environment can be unbearable at times. I think that the foreigners are sometimes looked at as culturally insensitive when we encourage the Taiwanese employees to defend themselves. It's not that we don't understand why they behave that why - your post illustrates the reason perfectly. But the fact is, we see fairness as a universal ideal, and no one likes to see another person treated unfairly. At least in American culture, we have been trained to believe that standing up for what is right, whether for yourself or on behalf of others, is one of the most noble things you can do. It saddens me that so many of my Taiwanese friends and co-workers have been beaten down with this kind of "discipline" for so long that they have no will to fight.

evicious said...

Michael, your post illustrates exactly why I resent my Taiwanese education. I spent half of my childhood in Taiwan and the other in the United States. In my first week in an American school, I asked my classmates why they were not afraid of our teachers. They were shocked that anyone would be afraid of the teacher -- they had to explain to me that the teacher doesn't hit students here and there was nothing to be afraid of.

I am not sure exactly what Clyde meant either, except to say that if rifling through someone's personal possession is "not to catch cheating but to stop it," you are assuming people cheat. This essentially creates a culture of witch hunt, where people are assumed guilty and must prove their innocence.

I feel that those in positions of authority (teachers, politicians, and bosses come to mind) use our Confucian culture of guilt and shame to maintain their power. Meanwhile Taiwanese education has taught generations of young people to "behave," not react. I agree with Ivy - we need to learn to stand up for ourselves.

vvv said...

Then there is that segment of Taiwan society that takes advantage of the easy ability to intimidate - the liumangs.

Anonymous said...

Clyde Said:

Evicious, from your comment, you got exactly what I was saying. Your observation that, "This essentially creates a culture of witch hunt, where people are assumed guilty and must prove their innocence" is something that is true in Taiwan. I'm not judging it, just observing it as a reality. The more interesting question is, does the education create that or is the education teaching people to enter a culture where witch hunts are totally normal?

While it is easy to find fault with Taiwan education, American schools suffer many of their own issues, but again, is the education just following what already exist in the culture? With its emphasis on individuality and total lack of authority, one tragic result is twenty percent of students dropping out totally.

And maybe things have changed, but when I was in school even locked lockers didn't prevent everything from being stolen and allowing an atmosphere of intimidation from small groups of students. Is that way better than intimidation from teachers? Again, I'm not judging it, just observing how normal it is.

Even if I didn't like the classroom situation in Taiwan, I'm not going to change it, but would rather find the advantages and positive things it offers.

Anonymous said...

As I stated in another unrelated post as an observation, Taiwan is still a soceity that is based on dominance and submission, and then asked if one had ever watched who was "right" in determinding fault in two cars crashing into each other.

This theme of wanting to be the dominant power runs through families, the schools, the work place and government. For me, I see the pan-blue desperate attemtp to regain control using any method, as a product of a dominant class of society that has lost power and wants to regain it before retribution for past offenses can be held to account. I know people here who are scared simply because they are the offspring of mainlanders who came over in the last 60 yeaers.

But customs and experiences are hard to shake off, and we have the not so odd situation here now where we face possible violence from the former dominant power, followed by possible violence from those who were previously in the submissive position.

How this Hegalian master/slave cycle of tension is to be stopped here seems to be key to solving many vexing problems on the island, from the family, the schools, gangsterisn, the lack of true world competitveness in world markets, and all the way to the political scene.

To end this cycle of tension, it will take at least a gnereation, I think, where more enlightened parents and teachers can teach a new generation of the fundamental honorableness of each and every human being. Who can even begin these first changes here is a mystery to me.

This play of dominance/submissiveness is also, in my thought, a main difficulty in relations between Taiwan and China. How dare this island even have a thought of its own, rather than submit.

Whichever side of the straights can end this mentality will win on the world stage, and I do not see China as moving in this direction. I have been in China, and under the surface, this dynamic of dominant/submissive permeates every segment of society. Unfortunately. so it does Taiwan, but there are positive bright points here, including this school incident. People are becoming aware.

How many more lives are going to be lost before large segments of any society come to a sane way of positioning themselves in the world without harming others by not taking advantage of others simply because of a supposedly superior position?