Persecuting independent education is the mark of injustice. In the end, however, education often prevails.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*A paper presented at the webinar “The Power of Education and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on January 24, 2022, International Day of Education.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on February 1st, 2022.

The classroom where Fray Luis de León pronounced his famous words has been preserved at the University of Salamanca. Credits.
The classroom where Fray Luis de León pronounced his famous words has been preserved at the University of Salamanca. Credits.

“Decíamos ayer,” “As we were saying yesterday.” These simple Spanish words, and their Latin version, “dicebamus hesterna die,” came to embody the deepest truths about freedom of education.

Many teachers who meet their students daily start their lessons with a summary of what they had said the previous day: “As we were saying yesterday…” However, these words acquired a deep and even tragic meaning on January 29, 1577, when the Spanish astronomer, theologian, and poet Fray Luis de León pronounced them when he started his lesson for the day at the University of Salamanca.

Many of you have probably never heard of Fray Luis de León but in fact we are all involved in the consequences of his work. As an astronomer, he was one of the main consultants who helped Pope Gregory XIII to establish the Gregorian Calendar most of the world uses today. It was the calendar that solved the problem of the leap years by eliminating ten days of October 1582 from the calendar (in that year, the day after October 4 was October 15) and established when February should have 29 days rather than 28.

The words “As we were saying yesterday” pronounced by Fray Luis in 1577 did not refer to the previous day. De León’s previous lesson had been in March 1572, almost five years before. After March 1572, he had not been able to continue teaching, for the good reason that he was in jail. He had been reported to the Inquisition for alleged heresy and arrested for rather obscure reasons, largely due to envy of other teachers in the same university. Eventually, he was cleared of all charges and rehabilitated, and started teaching again.

Fray Luis de León.
Fray Luis de León. Credits.

While we don’t know whether he said the famous words in English or Spanish, their meaning was clear. He continued to teach as if his years in jail had never existed. He was solemnly stating that you can put a teacher unjustly in jail but his educational mission will not be stopped.

The same words, explicitly inspired by Fray Luis de León, were pronounced by French historian Gustave Cohen when he returned to Sorbonne University in Paris in 1944, from which he had been excluded as a Jew after the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Cohen too started his lesson with “As we were saying yesterday…” Once again, education and freedom had defeated persecution.

Gustave Cohen. From Twitter.
Gustave Cohen. From Twitter.

Perhaps Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the leader of Tai Ji Men, did not start his first speech to his dizi (disciples) with the words “As we were saying yesterday…” after he was released from detention center. He had been unjustly kept in detention center for 117 days based on false accusations, as the highest courts in Taiwan eventually recognized. But he could have very well pronounced these words. Subsequent events proved that keeping him in jail had not broken his determination to teach that love ultimately prevails over hate, and conscience is the moral compass of all human activities.

The notorious Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen and others who put Dr. Hong in detention center had precisely the purpose of preventing him from teaching, putting an extraordinary experience of education to an end. They did not succeed. Dr. Hong was recognized innocent of all charges, and was able to continue to teach and educate generations of dizi (disciples).

Yet, his enemies did not give up. They continued to harass Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men by repeatedly putting him under travel bans, even after he had been declared innocent by the Supreme Court, and issuing ill-founded tax bills one of which, for the year 1992, eventually led in 2020 to the seizure, unsuccessful auction, and confiscation of sacred land intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

Many features of the Tai Ji Men case are difficult to understand for non-Taiwanese scholars, whose main question when they learn what happened is “Why?” Why were a movement and a leader highly praised by several subsequent Presidents of Taiwan persecuted? We know that they were victims of a politically motivated crackdown that hit several religious and spiritual movements in connection with the first presidential elections in Taiwan, which took place in 1996, and after which spiritual leaders accused of not having supported the winning candidate were persecuted.

However, while the 1996 elections offered context and pretext, my feeling is that there was in Taiwan a group of bureaucrats and politicians who wanted to keep alive the system of social control of the Martial Law era, and could not tolerate the independent education Dr. Hong was offering. He taught his disciples to think independently, to think with their own heads.

This in fact made his dizi better citizens, but this is not something authoritarian bureaucrats are normally prepared to tolerate. They tried to destroy Tai Ji Men. The after-effects of this hostility are still at work in Taiwan, where the Tai Ji Men case is not solved to this day. All those who love and cherish freedom of religion or belief and freedom of education should continue to insists that the case should find a solution—“as we were saying yesterday,” and we will continue to say tomorrow, until the case will be solved.