Finally, it has come time for me to begin school at NTU. For those of you who thought that I was going to breeze through the next year taking “fluff” like art and “cultural exploration” classes, you could not have been further from the truth. The first day of classes, once again, reminded me of the steep difficulty that is involved in an engineering degree. I’m back at it, once again!
Before beginning courses, we were required to attend an orientation session that highlighted key points about our lives as foreign students in Taiwan. One of the main points was one that emphasized the difference between the expectations and habits of foreign students vs our Taiwanese counterparts. This leads me into one of the glaring differences I have found between the US and many Asian cultures: the educational system.
In the United States, there is an actual ranking of the country’s best “Party Schools.” When young people go off to university, there is an implicit understanding (by most) that they are off to make mistakes and “explore” their newly obtained adult freedoms. Underage drinking and gratuitous party stories are a part of life’s grand adventure. “Remember that time back in college…?” It is a part of American culture. It almost seems as if obtaining an education is a fringe benefit.
This is not the case for many students in Asian countries. They are there to study and learn, period. Many dorms in US universities are becoming so posh that they are bordering on the classification “luxury apartment.” I have not yet come across a university dorm in Asia in which I wouldn’t mind living. It doesn’t seem as though a university education is supposed to be a pleasurable experience.
However, this is not just limited to university. It is quite apparent that the life of a student at any level in East Asian countries (Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China, in particular) is filled with pressures that many of us in the West couldn’t possibly countenance. As my roommate describes it, “Taiwanese students wake up in the morning to go to school. They get out of class in the afternoon to go to their review schools (補習班）(BuXiBan). At night, finally being done studying for the day, they are left with just enough time to go to their Violin/English lessons before bed. They wake up and repeat.”
Many would argue that this style of education instills a strong work ethic and prepares students for the rigors of the “real world.” However, after speaking with many Taiwanese about this method of education, they voice dissenting opinions as to its efficacy. “The only thing that matters are grades.” Students are not taught to be free-thinking and creative individuals, they are taught to excel in a system in which the only indication of success is how well you perform compared to your peers, i.e. they are taught how to take tests effectively. Even my professors (many of which received US university educations) bemoan the study mentalities of Taiwanese students. “Native [Taiwanese] students are used to finding the fastest way to solve the problem without actually understanding what the problem is asking.” According to many professionals, this kind of educational system also creates a huge dearth of creativity and talent in the workforce.
Recognizing this, there has been a large push for “international schools” that focus on developing a student’s creativity and individuality. Of course, these private institutions are out of the price range for average-income families.
On a surprising and contradictory side note, I am surprised at the minor differences between how engineering is taught in the US, compared to how it is taught in Taiwan. At my university in the US, each course seems like a grind through progressively more difficult math subjects. Unfortunately, many of the fundamental engineering concepts are largely glossed over. Surprisingly, so far at NTU, there has been much more of an emphasis on the concepts, not so much on repeatedly completing exhausting electrical engineering problems. There is less of a feeling of “weeding out” the weaker students that is so ubiquitous in the United States. It is quite refreshing, despite the material being completely in Chinese. Goes to show that any educational system isn’t without deficiencies.