The NTU College of Medicine isn't the only Institution in need of Soul-searching
China News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 11, 2009
Prominent neuroscience professor Hong Lan told the media yesterday that students at the National Taiwan University College of Medicine were sleeping in class. They gnaw on chicken drumsticks, slurp down ramen noodles, chat on their cell phones, and send out text messages. They are unserious about their studies, and display scant respect for their teachers. Professor Hung denounced such behavior as the result of "sinecures."
After the story broke, the National Taiwan University College of Medicine responded in three different ways. First President Yang Pan-chyr said such mistakes must be corrected. Then students protested that the courses Hong Lan audited may have been elective non-major courses taken purely for credit, and that the professor was guilty of generalization. Finally the College of Medicine expressed extreme dissatisfaction with Professor Hung for going public with his complaints. Each of the three views have merit, but also require closer examination.
NTU is hardly alone. Observers have noticed that students on many college campuses today are increasingly self-absorbed. From childhood to adulthood, students are forced to memorize texts, attend cram schools, and take entrance exams. They have been all but suffocated by the educational monolith. Once they succeed in getting into college however, they suddenly find themselve absolved of the need to study. They soon undergo a process of untrammeled self-liberation. Their decade long educational experience forced them to neglect their athletic and social development. The result is "Anything Goes." This of course accounts for the outlandish behavior described by Professor Hung.
This syndrome is widespread. It is not confined to National Taiwan University. It is not confined to the students' first choice among three possible majors. From an educational perspective, it must be addressed. We need not single out the Faculty of Medicine at National Taiwan University. Their higher joint entrance exam scores invite criticism and calls for them to "vacate their seat to others."
Professor Hung does not teach at National Taiwan University. She was observing National Taiwan University classrooms merely because she was participating in a College of Medicine evaluation program. The courses she audited were probably not part of the core curriculum. Students in medical school labor under a heavy course load. Liberal arts courses have little to do with medical licensing exams. Are students wrong to attach little importance to liberal arts courses? That is a question worth asking. That said, in almost all professionally oriented university disciplines, including engineering, law, finance, accounting, students take liberal arts courses only to gain academic credits. If one wishes to review the liberal arts curriculum, it would be best to initiate a comprehensive review of the entire educational system. It would be best to avoid making a fuss over any particular discipline.
Even if the National Taiwan University College of Medicine or other colleges were to improve their liberal arts curricula, NTU is hardly alone. In fact, even high schools and their system for advancement should be reviewed. Taiwan's university entrance exams are divided into three categories. Apart from a handful of interdisciplinary applicants, the vast majority of high school students have already chosen their majors by their senior year. Medical students for example, stop studying history, geography, and civics in their junior year. Needless to say, they are utterly uninterested in humanities courses such as "Medicine and Society." Suppose they are forced to attend liberal arts courses. The class schedule may be inconvenient, the teacher may insist on calling roll, and the classroom location may be remote. Is it any surprise students sleep or surf the Net in class?
Compare this to the liberal arts curricula at well-known universities in the United States such as Harvard and Yale. Medical school is considered postgraduate education. At least half of the curriculum is devoted to liberal arts subjects. By contrast, on Taiwan, we do not provide students with a liberal education before allowing them to specialize. Just the opposite. We allow them to begin specializing during their junior and senior year in high school. We allow them to tread a narrow and specialized path. Anyway you look at it, liberal arts education on Taiwan is a systemic failure of major proportions. Singling out NTU for harsh criticism is unfair.
Finally, we would like to offer the following observations regarding Professor Hong's critique of the National Taiwan University College of Medicine. Education has only one goal. To put students on the right track, enabling them to fulfill their own potential. During the educational process, structured guidance is essential, and so is the occasional wake-up call. Children's dignity and honor must be respected. If primary and secondary students do not shape up, one can reprimand them in private. One must not call them onto the carpet to be humiliated. As Professor Chen Ting-hsing, a teacher at the College of Medicine said, since the medical evaluation is not yet over, all constructive suggestions should be given a proper hearing. It is better not to vent one's emotions via outside journals. Even though the magazine used the term "the top medical school on Taiwan," everyone knew what they meant. Professors and students at the College of Medicine have in effect been summoned before a military reviewing stand, to be humiliated. Isn't the Medical Evaluation Committee's move, made before the evaluation is complete, a little excessive?
The College of Medicine's core curriculum must be reviewed. But what about other colleges? Classroom discipline at NTU must be improved. But this is hardly a problem confined to National Taiwan University. Slacking off in the classroom must be criticized. But so must professors' disregard for students' heartfelt criticisms.