Beyond Graduation and Behind the Smiles

Too young to graduate

[Disclaimer: all historical details and events have been researched to the best of my abilities with limited access to documents available online. Recollections are liable to some distortion in some details. Nevertheless, they were all my personal experience.]

Do four-year-olds need a graduation ceremony? That was the question asked by a recent BBC news article (23 July) which referenced views (86, to date, 27 July) posted on The report was also reposted on Twitter by @TeacherToolkit (24 July) and generated no fewer than 38 direct replies (to date) – for, against and some light-hearted, off-topic chats.

The BBC’s original article explores the recent phenomenon of the introduction of graduation ceremonies to nurseries in the UK “for the three and four-year-olds about to leave for primary school” (Parkinson, BBC News Magazine). Here I have decided to use a more neutral and factual description for such a growing trend. However, depending on one’s perspective, “introduction” can be readily replaced with “promotion” to suggest a possible commercial involvement. Or indeed it can be substituted with “spreading” (Parkinson) to underpin an emotionally-charged awareness of the colonisation of an alien culture. Either way, one question remains: where does education fit into this practice? Is there, or indeed, should there be any, educational value in organising graduation ceremonies for toddlers, particularly when the celebration goes beyond the assembly halls.

It really depends on how “nurseries, kindergartens and other pre-school institutions” are categorised in society. Are they part of the “education system” that carefully maps out a developmental progression according to intellectual abilities, validated by the completion of each schooling phase? After all, “to graduate” means “to receive a degree”, based on Mediaeval Latin graduare, which, in turn, originates from Latin gradus (degree, step). Acquisition of skills or knowledge is certainly implied in the etymology of the word graduation. Some see such ceremonies as “cute” or “ridiculous” (quoted by Parkinson), some definitely see it justifiable to formalise the “completion of pre-school and [the children’s] individual development”, as expressed by the manager of a nursery in Stockton-on-Tees (quoted by Parkinson).

The BBC article has presented views from both for and against camps. What I intend to do in this blog is present one perspective that many in the UK, the USA and even in modern China will find alien – my own gradation at the age of 6 from a kindergarten in Taiwan in 1971, and the real implications of all the subsequent graduations from my perspective as a student in the system.

A picture tells many stories


Kindergarten graduation in the US in the 1960s Image source: BBC News Magazine

I was pleased to find an American kindergarten graduation photograph of the 1960s in the BBC report. The children cannot look happier in their paper capes featuring a big star. Apart from the fact that the picture is in black and white and we all wore gowns and mortar boards, my kindergarten graduation photograph in 1971 cannot be more different to my American counterpart. Unfortunately, I do not have mine to share, but I can still describe it fairly accurately from memory.

First of all, my group was bigger. Secondly, we were not beaming into the camera. In fact, I looked utterly bored, squatting in the front row with one hand absent-mindedly scrolling in the ground and squinting in the bright sun light. My gown and mortar board looked distinctly ill-fitted on my skinny body.


My graduation certificates from kindergarten, primary school and junior high school

I do not remember anything about that day now. If there were anything special arranged for those five- or six-year olds, it could have been just some cookies at lunch. There was definitely no private post-graduation party. We were not well-to-do. I never knew anybody wealthy. A few friends of mine and I from the same military estate were certainly quite poor, relying on military coupons for rice,meat and cooking oils, etc because our fathers were Nationalist soldiers. Graduation at the age of five simply marked the beginning of our formal, compulsory nine-year education up to the age of 14 or 15. To formalise and emphasise such an educational landmark, we were also issued graduation certificates, complete with a national flag and big, red official seals in a style befitting the imperial grandeur (see picture).

Our next graduation would be the end of elementary school and it would mark the end of relatively pressure-free schooling. From day one of junior school, most of us would be streamed according to abilities and we would have to decide which route we would take after graduation at the age of 14 or 15: 1) passing entrance examinations to state senior high schools with a view to go to universities, 2) sitting a separate entrance examination to five-year technical colleges, or 3) enrolling to vocational schools that did not require an entrance examination.

Instead of an uninterrupted progression, from junior high school onwards, graduation was not an automatic entitlement. Some pupils were held back to repeat certain years if they failed to meet required academic standards that were purely based on end-of-year average examination results. Repeating was more common in all state senior high schools. Fearing not to make the grades to graduate, many flocked to cram schools after school for extra tuition. Many more chose to spend their evenings and weekends at cram schools to bolster their chances of passing the university entrance examination. Due to the low pass rate (approximately 30% when I took mine in 1985), hundreds of thousands of youngsters failed to get into universities. As a result, many spent a year in many of those cram schools to resit the following year. Some had been known to have tried several years before eventually passing the examination to their preferred institutions.

The emotional impact of the long hours of studying in my school days has been described in my other blog, “Longer school hours, academic pressure and adolescent suicide“.

Suffice to say, growing up in the 70s and 80s Taiwan was dominated by one thing – exams. Endless of them. Each phase of my education was validated and assessed by tests and exams. After the initial euphoria of graduating, the ceremonies served only harsh reminders of the harder work and more pressure ahead.

As soon as I decide to continue my postgraduate studies, I decided to leave Taiwan. Vowing not to sit any more exams, I chose to come to the UK. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, very few Taiwanese students chose the UK It is fair to say, I would not have achieved what I have achieved academically had I remained in Taiwan and tried to go further in that system.

Education and Ideology

Some context of Taiwan in 1971:

  • Run by a one-party (Nationalist), authoritarian political system
  • Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was the leader of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang
  • Taiwan’s official name is Republic of China (ROC), as opposed to The People’s Republic of China established by Mao Tse-tung
  • Taiwan regarded itself as the only sovereign government of China
  • Representatives of all Chinese provinces, including Taiwan, sat in the National Assembly
  • There was a provincial government in Taiwan
  • ROC was at war with PROC (otherwise known as the Free China vs the Red China, see Friedman’s research, Nationalist and Communist Chinese Propaganda Leaflets, retrieved 27 July,
  • It was a taboo to see Taiwan as a country independent of Mainland China
  • Martial Law (also known as the White Terror) was in place (1949 – 1987)
  • Promotion, implicitly or explicitly, of Taiwanese independence was a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment or death (see Parcher ((2012)) “Remembering the White Terror”, Foreign Policy, retrieved on 27 July, and Ko, “The 228 Incident: Sixty years on – Sixty years on, answers remain elusive”, Taipei Times, retrieved 27 July,
  • Taiwan saw itself as the rightful custodian of the continuos Chinese civilisation of 5000 years
  • Taiwan presented itself as culturally essentially Chinese
  • Ethnically, Taiwan was predominantly Han Chinese following the mass exodus from Mainland China after the Communist Party gained control of the Mainland in 1949
  • One described oneself as Chinese, never Taiwanese
  • United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 was passed on 25 October 1971, recognising the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations”
  • The diplomatic relationship between the USA and ROC was severed

Against such a tumultuous backdrop, my early schooling in 1970s Taiwan was never simply an educational endeavour. Ideological control underpinned a large part of our core curriculum and extra curricular activities, particularly the compulsory ones and there were many. Indoctrination of a Nationalist agenda characterised many of our subject contents and school activities.

Ideological curriculum as social control mechanism

“Educational decisions are all ideological decisions”, according to Lamm (1984). Using Lamm’s notion of “magical thinking” (1984), it is clear that the educational thinking of Taiwan in the 1970s was dominated by ideological imperatives – indoctrinating its citizens in the Nationalist agenda of an eventual restoration of the whole China. Now laughable, but such was its “magical thinking” of the time, all dissident voices were suppressed. Even the educational activities in public view were all carefully choreographed to serve the dominant ideology and appease the political leader. Education in many respects acted as a cohesive force to maintain social control of a hegemonic thinking.

Chinese texts included not only Classical Chinese (Wen yen wen) and Confucius Analects (Lun Yu) but also nostalgic prose reminiscing the idealised, lost motherland (I can still recite one such text in its entirety that depicts a rural scene in spring time in an unidentified Chinese village). Chinese history covered the 5000-year period, up to the “temporary retreat of the Nationalist party to Taiwan” in 1949. Geography examinations were designed to test the students knowledge of the entire railway system in China and the major sea ports and other strategic towns and cities with their natural resources and agricultural products, industry and economics. There was also a compulsory subject of The Three Principles of the People, for the People and by the People, tested in senior high school and university entrance examinations. The same subject also featured in the exams to positions in all government offices and state-run organisations. Military training also became compulsory at senior high schools and universities.

Ideological State Apparatuses


Pictures showing celebratory marches and assembly for the birthday of President Chiang Kai-shek Image source:

Louis Althusser’s idea of ideological Sate apparatuses (ISAs) (Aradhana and Gupta, 2006, The Anthropology of the State: A Reader) is a useful theoretical lens through which Taiwanese education before the lift of the Martial Law in 1984 can be examined. Whilst contents in some core subjects such as Chinese, history, geography and the Three Principles were covertly or overtly ideologically driven, extra curricular activities were organised to exercise the power of education as an ideological apparatus to reinforce the control of an authoritarian state.

Outside the classroom, ideological control was overtly displayed on state occasions. All schools, together with the military and the government departments, were obliged to attend public marches and assemblies to celebrate at least four key events in the national calendar: the birthdays of Dr Sun Yat-sen and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Restoration Day of Taiwan and the Double Ten Day (the founding of the ROC). Participants held banners, placards of slogans, and portraits of the “National Father” (Sun Yat-sen) and the “Saviour of the Chinese People” (Chiang Kai-shek). Marches – lead by marching bands – were organised in towns and cities up and down the island. Included is a historical image that I have found on website, Stars and Stripes (

Schools as sites of thought control and behavioural correction

The extent of ideological control was pervasive. Even the island itself was populated with bronze statues of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. In addition to public spaces and buildings, schools were ideal sites for the erection of the statues of Sun Yet-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Each classroom and staff rooms were adorned with portraits of these two figures – Chiang at the front above the black board and Sun presiding at the back, looking over the whole room. Ideological dominance was not always benign or static. It was also ritualised at individual at whole school levels.


A statue of Chiang Kai-shek at the main entrance of National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei Image source:

As part of the school rule, every student must doff their caps (applicable to primary and junior high schools) or salute (for senior high schools) to the statue of Chiang when entering school gate or every time they had to pass it. A member of staff would be monitoring and issuing sanctions against those who transgress the rule. Whole school morning assemblies were held in the field (or in individual classrooms on a rainy day) when rituals of singing the national anthem, saluting (or doffing caps for younger children) to the national flag when the flag song was played, and bowing to the portraits of the National Father and the Generalissimo. Landmark events such as graduations were no exception. For at least nine years, all Taiwanese children were taught and made to accept these rituals without question. Identical ideological rituals continued beyond the nine-year compulsory education for those who passed further exams to senior high schools, universities, graduate schools, public departments, government offices or state-run organisations or companies such as utilities, the railway and the police.


The emblem of the Chinese Nationalist Party adorning the dome of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei Image source:

If we extend Barthes’s (1967, Elements of Semiology) garment system to analyse the school uniform of the time, we can see the style (colour and design) as language and the way in which it was worn (size, cleanness and personalised alterations) as speech. Ideological control was illustrated through first of all colour choice. For example, the colour blue for the shorts and winter jackets signifies the unifying colour of the Nationalist party as shown in the blue background – representing freedom or loyalty – of party emblem. There was only one shade of blue wherever the uniform was purchased in Taiwan. Not many children or parents deviated from the prescribed shade. The colour white for the shirts thus echoes the white, twelve-pointed star in the emblem of the Nationalist party. On the other hand, the khaki colour used in winter uniform was the colour of the military. The seamless integration of political and military power was acted out and reenactment daily by the entire population of Taiwanese children aged between 7 and 15, sporting the same style school uniform. The ideological message was literally worn on each one of their sleeves, albeit involuntarily. Hegemonic control did not stop at school uniform, however. Stringent rules governing hair style were also applied to reinforce ideological uniformity.

Again, sanctions were also in place to ensure obedience and compliance. The desire to eradicate dissident behaviour by the state was never in doubt. Considered from a semiotic perspective, even school uniform also played a vital role in maintaining ideological expression and control.

Long shadow of the totem


Statues of Chiang Kai-shek in various poses in the Cihu Memorial Statue Park, Daxi, Taiwan Image source:

Looking back, the totem that was supposed to represent the benevolence of our National Father and the Generalissimo and to inspire reverence from its observers cast a very long and sinister shadow of ideological control. In my own educational experience, the totem was represented literally and symbolically and its hidden meanings were expressed through various forms of thought and behavioural control. Whilst being bemused by the images of beaming four-year-olds in their graduation costume, I re-examined and re-evaluated the whole system of my own education in which celebration of graduation was possibly the only interruption and disruption to the otherwise oppressive experience when we studied hard to pass exams to advance our education whilst playing the unsuspecting role of a chess piece in an ideological warfare.

That was a different time, or was it really in the essence of ideology and education. As Lamm (1984) explains: “We may discern in the history of a given society a period in which magical thinking was dominant in the people’s thinking; in other periods, religious, scientific, or ideological thinking may have been dominant”.

What is the “magical thinking” of our time?










About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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2 Responses to Beyond Graduation and Behind the Smiles

  1. @cazzwebbo says:

    Wow. Lot of hard work went into that one, Vincent. I only read the first quarter, but my feeling is, rightly or wrongly, that if social groups create an event then there is some need that they fill. It’s a rite of passage. Milestones to mark, emphasise and reward getting to a certain stage. I like the idea that achievement is noted and remembered. I like how the individual identity is crafted around these kinds of achievements as opposed to less positive ones. Imagine if our society instead were more focused on praising and partying hard around achievements like teen pregnancy or drug addictions. The lesser of other evils I think. Let the occasion noters note the occasion, as they will :-))

  2. Pingback: Education Panorama (September ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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