Experts bemoan shoddy state of health education

`FOUR-EYED COMMANDOS': One panelist at a talk on Taiwan's health education said schooling in the subject was so poor that it was even a threat to national security

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 2

Health education is all but absent from schools nationwide, leaving children in the dark as to how to handle their own hygiene and stay healthy, according to local elementary school teachers and academics from National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU).

Edwin Yen (宴涵文), Dean of the College of Education at NTNU, told reporters at a conference on health education at the university yesterday that a shortage of teachers qualified to teach health-related subjects to elementary, junior high and high school students was resulting in all kinds of disturbing health trends among the country's youth.

"Why is it that while HIV/AIDS infection rates steadily decline in the US and [western] Europe, Taiwan's infection rate is soaring? More and more Taiwanese youth are contracting the disease -- they don't know enough about HIV/AIDS to protect themselves from it," Yen told the Taipei Times.

He added that the education system's overemphasis on quantifiable performance in subjects like math and history left little room for health education to be developed and taken seriously as a legitimate subject by teachers.

Annie Liu (劉潔心), a professor of health education at NTNU, said that ignorance about health-related issues was so severe that it affected national security.

"Do you know what criterion results in the greatest number of Special Forces recruits getting cut from their training programs? Vision standards. We can't find enough Special Forces soldiers because everybody's eyesight is impaired," Liu said.

She added that Taiwan's "four-eyed commandos" were the "laughing stock of the world."

"With more than 90 percent of college students nearsighted and wearing glasses, I think it's pretty obvious that teachers haven't taught their students how to avoid ruining their eyesight," she said.

However, the professor refused to put all the blame for poor health education on teachers.

She told the Taipei Times that shortcomings in the country's education system were "institutional," and that parents were just as much to blame as teachers.

"Parents don't care," she said.

Lee Mei-chin (李美琴), a local school teacher and panelist at yesterday's conference, said that parents were more interested in seeing their kids make the grade in core curricula than learning about health-related matters.

As for teachers, Lee added that they were generally overloaded and inflexible.

"Teachers get shocked when they're asked to teach material that's not in the textbooks, like SARS," Lee said, adding that teachers weren't given enough time to teach to students the sheer amount of material that was required.

The crunch for time resulted in teachers' cutting corners and neglecting subjects that aren't traditionally viewed as crucial to a well-rounded education, such as health, she said.