Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

Christianity and the 9/11 Truth

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on October 6, 2012

In the article I published in Skeptic last year,

I documented the relationship between right-wing political beliefs and conspiracy beliefs, particularly the 9/11 conspiracy. In addition, many of these people are right-wing Christians who believe that President Obama is somehow associated with a secret global government that is trying to murder millions of people. It’s complicated and the details are not so important. The best way to describe the beliefs of these people is that they are unaffiliated Christians. Most do not attend church regularly and are not affiliated with a church or denomination. But there is no question about their Christianity. Some are members of the right-wing Constitution Party that wants American law to reflect the Bible. Others are pro-life advocates.

I have always had trouble dealing with another aspect of 9/11 conspiracy beliefs. Prior to the election of President Obama, the most visible segment of 9/11 conspiracy beliefs refereed to themselves as professional groups for 9/11 Truth. This includes,

Lawyers for 9/11 Truth – whom I have tried to contact and have been told they no longer function.

Pilots for 9/11 Truth – run by some people who call themselves the Citizens Investigation Team who have, among other things, accused a 70-year-old Washington DC taxi driver of being a key player in a global conspiracy.

There’s a bunch of them, but the most active of these is

Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth

AE9/11T is the brainchild of architect Richard Gage.

Groups like this I have always discarded as left over from the time when 9/11 conspiracy was seen as an anti-Bush statement or something about the war in Iraq. But I have recently discovered that Richard Gage is in fact a devoutly religious man. Over on the James Randi Forum, a member describes the conclusions of his research into the background of Richard Gage

He links to other posts he has made on this point

In summary, he found that Gage is a member of a group called the Union Church which is a sort of New Age liberal type Christian church which I do not clearly understand. I have since found that several people who appear in Gage produced 9/11 conspiracy videos are affiliated with these sorts of New Age Christian beliefs.

In this context, this post from the JREF should not be missed

This quote from the post is significant. Brainster is absolutely correct, as he is in the post, linking 9/11 Truth leaders to other quasi-Christian cults

This is all made even more significant by the role of David Ray Griffin. Griffin is quoted frequently by these people, including Gage, as their inspiration. Griffin is a former faculty member of the Claremont Graduate University School of Theology and a major figure in a type of theology called Process Theology. And, in the strange world that my life has become, he is the doctoral supervisor of George Hermanson, whose services conducted at the University of British Columbia for the United Church of Canada I used to attend,

Strangely, their liberal church background has not stopped them from associating with an increasingly dark crowd. So Gage speaks at events hosted by groups that fit in well with the American Patriot Movement and Griffin deals with racist organizations and Japanese fascist groups.

More recently, I discovered that one of the solid 9/11 conspiracy groups is Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth

Check out the names on their petition. You may be surprised about whose name is up there.

Anyway, my point is that activists promoting 9/11 conspiracy and related beliefs appear to almost all be devoutly religious Christians of some sort, either affiliated with churches, practicing in an unaffiliated manner or in a quasi-Christian group.

So dominant has Christianity become among the existing activists for a 9/11 Truth that I currently describe the conspiracy beliefs as an internal struggle between different kinds of American Christians.

Shaun Richman Is Not a 9/11 Truther

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 17, 2012

The Independent Sentinel is a group blog, but one of their writers is Sarah Noble. Sarah describes herself as a political independent but if you take a look at the contents of the blog, it’s a lot of bad stuff about how President Obama “betrays” his friends, how gun control is bad and how NASA is a waste of money.

Anyway, Sarah posted this piece about how American Federation of Teachers (AFT) organizer Shaun Richman is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist – or as she called him – a Truther. She posted a lot ‘stuff’ she calls evidence for this. I’m not going to go into all of it here, but if you want, you can read the critique we gave her on the James Randi Educational Foundation 9/11 conspiracy forum here.

Sarah is just wrong. She uses quotations that were made by Richman about 9/11 in October 2001, but then quoted by right-wing political sources in 2008 and 2012. That’s right, they were made before anyone knew anything about what had happened and then dragged up for the 2 Obama elections. Good choice of neutral sources there Sarah. If you scroll down to the bottom of her blog post, you’ll find that Sarah has been kind enough to respond to my remarks. I appreciate this very much. Unfortunately, she seems unaware of the mistakes she’s made. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Who Still Believes in 9/11 Conspiracies?

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on October 16, 2011

This is a post about my 9/11 conspiracy article.

The full reference is

Scott Sommers. (2011). Who Still Believes in 9/11 Conspiracies? An Empirical Study on Political Affiliation and Conspiratorial Thinking. Skeptic Magazine. 16 (2), 13-16. ISSN 1556-5696

You can read a complete authorized version of the paper here,

…and here’s the magazine page for the article,

The article is cited in the entry for the source of all truth things, the Great Wiki, under the 9/11 Truth movement,

Becoming Taiwan presented at Jerome Keating’s Breakfast club

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on February 12, 2011

Ann and I will be presenting our book at the Breakfast Club on February 19. The Breakfast Club is an intellectual group hosted by Dr. Jerome Keating that features guest speakers and discussion covering a wide range of topics. Past speakers have included Dr. Frank Dikötter, Dr. Mark Harrison, and Wendell Minnick. This is the second time I have spoken to Jerome’s group.

Below I have posted the notice about the event that Jerome sent around. You can also find it on Michael Turton’s blog.

We will have our monthly meeting on Saturday February 19th at 10 am.

Presentation: Ann Heylen and Scott Sommers on their new book, Becoming Taiwan: From Colonialism to Democracy

Ann and Scott will both give a summary of their purpose and the aim of the book, as well as the ins and outs and difficulties of editing a work which is a collection of many scholarly papers. Scott Sommers promises to bare all–as regards publishing such.

The venue is the same as it has been for the past months. Time is 10 am.
The meeting location is the restaurant 婷婷翠玉 at 174 AnHe Road, Section Two. (rough translation of name is Tender, Pretty Green Jade.) You will be able to tell the restaurant by the lace curtains on the window–it was used in a TV commercial a while back. (We will have the downstairs room–breakfast cost will range between NT$100 and NT$150. Everyone buys their own) Phone if lost 2736-8510.

Restaurant is between Far Eastern Plaza Mall/Hotel and HePing East Road–about a half a block north of the corner of HePing East Road Sec. 3 and AnHe Road. or a half a block south of Far Eastern Plaza on the AnHe Road side.

Take the MRT Mucha Line to the Liuchangli Station exit there, and walk west on HePing East Road 3/4 of a block till you reach where AnHe Road dead-ends into it.Then go north on AnHe Road; it is a half a block up on the west side of that street.

Or take any bus down HePing East Road and get off at the first stop that is east of Tun Hua South Road. That will put you at the corner of HePing and AnHe.

You can also take a bus down Tun Hua South Road to the stop right across from Far Eastern Plaza and walk over to AnHe Road.
Or if you take the 235 bus east, it turns off of HePing onto AnHe Road and the first stop is right across from the restaurant.

To keep me abreast of headcount; please email me if you plan to attend.


Becoming Taiwan: From Colonialism to Democracy is now available on Google Books

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on December 22, 2010

You can now view the first 52 pages on Google Books
Book Cover

We are aslo looking for academic review writers. If you are interested in writing a review, please contact me.

Becoming Taiwan: From Colonialism to Democracy by Ann Heylen and Scott Sommers

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on October 11, 2010

I haven’t posted anything for a while – primarily because I’ve been overwhelmed with my doctoral program. However I want to announce the publication of my book. This is an edited volume released through the Harrassowitz Publishing Company.

Harrassowitz is a German company without a strong profile in the English-speaking book market, and I am frequently asked why we chose to go with a company like this. In fact, academic publications on Taiwan have a limited venue. Only a few major publishers are willing to release books about Taiwan. Most of these are university press, which may take years to finally get on the shelf. Seriously, it may take as long as long as 5 years from conception to release for a university press to publish your book.

Harrassowitz is much faster. From proposal to publication took us about 2 years. One of the reasons Harrassowitz is able to do this is the way in which they work through series editors. Our book is released through the series Studia Formosiana edited by Dr. Henning Klöter. Harrassowitz series editors operate like managers and are able to make many of the operational decisions that would be made by business managers in larger English-langauge publishers, like Routledge. Henning was fantastic to work with. I have assisted on projects that were published through Routledge and they were a much rougher experience.

the publisher has informed me that my book can be ordered through this page,

order book here

The bookblurb describing the contents states,

One of the most important aspects of democracy has been the transition from colonialism. In Taiwan this discussion is typically framed in political discourse that focuses on theoretical issues. Becoming Taiwan departs from this well-traveled route to describe the cultural, historical and social origins of Taiwan’s thriving democracy. Contributors were specifically chosen to represent both Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese researchers, as well as a diverse range of academic fields, from Literature and Linguistics to History, Archeology, Sinology and Sociology. The result represents a mixture of well-known scholars and young researchers from outside the English-speaking world. The volume addresses three main issues in Taiwan Studies and attempts answers based in the historical record: How Chinese is Taiwan? Organizing a Taiwanese Society, and Speaking about Taiwan. Individual chapters are grouped around these three themes illustrating the internal dynamics that transformed Taiwan into its current manifestation as a thriving multiethnic democracy. Our approach addresses these themes pointing out how Taiwan Studies provides a multidisciplinary answer to problems of the transformation from colonialism to democracy.

The American University System

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on February 11, 2010

I’d like to thank the blogs Global Higher Education and University Politics for this link from the Huffington Post, How American Universities Became Hedge Funds.

While the aim of the original article is to describe financial changes in the American university system and the damage they did to education, it contains a great deal of information about how American universities are organized. I was particularly intrigued by this description of academic labour.

The twin engines of increased debt and an emphasis on research have fueled a third new market force, which is the academic free agent system. In order for universities to remain highly ranked, they feel that they must compete for the best faculty, and the best faculty are often defined by how much other schools are wiling to pay them. In the UC system, for example, there is an official salary scale, but over 85% of the faculty are now off the scale, and this means that many of them have negotiated private deals with a dean. Not only does this system turn everyone into competitive individualists, but it also circumvents the peer review process that is supposed to be at the heart of the modern democratic university (emphasise mine).

Taiwan is increasingly moving toward placing university faculty in something more like a free market. Officials from the Ministry of Education have spoken at my school describing their envy of the University of California system. It is ironic then that the Huffington’s article positions the UC system as the paradigmatic example of this marketized education system.

Doctoral Studies at National Taiwan Normal University – The First Semester

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on February 3, 2010

I haven’t posted for a while. Last June, I announced that I would be starting a Ph.D. at National Taiwan Normal University and I’ve been very busy with that and with a book I’m putting out later this year. I have now finished the first semester. This post is about my experience and some comments for those thinking about doing something similar.

The program is great. In what I am doing, it’s the best program I could imagine. A number of my friends tried to talk me out of doing a doctorate in Taiwan and convince me that studying in the United States or Canada would be better. I considered this seriously and visited several schools to meet faculty and talk with graduate students. I have no regrets about my choice.

The Program

I am registered in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling. Educational Psychology is a very old department and dates back to the origins of the school when the KMT came to Taiwan. In the past, during martial law, my department was deeply involved with the administration of schools in Taiwan. One might consider it a bastion of Blue politics. This would be hard to tell now, however, the strong connection with public education remains. Many of my classmates are teachers and counselors in public and private schools.

In addition, in my department all first-year graduate students take a course which for lack of a better translation I call the ‘military education class’. In all likelihood, it used to be the class run by the school’s military officers back when there was martial law. Another foreign student in our department from the Czech Republic agrees with me that it seems to be a military education class. Although she said in Czechoslovakia, they got to shoot guns and wear gas masks. In our class, we have to meet 2 hours every week and hear talks from faculty about their lives, research, and what they think about life. I am told that other departments in the Faculty of Education have a similar course, although I know that academic departments in other parts of the school have a different and less rigourous way of handling the requirement.

The largest part of the department is Counseling Psychology. There are over 50 masters students and some number of doctoral candidates. The reason for this is a mystery to me. Apparently, there exists some connection in Taiwan between the study of counseling and working in Human Resources. I spoke with one of my classmates about this and she explained that Counseling Psychology is viewed as a profession. Like an MBA, it attracts students who don’t really know what they want to do, but don’t want to get a job yet.

I am in the Educational Psychology program. This is divided into 3 sections; cognitive psychology, social psychology, and measurement. I am in measurement. Much of the work in this section is related to testing and formal evaluation. In fact, the leading test designers in Taiwan all teach here. This includes my advisor, Dr. Lin Sieh-Hwa, who is the chief designer of the Basic Competency Test used to regulate entrance into senior high school. This year most of my courses are related to measurement and statistics, including IRT, multivariate statistics, categorical methods and structural equation modeling.

Without exception, these are the best taught classes in methods that I have ever had. In fact, when I was a student in Canada, I took many classes in statistics and measurement at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. My classes at NTNU are easily the best. I don’t know whether this is because I’m older and more motivated or better positioned. I tend to think the real reason is that the professors are extremely well informed and organized. Often, methods classes like these are taught by professors who are not experts and do not directly do research in methods but are involved in research with a heavy reliance on methodology. Either that, or they are experts but are completely blind to the fact that others aren’t leading researchers in their field. Perhaps because it’s a department that trains educators, none of this is true for the professors I’m studying with. I can honestly say that I’ve learned more about measurement and statistics this term than from all the other classes I’ve taken in the area combined.

Another issue that frequently comes up in personal conversation is supervision. I have been told by Taiwanese and foreign graduate students about terrible problems they have had getting in touch with their supervisors. To be fair, this is a major problem for people I know studying in the USA and Europe, as well. One of my colleagues who is doing a PhD in the USA can not get  any cooperation from his supervisor. A PhD student at leading American university I visited last year told me that his advisor, whose name would be familiar to many readers, was “…not much use if you need him to read papers and give advice. Last year, he was in (a foreign county) and you couldn’t reach him at all for the whole year.”

I have had no problem with this at NTNU, nor has anyone in my department. I see my supervisor regularly. I could probably talk to him every day if I needed. The professors who teach my classes are all easy to find. In fact, they always seem to be at school. If I have a problem, I just drop by their office. I understand this is not always the case in Taiwan. Nevertheless, I have been very fortunate.

The Credibility of a Taiwan Degree

 One of the questions that comes up most often in the discussion of education in Taiwan is credibility of degrees. There appears to be an impression that degrees from Taiwan lack credibility outside any but the poorest economies. Apparently I have been interpreted as having said this. This is not correct. Degrees from Taiwan should be fine – if other conditions are also met.

Graduate degrees are like any other kind of professional education. If they aren’t plugged into the network, you’re going to have trouble. If you graduate from a program here and then move to another country to work, you will almost certainly not know any one who is doing the hiring. Your advisors will probably not know anyone and things like letters of reference from them won’t mean very much. In addition, the networks of colleagues you made in class will vanish. It won’t matter how hard-working or ingenious you were in class, no one will know. I have seen the same kind of thing happen with Taiwanese returning from overseas education. Once they’re out of the network of their advisor, it doesn’t matter how good their work was at grad school.

There is a way to handle this. If you have a significant amount of published research, this will speak for itself. Increasingly though, the market is such that even this will only get you noticed and not guarantee employment. Most full-time faculty appointments in North America now start with significant publication records.

One Final Warning

Unless you’ve been in hibernation for the last year, you’re sure to know there’s a world-wide economic disaster. One of the effects of this has been to hammer university employment. Faculty at many universities are now accepting pay cuts to handle institutional crises. This includes schools like the University of North Carolina, the University of California system, the University of Hawaii, and these are just the cases I know about.

My point is that with massive cuts being absorbed by existing faculty, it’s not likely there will be much hiring going on. There is no foreseeable end to this problem and it’s possible that the solution will be a system that does not look at all like the ones we graduated from. It’s not unimaginable that Humanities and Fine Arts will simply no longer exist (1, 2). The images of the university like those modeled here do not feel so far away anymore. In a market like this, an application from someone you don’t know, that no one in the department knows, from a school no one understands, is not likely to get much attention unless it’s supported by a significant research record.

So What?

I think a PhD at a Taiwan university can be a great opportunity for some people. It can be a big waste of life, as well. The decision to do this has to be well thought out and well researched to make it a good experience.

In my previous post, I laid out some of the questions you should address before you think about enrolling in a program. With the current academic job market, I would add one more. You have to know what you want to do with the degree. It’s not realistic to believe that without significant academic experience you’ll be able to move very far. On the other hand, as much as movement is possible in the new reality, a strong research record is essential. There are fewer and fewer good jobs available in academia and what will get you noticed is correspondingly greater. But a doctorate from a Taiwan university will not put you outside the game if you can meet other standards.

Also see this post.

Taiwan in Japan’s Empire Building: An Institutional Approach to Colonial Engineering by Hui-yu Caroline Ts’ai

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on June 29, 2009

Ts’ai Caroline Hui-Yu. 2009 Taiwan in Japan’s empirebuilding : an institutional approach to colonial engineering. Routledge, New York.

Caroline Tsai (蔡慧玉) is a research fellow of the Institute of Taiwan History(臺灣史研究) at the Academia Sinica, Taipei (中央研究院). She is perhaps the foremost historian of Taiwan’s colonial period and one of the most prolific researchers, publishing research in Mandarin, English, and Japanese. The volume itself is published through Routledge in cooperation with the Academia Sinica Book Series on East Asia. Understandably, a lot should be expected from such a publication, and there is no disappointment. The book is an absolute necessity for researchers interested in Taiwan’s early modern period, and will undoubtedly remain so for many years to come.

While the book describes itself as “comprehensive but not exhaustive,” it is very thorough in its description of colonial Taiwan. It deals in great detail with the institutional structure of life during this period providing clear understanding of the organizations that made Taiwan a colony. No less important is the book’s role in describing Taiwan’s introduction to the modern world or

…how in practice the colonial government introduced the ideas of ‘enlightenment’ and of ‘modernity’ into local society (p. 8).

The goal of this post is not to review the entire volume. Instead, I want to focus on the place of the book in addressing a number of issues that have appeared as important in my blog. In particular, I want to address the nature of imperialism and colonization, examination in Taiwan and Asia, and the Household Registry.

Imperialism and Colonialism

There is perhaps no other topic on my blog that has created as much ‘friction’ as has use of the term “imperialism”. In part, this is because of its usage in the academic disciplines of Education and language teaching, as well as other departments in universities. I maintain that imperial is the adjective of empire and thus only used correctly in this context.

Apparently, it is also used to describe the continued influence of the USA and Europe in formerly colonial states: ie, in post-colonial states. The usage of the term, in this sense, seems to imply an almost monolithic, unidirectional relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Colonizers tell the colonized what to do through law, policy, and other forms of hegemonic coercion. The description of colonial Taiwan depicted by Tsai is explicitly different from this.

Taiwan was a reasonably well-developed part of the Chinese Empire when it was cede to the Japanese by the Treaty of Shimonoseki (J: 下関条約, Ch: 馬關條約). In addition, there was a long and independent history to the island that Japanese governance was forced to deal with. The formal colonial bureaucracy of Taiwan was never large enough to completely govern Taiwan by itself. Real control was always maintained through a largely informal mechanism of “extra-bureaucratic control” (p. 65). Positions such as heads of headships and villages had no formal legal standing until after 1935 and operated as honorary titles. Official government operated by creating

…employment outside of the regulating law (in ‘gai nin ‘yo 員外任用)…turning the civil bureaucracy into a disciplinary institution for effective administration and social control, as opposed to repression or suppression (p. 66).

The significance of this is that the colonized played a major contribution to the nature of their own colonization through the operating as functionaries and officials in this system. They designed and constructed many of the activities that were what we now think of as colonialism and hence imperial. Colonialism in Taiwan was thus a two-way street of control, albeit streets of unequal importance.

Another surprisingly important feedback of colonialism is the way in which it shaped the modern Japanese state. As Dr. Tsai points out (p. 15),

As Japan’s first colony, Taiwan played a key role in redefining Japan’s prewar constitution….Essentially, to make colonial administration from scratch.

The modernization of Japan began only slightly prior to its emergence as a major colonial power. Development of its constitution and legal code continued throughout this period. Much of what became incorporated into these institutions was designed specifically with this in mind. Japan’s conception of legal control was thus shaped by its experience as a colonizer.


As Dr. Tsai points out (p. 52),

No explicit criteria for recruitment and advancement through examination existed in modern Japan prior to 1885.

Japanese historians of this period have noted that examination was introduced by American foreign experts. Regardless of their origin, as Dr. Tsai points out, within a short period of time, the Japanese had established an extensive network of public service examinations throughout their empire, including Taiwan. Nevertheless, it was impossible to govern Taiwan without the use of alternative roots to professional achievement. This was particularly true for the police. So many police were needed that many Taiwanese were recruited to fill these positions. While police examinations were extensive, there were alternative roots to promotion that Dr. Tsai discusses. As she pointed out in her presentation at the 2008 conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies, most local police officials were promoted without the use of examinations.

The significance of this is that in spite of long use of examinations in Imperial China, examination in schools and professional licensing was introduced by the Japanese. By the time the Japanese had established entrance examinations to their own imperial universities and even a colonial examination system for police, there was not a single state university in China and it was not until Sun Yat-sen wrote his Fundamentals of National Reconstruction that the idea of an Examination Yuan was suggested.

While not a point that Dr. Tsai develops, her research helps clarify one of the more problematic issues in the modern history of examinations. The Asian model for the use of examination in the university and as a way to select modern workers comes from Japan and not China.

Household Registry

The Republic of China practices household registry. While many other states have also used a household registration system, the ones used in Japan, South Korea, and the ROC are strikingly similar.

Continuing with research she did for her doctorate at Columbia University, this book establishes Dr. Tsai as one of the foremost historians of the Japanese colonial reregistration system or the hoko (保甲 Ch: baojia). Household registry and the hoko had their origins as a system of criminal discipline. This very quickly disappeared and was replaced with its use as a system for organizing social activity. Hoko and the organizations that developed around it were involved in the vast number of social and health reforms implemented by the Japanese. Later during the Pacific War, it was used as the organizing principle around which labour, conscription, and mobilization occurred.

Dr. Tsai details the ways in which the Japanese established the registry system and used it to organization Taiwan society during their colonial control. The hoko became so dominant during the Occupation that it can be thought of as the defining principle of organization around which a Taiwanese modernity was created.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Tsai’s book was extremely useful for me to read. While I am quite knowedgable about Japan’s colonial occupation of Taiwan, it straightened me out on a number of points I have always believed – but are wrong. for example, I have always believed that many reforms credited to the Japanese actually followed trends set in Republican China under KMT control. In particular, I have always credited the KMT with the eradication of traditional Chinese practices such as opium smoking, foot-binding and the queue.

Apparently I have been mistaken. In Taiwan, all of these practices were eradicated directly by the Japanese. In fact, Dr. Tsai describes in great detail the way the Japanese used the hoko to orchestrate these reforms, even discussing the emergence of hats as men’s fashion following Japanese enforcement of the ban on the queue.

One significant point about Dr. Tsai’s book is its extensive system of citation. In terms of language, the book is one of the most complex and complete works available. despite this, the manner in which it incorporates Japanese and Chinese script, pinyin, and English is both comprehensive and informative. Readers will never feel left confused by terms. I believe it is so thorough with respect to this issue, it can and should be used as model for research on this period.

Readers interested in the hoko and colonial Taiwan can find Dr. Tsai’s chapter on hoko road building in my forthcoming book (with Ann Heylen) Understanding Taiwan: From Colonialism to Democracy.

Doctoral Studies at National Taiwan Normal University (國立臺灣師範大學)

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on June 5, 2009

This fall, I will be entering the doctoral program in Educational Psychology at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU 國立臺灣師範大學). This program is a Chinese-taught program and all the other students in the program have been educated in Taiwan. The program has two areas of specialization: counseling and testing, and I will be studying educational testing.

I am frequently asked about doctoral studies in Taiwan. I have never written anyone back about this because it is far too complex an issue to get into in e-mail. This post is aimed at answering questions about studying in Taiwan from citizens of advanced industrial nations, such as the USA or Canada, who are contemplating graduate studies in a Chinese-taught program.


Frankly, I do not think graduate studies in a regular Chinese-taught program is a good choice for most people educated only in advanced industrial nations. Language is not really the issue. In fact, my Chinese is not really strong enough to do this program without special consideration from the department. I will be able to complete the degree only because many of the professors speak English and almost all the readings are in English. Despite being a top national school, none of the Taiwanese students in the program speak English well enough to make a difference.

The major problems that Anglo-Americans will face in these programs is related to style. Education in Taiwan has evolved under different historical and cultural forces than in the West. As such, learning in the class is structured very differently. Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example.

The Strange Case of William Terry Alred

A while back, there was some commotion concerning the application to a Taiwan university by William Alred. Mr. Alred, an American, registered in a doctoral program at National Chung Cheng University. He ran into all kinds of problems that eventually found their way into the local English-language world. This is the original China Post article on the incident, the discussion and my own post that followed. Mr. Alred’s problems with the school have even found their way onto the school’s Wikipedia entry.

Briefly, Mr. Alred applied to the Department of Political Science where he made no secret that his Chinese proficiency was very poor. When the department accepted him, he found that none of the faculty would cooperate with him in deciphering the material explained in class. Eventually, he dropped out of the program.

In fact, the details of Mr. Alred’s problems with the department are quite disturbing. All of this seems to me to have been easily avoided. His demand for supplementary instruction in English lead to a number of confrontations with local faculty members.  Regardless of who is at fault, it seems to me that the program was perfectly manageable for him and that while he presumed language to be the most significant barrier, it is not the serious concern for most Western citizens.

The China Post article cites Ministry of Education figures that “3,935 hopefuls have officially enrolled in bachelor, master or Ph.D. programs.” Many of these people would be enrolled in the special English-taught programs, like the ones offered by my school’s International College. Some would also be overseas Chinese, like one of my classmates next year, who is a Malaysian citizen raised in Taiwan. A further group would be like the Chinese-fluent international students accepted into the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Culture,Languages & Literature where Dr. Ann Heylen teaches. Despite this, my guess is that the majority of international students at Taiwan universities are deficient in Chinese-language proficiency. I expect the program I will enter is pretty much the same as the one Mr. Alred was involved with.

And one final point. The vast majority of international students in Taiwan are not passport holders of advanced industrial nations. This article from the MOE’s own website states that of the 17, 500 foreign students in Taiwan, 9135 are studying in a university language center. Of the remainder more than 2000 are exchange students and finally,

…foreign students in Taiwan come from 117 countries and the top five nations are Vietnam (806), Malaysia (700), Indonesia (425), Japan (409), and the USA (348).

That is, most of them come from economically underdeveloped nations.

Why My Situation is Different

My situation is very different from Mr. Alred’s. I selected the program at NTNU because I had researched it completely, was sure it would be a great program, and am certain I can finish it. To begin with, I have a great deal of knowledge about this department. A colleague of mine was the first non-Chinese fluent Ph.D. candidate ever accepted into the program. I have meet his supervisor socially and talked with him about the program. More significantly, I audited the class on Modern Mental Testing (現代心理測試) that he offered last term and am currently auditing the class Applied Electronic Calculation (電子計算機之應用). Both of these courses are compulsory in the doctoral program I will enter and I will have to take them again for credit in the upcoming 2 years.

I know exactly what is going to happen to me in this program. In fact, I can go so far as to say I picked this program because I am sure it will not be a waste of time for me. I have a third colleague enrolled in a Chinese-taught Ph.D. program at another school. He has absolutely no Chinese-language proficiency at all. This is not important to him and he is much more concerned with the certification his program will give him. I could also have enrolled in this and other programs, but I did not feel it would give me the same results.

The material in the course is directly related to my job. I am heavily involved in the evaluation of student English proficiency at Ming Chuan University. The department at NTNU is one of the key players in the construction of the ROC Basic Competency Test used to place students in senior high schools. That’s why these tests are on the NTNU website.

While I said that language proficiency is not a barrier to completion of the program, this does not mean it is not an issue. In class, it is very difficult for me to follow what’s going on. The Taiwanese students are only marginally helpful because their English is not really good enough. The class I mentioned above called Modern Mental Testing concerns a family of statistics used in test construction called Item Response Theory (IRT). The class readings were all in English. I found the professor to be very approachable outside of class, but I think this is partly because I work in a large high stakes testing program, and as a result, have a lot of professional experience and meaningful opinions to offer. In addition, I read widely outside the course material. Our conversations were rarely related directly to course materials.

During the class, I did an oral presentation, which was a compulsory requirement for the registered students. I spoke in English and prepared handouts and a reading that were all written in English. My presentation was drawn from authentic material used in my school’s testing program and was a discussion of questions we actually placed on an examination and analyzed with IRT. It was very successful.

The Lessons of My Application

There are a few basic points I think every person from one of those first world-type countries should be thinking about if they have an interest in graduate studies at a Taiwan university.

1. Why do you want to do this?

Is it because you are an English teacher in a buxiban and feel trapped in a meaningless world filled with small children who barely speak English? A Chinese-taught program will almost certainly not help you. The China Post article on Mr. Alred stated that he had planed to teach at the university-level in the United States. As I have mentioned before, this is not an altogether realistic goal anymore – if it ever was. I think it’s naive that Mr. Alred could think a PhD from a Taiwan school would allow him to teach at a Western school. There are many Taiwanese teaching in other countries. Virtually all of them have advanced degrees from schools in these countries. In fact, very few people are teaching at Western universities that do not have advanced degrees from Western schools. Those educated completely outside the West are generally internationally renowned scholars with extensive research expertise in their field.

2. How much do you really know about the subject?

One of the very strange things I consistently hear from people suggesting graduate studies in Taiwan concerns their proposed field of study. These are graduate degrees we’re talking about. You’re supposed to have advanced knowledge of the field before you enter. Certainly the local students all do. In fact, they have passed through extremely competitive evaluations to ensure this. And while some departments – as in Mr. Alred’s case – will let you in with no background at all, what do you think you’ll get out of the degree? After all, there’s already a language barrier. If you don’t have the background to make sense of what’s going on, what could you possibly get out of the education?

Graduate degrees are supposed to make people experts. With no background in a subject and limited Mandarin, what is this thing you’re supposed to become an expert in at a Taiwan university? I have been asked by people about degrees they have no background in whatsoever. I have had marginally Mandarin-proficient people suggest to me research topics that would demand complete fluency in several Chinese languages, on top of English.

This is a very serious point. If you don’t know anything about the subject, what makes you think you could become an expert – in a Chinese-language program?

3. How much do you know about the program?

There are many programs in Taiwan that are outstanding. There are many that are not. Are you sure the program is going to give you anything that you want or need?

Taiwanese schools are extremely strong in quantitative methods. I suppose this has to do with an historical emphasis on science and technology. Many of the professors today would have been educated in a much more competitive system. Students who wanted to enter an Engineering or Mathematics department would have found it very difficult. Likewise, students who insisted on entering a top university might not have been able to enter the Science department they wanted. I imagine many such students ended up in departments like Psychology or Education. As a result, there are excellent people to study quantitative methods with in these departments.

The converse is also true. Theoretical subjects have historically found leadership in European languages. The language gap has not always been successfully crossed. In addition, for most of Taiwan’s modern history there has been huge control over freedom of speech. Many of the topics that would facilitate the development of theoretical competency in Social Sciences have been illegal to discuss and punished with prison or death. The result has been that Taiwan universities do not provide a strong venue for studies in theoretical subjects.

4. Are you sure you can handle the difference in learning style?

From my point of view, perhaps the biggest problem that Mr. Alred had at Chung Cheng University was one of learning style. Taiwanese students and teachers work in a system where classroom activity has historically played a background role in preparation for the major decision making that takes place during examination. The idea that Mr. Alred would not get a lot out of what’s happening in class might not necessarily be seen as a problem.

Class here lacks the feeling of desperation I remember it having in Canada. It is not a forum to show off how clever you are or how much reading you did outside class. It is not at all unusual to see students in class during a lecture with their lap tops flipped open, as if they were taking notes, doing homework for other classes, playing games, or working on other unrelated material.

Student presentations are a large part of class work in Taiwan. Most of what happens during these presentations involves detailed review of assigned readings. It is not unusual to see students with Power Points that contain the English text of readings and then a Chinese translation. They will then explain their understanding of the English text, sometimes line by line. This may seem redundant, but I have seen similar situations in Canada. More important is the fact that much of reading is in a foreign language (English) of which students may not have a strong grasp. Student presentations are often taken as an opportunity to make sure the assigned readings were properly understood.

As I pointed out above, the presentation I did was not a translation or explanation of the text. But I work in testing and have real data to draw from. I was able to bring to the class examples of the material we had studied and how it worked in real life. It would be unreasonable to expect 25 year olds who have never worked in their field to be able to do this. As a result, they translate the texts and make sure they know what was really said.


I just want to conclude that problems like the kind experienced by Mr. Alred are perfectly avoidable. It takes careful planning and patience, but if you expect to get as much out your PhD as you would at a Western school where instruction is in a language in which you are fluent, you’re going to have to do a lot of planning. But I think this is just common sense.