The Classroom as a Policy Laboratory: Soft Power, Local Community Engagement, and the US-Taiwan Education Initiative

The Classroom as a Policy Laboratory: Soft Power, Local Community Engagement, and the US-Taiwan Education Initiative

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The Classroom as a Policy Laboratory: Soft Power, Local Community Engagement, and the US-Taiwan Education Initiative

In late May, I worked with five middle school classrooms spread across three Maryland public schools to conduct a crisis simulation with a foreign policy expert to discuss the current political, economic, and security situation surrounding the Taiwan Strait. [1] The students—representing various nations with equity in Taiwan Strait affairs—generated a range of policy options to avoid a potential military conflict over Taiwan. During the heated debate, students discussed topics such as the state of Taiwan’s missile defense system and combat readiness, semiconductor supply chains, and collective security responses from regional and global powers, including the United States, Japan, and Australia. There was only one conclusion that was mutually agreed upon by all delegates: a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be catastrophic, not just for those directly involved, but indeed to the region and the world. Despite their youth, the seventh and eighth grade students who participated in the exercise ended up raising many of the same questions and points as policy practitioners and thinkers in Washington, DC, Taipei, and Beijing regarding Taiwan Strait peace and security.

By tapping into the imaginative power of K-12 classrooms, we can prepare future leaders to think and act globally at an earlier stage. This cannot be done overnight, however; developing curricula and educational materials takes time, resources, and expertise. For example, the simulation described above took my team of faculty members, instructional experts, and graduate researchers a full year of iterative design and review. Education is also highly varied across the United States, given that curriculum standards are set at the local rather than national level. For their part, the United States and Taiwan launched the US-Taiwan Education Initiative in 2020 to bolster area studies and language education and exchanges, but is this enough? What are the observable and potential impacts of the Initiative with regards to US-Taiwan relations, education, and soft power objectives? What are the implementation gaps of the Initiative? This article considers these questions and offers recommendations based on my experiences as an education outreach administrator.

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Image: Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (second from left) and then-AIT Director Brent Christensen at the signing ceremony for the memorandum of understanding establishing the US-Taiwan Education Initiative (December 3, 2020). (Image source: MOFA/Taiwan Times)

A Critical Partner Noticeably Absent: Taiwan (not) in the US Curriculum

Innovative educational experiences in the K-12 space, illustrated by the simulation above, contribute to the long-term US Department of Education goal of cultivating a well-informed and globally minded citizenry. At the same time, there are many challenges to expanding international language and area studies education in the United States—such as funding, educator training and recruitment, availability of learning resources, and decentralized curriculum design or standards. Taiwan studies is especially underserved and underrepresented in US curricula: from an open-source review I independently conducted in which I gathered and surveyed publicly available US state social studies standards, only nine US states and the District of Columbia mention Taiwan in either middle or high school social studies standards (compared to 41 states that explicitly mention China). If Taiwan is mentioned or taught, it is often suggested as little more than a case study, and is rarely—if ever—presented as a standalone module of instruction.

A similarly bleak picture exists for Mandarin Chinese language learning in the United States. According to the most recent National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey from the American Councils for International Education, only 2.13 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in Chinese language classes, and 13 states have fewer than 10 schools with Chinese language programs. At the undergraduate and graduate level, the Modern Language Association found that there has been a 21 percent decline in the number of college and university students studying Mandarin Chinese between 2016 and 2020.

With these trends in mind, it may not be surprising that two-thirds of Americans still cannot correctly identify Taiwan on a map of Asia, even as the island has featured more prominently in US media in recent years. To put it plainly, Americans are not learning enough (or at all) about Taiwan. That such a critical economic, technological, political, and security partner to the United States hardly appears in curricula reflects a critical shortcoming in the US education system, undermining its ability to train future leaders for careers in foreign affairs research and practice.

The US-Taiwan Education Initiative: A Joint Soft Power Platform

This is where the US-Taiwan Education Initiative has stepped in as a valuable platform and resource for educational and cultural exchange between both sides. Established in December 2020 as a collaboration between the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), the Initiative builds on decades of robust educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Taiwan to expand bidirectional language training and engagement at all learning levels. In the United States, there is a growing need for Mandarin Chinese language-capable scholars, policymakers, and leaders. This need has grown particularly acute following the closure of nearly all of the 118 US-based Confucius Institutes amid increasingly strained relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). At the same time, there is a greater convergence of US-Taiwan political, economic, and security interests. In Taiwan, the Bilingual 2030 policy is a key government effort to cultivate a wide range of skills and expertise among its domestic workforce, including English language proficiency, in order to strengthen the global competitiveness of Taiwanese firms and consolidate Taiwan’s position as a hub for multinational companies and non-profit organizations.

So far, the Initiative is off to a very productive start. According to the Initiative’s latest fact sheet, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, 中華民國外交部) has committed over USD $1.8 million on US-Taiwan exchange programs since 2020 in support of the Initiative. Both sides have agreed to co-sponsor several fellowships and scholarships to send American students to study Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan, including the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program. The United States has also increased funding to Fulbright Taiwan to expand the number of language teachers and assistants exchanged between the two sides. The Initiative has also contributed to new linkages between US and Taiwanese colleges and universities. Under the auspices of the Taiwan Huayu BEST program, 41 US universities have established new exchange partnerships with 17 universities in Taiwan. Last but not least, the Initiative is also developing K-12 education opportunities. Since 2020, there have been at least 12 memoranda of understanding (MOUs) signed between US states and Taiwan, eight of which place particular emphasis on K-12 education exchange and promotion. For instance, one MOU builds on a 2021 teacher exchange program in which Mandarin Chinese language instructors from Taiwan are sent to local primary and secondary schools in West Virginia.

In addition to facilitating more linkages between US and Taiwan societies through education, the Initiative is a unique platform for joint coordination between public sector agencies. The Initiative is managed by an intergovernmental working group that meets quarterly to assess progress and conduct strategic planning. According to interviews with interlocutors, the working group is one of the few regularly occurring forms of high-level dialogue between US and Taiwan officials. Among the agencies and organizations participating in the working group are: the US Department of State, the US Department of Education, AIT, Taiwan’s National Security Council (NDC, 國家安全會議), MOFA, the Ministry of Education (MOE, 教育部), and the National Development Council (NDC, 國家發展委員會). Routinizing communication between these agencies will enhance mutual understanding of institutional processes and values between both sides.

Implementation Gaps: Doing a Lot without Doing Much

Despite these gains in educational exchanges across national and subnational levels, interviews with Initiative stakeholders—as well as personal experiences as an area studies education outreach administrator—suggest that the Initiative has fallen short in two key areas: inclusion of input from the communities of policy impact, and fully leveraging K-12 and education-adjacent organizations in both countries. Essentially, the Initiative is not bringing enough stakeholders to the decision-making and implementation tables.

Regarding decision-making, interviews with interlocutors have found that the Initiative lacks a feedback mechanism. As a result, the working group has limited recourse to collect and act on voices from impact community members, such as students, educators, state curriculum coordinators, school administrators, study abroad advisors, and education non-profits—frankly, anyone for whom the Initiative’s programs are designed. This means that there may be a disconnect between decisions made within working group meetings and the on-the-ground education conditions faced by learning communities in both the United States and Taiwan. The result is that the Initiative tends to deliver programs designed to cater to top-line education metrics rather than educational needs in classrooms. This is not all bad—the investments both sides have made in expanding language and area studies fellowships are crucial to expanding education opportunities—but one worry is that the Initiative will make large investments that generate metrics but otherwise do not result in significant gains towards either side reaching their respective policy goals (e.g., more Mandarin Chinese-equipped policymakers in the United States, or achieving the Bilingual 2030 policy in Taiwan). In other words, the Initiative runs the risk of doing a lot without doing much.

The Initiative can address this gap in a number of ways. Specifically, it could invite impact community members to provide briefings and testimonies at each working group meeting, coordinate fact-finding missions and site visits where working group members can visit local schools and districts, and design and publish an annual policy impact evaluation with input from local communities and individuals that have benefitted from the Initiative.

The lack of community input in Initiative decisions also indicates that the Initiative is not fully leveraging US and Taiwan education stakeholders, which limits the social reach of the Initiative. Rather than solely focusing on schools or generating MOUs (which are still important), the United States and Taiwan should also consider how the Initiative can contribute to their respective education ecosystems, such as identifying gaps in language, area studies, and workforce skills development. Many non-profit organizations, professional associations, and volunteer groups are involved in educational attainment and social development. Public officials on both sides have recognized the potential of such partnerships—US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ethan Rosenzweig submitted a letter in March 2023 to the Council of Chief State Schools encouraging greater cooperation between K-12 schools and Taiwan, and Taiwan Representative to the US Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) attended the 2023 NAFSA Annual Expo in Washington, DC.

However, there needs to be greater effort to connect local and national educational organizations directly. In the United States, for example, the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia and scholarly projects such as the Primary Sources on Taiwan generate academic resources for language and area studies, as well as training opportunities for educators and students alike. In Taiwan, the Taiwan Sports Forward Association (社團法人台灣運動好事協會) uses sports diplomacy to support the equitable educational and social welfare attainment for underserved communities such as underprivileged young girls. The United States and Taiwan can use the Initiative as a platform to connect these kinds of organizations together to share professional expertise and academic resources, and to open avenues for collaboration between local and community stakeholders on both sides. Local-level engagement is critical for the grassroots development of shared values, which could in turn lead to more favorable soft power outcomes and conditions. As one civil society leader I interviewed noted, the United States is not the only potential English language destination for Taiwan, so why choose an education partner on the other side of the world? The answer should be: to cultivate and deepen shared values.

An Important Source of Soft Power: The Classroom

Mutual understanding and development of shared values is essential to soft power projection and impact. According to preeminent soft power and public diplomacy scholar Joseph Nye, public diplomacy programs are effective when they are “two-way streets” in which both sides listen and talk: “[W]e need to understand better what is going on in the minds of others and what values we share.” [2] Many of those values are first developed in schools, and further tested, strengthened, and reforged through study abroad, language and area studies, and immersive educational experiences. The policy takeaway for the US-Taiwan Education Initiative is that K-12 classrooms are powerful laboratories for policy experimentation, local community engagement, and the creation of shared values. In this way, soft power impact begins in the classroom.

The main point: Since its launch in 2020, the US-Taiwan Education Initiative has facilitated impressive growth in US-Taiwan language and area studies exchange. At the same time, however, the Initiative falls short in terms of engaging local learning communities and educational development organizations. By tapping into the imaginative power of educational communities at the local level, the Initiative can deepen shared values, enhance soft power impact, and make lasting contributions to the educational ecosystems in the United States and Taiwan.

[1] The Taiwan Strait crisis simulation background guide will be made publicly available on the George Washington University East Asia National Resource Center website: https://nrc.elliott.gwu.edu/.

[2] Joseph S. Nye, “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008): 103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25097996.