Albert goes to driving school, part II: will the racket pay off?
On the rise of cram schools in Taiwan
(Last week, Albert reflected on driving school, cram schools, test-taking culture in Taiwan, and student anxiety. This is Part 2.)
This wasn’t my first time at a driving school. When I was a junior in college, my uncle in Alabama called me to ask if I’d gotten my driver’s license yet. I hadn’t, I replied. “Ah, well you’ll need one sooner or later,” he said. “I hear the driver’s test in New York is hard. Why don’t you spend the summer here, learn how to drive, and then transfer your driver’s license later?” Alabama it was.
My coach there, a kind elderly Black man, taught me patiently how to merge onto highways and why left turns were dangerous. (To this day, whenever I put on my turn signal, I hear him drawl, Turn your blinkers on, make sure to do a safety check.) Every day for several weeks, I’d get in the car and we’d just drive, taking different highways to different places. The teaching was all about practical driving experience—from the beginning, the instruction focused on actual driving on actual roads.
My driver’s education in Taiwan couldn’t have been more different. The driving school didn’t let us get on the road until the final week of a four-week class, and from the outset the instructor focused on getting us to memorize the different steps of the obstacle course. Parallel park, reverse into a space, S-curve forward and back, stop on a small hill. By the end of the first week, I had memorized the sequence. And we were expected to go over it and over it again.
The buxibanification at this driving school was evident: the coach gave us a series of mnemonic phrases (口訣) to memorize sequences that would be on the test. Despite their catchiness, I found myself constantly forgetting one step—neglecting to check one mirror or turn on one blinker or turn my head right and left to indicate that I was checking the traffic flow.
Even before we got on the road, he had us watch a three-minute clip of a road test and told us to memorize all the stops, all the places to slow down, where all the traffic lights were. Then there were the three-hour Saturday morning lectures. Mercifully, COVID had forced these online, so I could log in and then do something else. If the goal was to introduce us to rules and regulations, the sessions quickly became a weekly horror show of driving mishaps, clip upon clip of road accidents, bad left turns, people running red lights or failing to turn on their blinkers, motorcycles running into trucks or trucks flipping onto cars. “Three people died in this accident,” the teacher would pronounce with a shrugging, unironic stoicism, then run another tape.
But it was preparing for the written exam that gave me the deepest glimpse into the absurdity of Taiwan’s test-taking culture. The written exam has forty questions, and you need at least an 85 percent to pass. Fair enough, except that many of the questions expect you to make ridiculous distinctions or identify the specific names of traffic symbols that have nothing to do with their function. We also had to memorize penalties that make no sense: leaving a child in a car will get you four hours of class and a fine of 3,000 NTD (about 100 USD), while “snake driving” on the highway will cost you between two and eight times that. I’m against excessive punishment, but leaving a child unattended in the Taiwanese heat will only cost you $100? Really?
When I told the coach I was grappling with such issues and asked him what to do, he said: “Just practice! Memorize all of it!”
The history of cram schools in Taiwan is deeply intertwined with the country’s broader history of economic modernization and democratization. The first private cram schools appeared in the 1950s, after the KMT government instituted national college entrance exams. As there were only four public universities, spots were limited, and private test-prep institutions emerged to help people of means compete for them. The market expanded in 1968, when the government made schooling mandatory up to ninth grade. Prior to this, it was only required until sixth grade; before the 1968 reforms, almost a quarter of the population was illiterate. By 1980, that number had dropped to 10 percent. Still, as the pool of literate and upwardly mobile workers increased, competition to get into top high schools and, by extension, top universities became increasingly fierce.
Before the 1970s, cram schools had a bad reputation, seen as attempts by underpaid public school teachers to supplement their wages. (A scene in the wonderful 2017 film On Happiness Road shows an unscrupulous middle school teacher punishing her poorer students, who can’t afford cram schools, by lowering their grades.) While the rich had an advantage as always, the curriculum was also narrow enough that smart, studious kids from less privileged backgrounds could study on their own, score high on the test, and place into a good high school. (The narrowness of the curriculum, of course, had to do with the KMT government’s authoritarian control over the population.) Our parents remember their education nostalgically, as a time when they went to school with people from all social and economic backgrounds.
As Taiwanese economic modernization accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, colleges became even more competitive, giving rise to a first “golden age” of buxiban. At one point, over two hundred thousand students were enrolled; one famous institution had more than thirty thousand. Since the top cram schools—and the teachers—were in Taipei, students would take the train in from all over Taiwan. One strip next to Taipei Main Station, Nanyang Street, became so iconic for its buxiban density that “dormitories” sprung up there so students could spend the night before catching an early morning train back home.
When the period of martial law ended, democracy activists took aim at reforming the educational curriculum. Their central push to diversify it, limiting the government’s tight control on textbooks, unintentionally created new demand for cram schools, and since the 1990s the market has grown by a factor of over forty-five.
I grew up in Taiwan during this explosion, but I was lucky enough to attend a school that didn’t require me to test into high school. My parents also resolved to never send me to a buxiban, though I was privileged in other ways; my father paid a graduate student to teach me physics and guitar on the side. (In retrospect, I think it was also just to give him some pocket money.) Those informal courses were a far cry from the horror stories I hear from friends and family members, who to this day seem to have PTSD from cramming late into the night all throughout high school.
Cram schools have become so influential that some call them Taiwan’s “shadow educational system.” A 2021 study showed that over 70 percent of Taiwanese families send their children to one, and on average each household spends more than 50,000 NTD (about 2,000 USD) a year on tuition. The market has spawned an entire culture: there are star cram-school teachers who are paid handsomely to teach throughout the country—sometimes taking the high-speed rail to teach in cities on opposite sides of the island—and earn loads more money from the educational materials they sell and copyright. Two friends of ours started their careers as celebrity cram-school teachers in law, helping students pass the bar and a civil service exam that can lead to a judgeship, both notoriously difficult tests with low pass rates determined on a curve. They have to lecture nonstop for three hours at a time, plus the time it takes to answer all individual questions afterwards; if they stop to dilate on an interesting issue that doesn’t appear on the test, the student-consumer will complain to the bosses and they risk losing their jobs. Still, they made enough money to help pay for graduate school in the U.S.
Meanwhile, those who teach at cram schools for primary and secondary school kids are paid much less, and are under intense pressure to raise student achievement. Typically cram schools require students to be in the classroom for 30 hours a week—that’s in addition to the standard five days in school. Studies have shown they have a toll on students’ mental health and sense of worth. One study on ninth graders in Taiwan showed that cram schools increased student achievement while increasing depression among its students.
I expected my four weeks of driving school to be a horrible slog, but by week two I’d come to enjoy my daily hour in the car. I stalled out less often. I burned out the clutch maybe just once more. For the first time in my life, I felt confident about parallel parking. (All these years, it turns out, I’d been omitting a key step in the process.) I could feel myself get better at shifting gears. At the end of the hour, I’d want more time to drive.
A classmate had the same idea. For the last week of the course, my coach paired me with an art major in her senior year of college, who rode a moped but thought she might need to drive if she found a job farther away. She was a much better driver than me—she shifted gears fluidly and wove through the obstacles as though it were second nature. Had she driven before? How had she gotten so good so quickly? For the past couple of weeks, she told me, she’d sometimes spent entire afternoons at the school, driving around for hours. I asked her why. “Driving is fun!” she said. She went before me on test day, and I saw her ace the exam, passing all obstacles with ease and style.
And how did I do? Despite my nervousness, I aced the written exam. (My coach congratulated me with a sticker.)
I passed the driving portion too, but again, just like in my grad school orals, the examiner was merciful—I forgot to use my turn signal at one turn, which in theory should have been an automatic disqualification. He tapped me gently and said, “Don’t be nervous, but don’t forget your blinkers from now on.”
After a day of tests, I got my driver’s license. The racket worked. Plus it gave me a certain confidence for driving on Taiwanese roads. So, all in all, I wouldn’t say the experience was entirely negative. But I’d still recommend avoiding driving school if at all possible.
Last week I recalled that extraordinary Natalia Ginzburg line: “What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken.” Many of you wrote in, marveling at the truth of the quote. I think it resonates because so many of us can instantly recall classrooms, teachers, or school environments that destroyed our confidence and made us feel worthless. Likewise, the lucky among us can remember joyous moments of learning that concentrated our attention, rescued us, and lit up the possibility of a future.
“Love of life begets love of life,” as Ginzburg writes. I hope I can pass down this love to baby P. My own choice of work, while humble and sometimes obscure, has been a constant source of education that has nurtured such love for life. Through it I try to learn how people before us lived, the challenges they encountered, and honor their complexity. Ginzberg calls this love “vocation”; I call it liberation.
Many thanks to all who wrote in with your lovely responses and hilarious stories about driving tests in different countries. We’re collecting more and will run them in a future installment. It’s not too late if you have something to share! As always, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Book Club, Updates, Plus Nina Shen Rastogi’s review of Everything Everywhere All At Once
Next Sunday we have a wonderful guest essay from the writer Nina Shen Rastogi reviewing Everything Everywhere All at Once, a movie that we loved. Can’t wait to share it with you!
In our Mandarin newsletter we published the first part of Nick Haggerty’s meticulously researched essay on the former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-Bian. If you’re getting Mandarin newsletters and do not want them in your inbox, you can go to “My Account” and change your preferences there.
For our May book club we’ll read Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit. In June we’ll read Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living. All subscribers are welcome to the book club.
Also, we’re moving book club dates to Thursdays rather than Fridays for the summer. We’ll talk about Siobhan Phillips’s novel on Thursday, May 26 at 6 PM EST and Lisa Chen’s book on Thursday, June 30 at 5 PM EST. Looking forward! You can email us at email@example.com for the zoom link.