Back in January I posted some general thoughts about teaching here in Taiwan. Today I would like to talk a little more in detail about one aspect of Taiwanese academic life which has consistently struck me as different from that in the US: the emphasis on fairness. Of course, fairness is important in the US as well, but it seems to me that a concern with procedural fairness often trumps other concerns for Taiwanese, whereas in the US we are more willing to except unfair procedures if we feel the outcome is still legitimate. I notice this at all levels of academia, from the student who told me to fail her on the final exam, rather than rescheduling it around her eye operation, because it would be “fairer to the other students,” to colleagues who hesitate to punish a student for plagiarism because of the possibility that they might not have caught all the students in the class who plagiarized.
This attitude is widespread in Taiwan and can be found in other areas of life as well. My favorite example is the Taiwanese driving test, which is done on what looks like a miniature race course. The skills tested on this test are very particular to the test itself. You have to avoid rubber bumps in the road which sound an alarm if hit with the tire while completing various types of maneuvers: parallel parking, pulling into a parking spot, making an “S curve” forward and backwards, etc. It is like playing a life-sized computer game. Because the race track is so standardized, you can train on a practice course identical to the test course. Instructors will tell you exactly how many times to turn the wheel at each location. If you memorize their instructions, it is very hard to fail. (There is no need to even drive at normal driving speeds, you can take the test as slowly as you like.) This is very different from the driving test I took in NY which tested some similar maneuvers, but took place on a normal street with other cars and at a normal driving pace. Taiwanese would object to such a test because there is the NY version of the test relies too much on the judgement of the person administering the test, and so the test might not be the same for every candidate. (A friend who claims to have been failed on the NY test because she is an immigrant woman would probably prefer the Taiwanese system.)
Recent educational reforms have shift from a single national entrance exam towards the US system of having people directly apply to universities. While reformers point to the advantage of moving away from high-stakes testing (which the NCLB is belatedly imposing on the US educational system), many parents and teachers object to the possibility of increasingly unfair outcomes. Now, one could argue that a system partially dependent on how much parents can afford to pay for cram schools isn’t exactly “fair,” but for Taiwanese parents the new system imposed the possibility of personal preference, family connections, and perhaps even cultural capital, making it much harder for them to know the rules of the game. The end result was that Taiwan never fully abandoned the national exams and currently has two systems: you can apply directly to the university, or you can get in via the national exam.
From my perspective, as trained scholars, we should be trusted to make professional judgements about issues like plagiarism, student qualifications, etc., but I often run up against the objection that this would not be fair. While I don’t exactly disagree, it isn’t clear to me that the seemly more objective measures my colleagues propose are any less subject to bias. I’m still grappling with the exact nature of the differences, but I think I’m simply more willing to demand that my judgement be given some authority on the basis of my training, whereas my colleagues generally want to look for some external measure to which they can point in case their decision is challenged as being “unfair.”