Liao Kuo-hao (廖國豪), the self-confessed teenage hit man in the murder of alleged Taichung gangster Weng Chi-nan (翁奇楠), has turned himself in to the police. A pale and tired-looking Liao blamed his actions on the education system. Leaving aside for the moment questions about his state of mind, it was painful to hear such a comment from an 18-year old who dropped out of junior high school.
Liao’s comments put his former school on the defensive. The school’s student affairs director told reporters that teachers had visited Liao’s family more than 30 times after he quit, but could not persuade him to go back to school. He tried to show that Liao’s was an isolated case, pointing out that some students had transferred to the prestigious Taichung First Senior High School and passed the university entrance exam, while others had gone to medical school.
Junior high schools have long been allocated scant resources relative to other levels of education and compared with other countries. The teenage years are a key period for personal development and learning how to integrate socially. We can appreciate why Liao didn’t go back to his school. Wrong priorities in allocating educational resources, as well as an obsession with climbing the educational ladder, have led to the social exclusion of many teenagers in junior high schools. Those who have no prospect of transferring to prestigious senior high schools can become outsiders in their own schoolyards.
Some teenagers are unable to find a proper orientation or identity and school and society provide insufficient resources to help them develop socially. Visits to truants’ families may serve only to distance them even further. Frustrated in their studies, they can develop anti-social attitudes that have little to do with their family situation or social status.
Witness the recent case of Chen Jui (陳銳), the son of well-known media personality Chen Kai-lun (陳凱倫), who stands accused of gangsterism. These “outsiders” often find themselves on the margins of the law. They have a choice — to go on trying to get an education or to throw their lot in with gangsters. This is how youthful rebellion can lead to crime.
Teachers are obsessed with getting their students into elite senior high schools, but what about the dropouts? What other path is there for them to follow? Nowhere on the agenda of the National Education Conference last month was there any mention of the abnormal state of junior high school education or any discussion of how to solve the problem of student alienation. Instead, the emphasis was on cross-strait exchanges and how to make Taiwan’s education more internationally competitive.
While official data indicates that the number of dropouts is falling, this is actually a result of Taiwan’s declining birthrate and based on an outdated and narrow definition of the term. Even if the number of high school dropouts in any given year has really fallen to 5,000, the NT$200 million (US$6.28 million) a year the Ministry of Education spends on providing alternative education is only enough for half of them.
If Taiwan adopts the proposed 12-year mandatory education system, many students will drop out of senior high schools, and there will be even more alienated youth. This problem could get out of hand, especially considering the current shortfall of 2,500 social workers in our schools.
Education conferences should not just be forums for self-congratulation. The “teenage assassin” case should serve as a warning that the high school dropout problem needs to be seriously addressed.
Yeh Ta-hua is general secretary of the Taiwan Alliance for Advancement of Youth Rights and Welfare. Shiau Hong-chi is an associate professor of communications management at Shih-Hsin University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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