Monday, April 03, 2006

The Politics of Fourth Grade: the Cheating Scandal

A couple of months ago my daughter's fourth grade class selected the model students, as they do every year. The last two years the model student had been my daughter, and, being the nicest human being I know, she was the shoo-in for this years election as well. When the teacher, M., wrote her name and several others on the board as candidates, there was an objection: Sheridan had already been picked twice. It just wasn't fair.

The local culture's attitude toward competition is completely schizo. On the one hand, we hear all the time about how competitive the school system is, and that's true in many respects. But on the other, losing is not merely a failure to obtain something, but is regarded as a seriously negative loss of face. How does the system handle that?

In the US we solve the problem of competitive failure being too painful to bear by several strategies -- providing multiple competitions so everyone can win, handing out prizes even for the low finishers, or doing away with competitive frameworks and substituting cooperative games. In every case, regardless of the solution chosen, the principle of victory by merit is assured. Even when the 8th place finisher gets a prize, she is still the eighth place finisher.

Since competitive failure involves a loss of face, it is a problem in Taiwan society, where people go to elaborate lengths to preserve face. In Taiwan it is resolved by keeping the framework of competition -- there is a prize, competing, and a winner -- but eliminating its inner meaning. The "winner" becomes a selected position rather than one given out for merit. For example, at a university I taught at, the Teacher of the Year award was given on a rotating basis so that it was distributed fairly among departments and teachers. The award had no meaning, but the framework was preserved. At the end of the year the teacher received an award and made a speech. Everyone clapped. Hooray!

So my daughter's fourth grade teacher, faced with this objection, swung into action. Immediately he deleted my daughter's name and replaced it with that of the person objecting, HT, the nasty social climber that I have written on before, and another student, L. When the smoke cleared, HT and L had been selected model students.

Life, however, loves irony. A week or two later, after the names of HT and L had been placed on the wall for all to see, and trophies made, HT and L were busted by several students for cheating on the Chinese test.

This caused a mini-crisis. Our school is small and has been part of the community for five decades. Many of the parents went there as well, and they all know each other. Fourth Grade politics are thus adult politics, masked, recapitulating struggles between the parents that date back to their elementary school days. The teacher, M., is lazy and doesn't want to get involved. I think anyone who knows Taiwan can imagine what will happen: nothing.

The situation also brings up another problem, which is the lack of enforcement here. It occurs at every level of society and begins at school. Last year one of my advisees was busted for cheating -- obnoxiously, he had someone sit in on the test for him -- and the school did nothing to him. All he had to do was express remorse and he got off scot-free, although I pushed for him to be expelled (two of the boys were caught that same day being in the girls dorm room after ten -- permanent demerits, again over my protests). Wonder why the cops let the traffic law violators go? Partly because they learned to in fourth grade.

The problems of Taiwan society begin during the socialization process in school. One excellent way to understand how the Beautiful Isle really works is to send your kid to the local elementary school.


Michael Fahey said...

Michael--you might enjoy Tim Parks's An Italian Education then. It's about how he learns more about Italian society through his kids. There are also some uncanny parallels with Taiwan.

Michael Turton said...

I certainly would. There are really close parallels between Taiwan and Italy -- essentially both are honor-shame cultures. There are some great books out there on honor-shame cultures and child-raising....I feel another blogpost coming on...


Big Ell said...

As a father of a very young daughter who will likely enter some elementary school in the future I can honestly say these posts about your daughter make me angry and depressed.

Michael Turton said...

Me too. The worst thing about it is getting angry over such petty stuff. But you just can't help it. The socialization of students here sucks. There are no good answers.

I've long dreamed of starting a homestudy cooperative among neighbors who live close together, teach each other's kids for an exchange or similar.


Anonymous said...

School always teaches more than just the curriculum. "Social skills" is a very broad term for what school should teach beyond the curriculum, but it's a grab bag what skills your child will be exposed to and what they will learn. One of my sons has stories like this from his upper-middle class public elementary school.

P.S. You never mentioned which camera you bought.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog. Rich parents can buy the model student competition with goodies. Didn't you know in the past KMT used to buy votes? :-)

Anonymous said...


IMO, the situation you encountered is a vivid demonstration of how poisonous to humen race the Chinese culture is.

I growed up in that environment. I was taught to be proud of being a chinese. In that sort of "sinalization," the textbook and the teacher both deliver a series of positive teachings -- law-binding, justice, peace, ... etc.

Then, when you put the textbooks down and face the reality, you found that in real life ALL the people who gave you those teachings behave just the opposite. Simply with a little observation you realize rightaway that all the teachings in school, and also all the statements coming from the government, are nothing but "lip-services." The entire education system is nothing but a tool that the chinese government used to ensure Taiwanese to be "law-binding" citizen such that their government officers can gain benefit from "being out side the law."

This is the real face of chinese culture !! I was finally so sick of it and couldn't bear living in it. The entire facade of society is a lie. If you grow up in it, I am 100% that your human nature will be distorted. If a person who lacks strong conscience and courage, he/she has no choice but living with distorted nature for life.

Ironically, while I flee to live in USA, I observe the same situation happening in the chinese immigrant circle here. In a scientific competition for elementary shool and high school students, in which parents are supposed NOT to involve except for providing soming like transportation, a group of chinese parents (some of them are engineer-majored) tell their kids to focus on study, they will do all the projects for them. Then, several days before the competition, they gather their kids and give them intensive couchings on how to answer technical questions (like how they build those constructs and where their idea came from) during the compeitions. In an occassion I heard with my own ears that a parent told his kid, "you are so stupid to tell the truth."

I then realize that the chinese coming to USA are not to learn good things. But instead they are to bring poison to this society. They are to bring poison to any society they go to.

I became a Taiwan-Independence supporter not because of any political ideology, but because that I want a healthier life for me and my family and my next generation. And the only way to achieve is to stay away from chinese culture as far as possible.

I strongly agree that you and your friends should conduct your own circle of education and children social life. I know I would if I have kids in Taiwan. To me it's like murdering own child if I left my children to live in that poisonous environment. Do it quick because some poison, once planted, they fix and will stay for life.

Anonymous said...

Independence will cure the "ills" of Chinese culture. Mmmm. Yeah, I can see that happening. Sure.

Anonymous said...

Independence will cure the "ills" of Chinese culture.

That's probably too much a stretch. Independence will not cure the ills by itself. But without independence, there will never be a chance.

Anonymous said...

In his book Trust, Fukuyama finds Italy and Taiwan to be very close in social values and thus both countries create very similar business models.

But come now Michael, it is not all that bad (you're scaring Bigell). This really goes to the Chinese concept of what is "fair." That is just the way it is, but it is far from so terrible.

Elementary schools here give many awards, including awards for most improved, sports awards, best summer work award, etc. My kids used to bring home so many of those things that their numbers bothered me because I thought they were meaningless. If anything, the elementary schools here go too far in treating kids with kid gloves (for example no one can fail--the concept simply does not exist).

This of course leads to the shock of entering junior high where all that really does end. That truly is difficult for both the kids and the parents.

And Echo, I'm not quite sure who you think "makes" the culture here, but all the really dirty stuff I've experienced in Taiwan has been perpetrated by, guess who--Taiwanese. Culture is not forced on anyone here--rather it is generated from the bottom up, and while some at the top may seek to take advantage of that, they can't create it. Sorry, this is the way Taiwanese are, the way they prefer to organize their lives and independent or not, they would do it the exact same way again.

Anonymous said...

clyde: Culture is not forced on anyone here

Your statement might be valid for a country whose people have exercised democracy for a long time. Unfortunately Taiwan doesn't have such a luxury. We live through most of our history being colonized, and sure thing in a colonized world you are forced to adopt cultures from different foreign countries.

Do you know that about 30 years ago, if a Taiwanese student dared to speak in Taiwanese, he or she will be either fined or beaten by teachers in school? And who was the one enforced this rule trying to force Taiwanese way into distinct? The chinese James Song, the current president of People First Party. He suggested that policy and ensured it be carried out thoroughly such that Taiwanese culture would disappear in a short time and only Chinese culture survives.

We Taiwanes didn't ask for this. We didn't ask for "Please come to destroy our culture"; We didn't ask for corruption, for "say one thing, do another", for "you are so stupid to tell the truth". We sure didn't choose to make our kids unable to talk to their grandparents and grandparents don't know what their grandkids are talking and laughing about!! And this sort of thing did happen often currently, right now, right in front of our eyes !!

Did we have those problems when we were colonized by Japanese? No! Only after Chinese came did Taiwanese suffer all these. Many elder Taiwanese still missed the days of Japanese colonization very much, because they lived through both ages and know deep down which one is more humane.

No offense but your statement doesn't seem to apply here.

Anonymous said...

Echo, I was a teacher here when hat policy was still enforced, and I saw one teacher disciplined over it. Your point now is very clear, but you have moved a bit away from students competing in a classroom to James Soong. It is much easier to talk about the specifics of say KMT policy rather than the huge generalization that bad things in Taiwan come from somewhere else. I don't believe Taiwan was a utopia before the KMT nor during the Japanese occupation, nor before any Chinese arrived from Fujian. I'm not sure how mandatory Japanese classes are any better than Mandarin. My reading of Yosaburo Takekohi's "Japanese Rule in Formosa" (1907) paints a picture of a colonial master looking down on the Taiwanese. Is that what you are looking back at? I'm simply saying that social engineering is not so easy, and the KMT did many things they should be called to justice for, but to dream that Taiwan somehow had a Utopian culture some time in the past, well, I'm looking for it but all I see when reading Taiwan history is that every day life has not changed much. Just when was it that things changed, because we still see very high cultural similarity between the Fujianese and Haka in Taiwan and in China. Your political points are well taken, and very well stated, and appreciated by myself, having lived in Taiwan under marshal law, but they are not the culture I'm talking of.

Anonymous said...

Clyde, it's probably too much a stretch by saying that before KMT came Taiwan was in Utopia. It's just a matter of comparison. Japanese occupation was still a colonization, no matter how good some people feel about it. Taiwanese didn't like it -- you probably know that when Japanese came, Taiwanese fought some bloody wars agains them, until 1915. Maybe you are right, Taiwan was in Utopia before chinese came --- IF we do the comparison.

"I'm simply saying that social engineering is not so easy, and the KMT did many things they should be called to justice for"

I hope that you are not talking about the 228 genocide, in which the chinese systematically wiped out the entire Taiwanese elites (social leaders, intellectuals, healthy people ...) in order for them to gain a colonial control. This reminds me of many chinese saying that China government has the right to kill students in Tiananmen in 1989 -- otherwise, the government won't be able to do their "social engineering".

It's always easy to look at the history and say that some killing (or any other mistreatment made by a government) was justifiable. But if you are on the side of losing beloved ones, the story would be totally different.

We do have the choice to "side with the authority" or "side with the people." The way you look at the history will be significantly compromised by which side you stick yourself to. Only when you side with the authority will it become logical to conclude that "people" have to sacrifice something (even lives) such that the government can do something.

So is this "culture" ? or is this "politics"? Sorry that I can't tell much difference. For many of us, "grandparents can't talk with their grandkids" is not politics. It's a reality not fantacy. It's a way of living.

Big Ell said...

Thanks Clyde, I feel much better now.