On the evening of Nov. 11, a 26-year-old male student at National Taiwan University (NTU) hanged himself in his dormitory.
A spate of suicides occurred at the university in the four days that followed, including two students jumping from rooftops and another student committing suicide by hanging.
What drove the students to take their lives is likely related to study difficulties or relationship problems. Universities must explore how they can better build up students’ ability to cope with these kinds of inevitable setbacks.
Perhaps these tragic suicides reflect a fundamental failure in Taiwan’s educational system — a system that is primarily concerned with pushing students to absorb and then regurgitate copious amounts of impractical, specialized information, but that neglects to teach them a deeper wisdom necessary to navigate the ups and downs of life.
There are many reasons people find themselves at the end of their rope. It could be due to social or economic problems, or even political issues. However, a person’s choice to end their life immediately becomes a philosophical problem, inextricably linked with the question of the meaning of life.
Behind every suicidal person lies a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. For students, the obstacle is often academic difficulties or relationship troubles. Taking one’s life for such things is silly, as committing suicide does not resolve the problem.
So why do many students become depressed to the point of taking their own lives? The answer is the problem of credentialism.
This might puzzle many people. Taiwanese society still worships prestigious schools and universities. Why else would cram schools still exist in a society where education is universal and 95 percent of high-school students go on to university?
For example, many students — and their parents — are obsessed with getting into medical school, especially NTU’s College of Medicine, yet they fail to appreciate the danger of harboring such a fixation.
Many of Taiwan’s prestigious schools are focused on getting their pupils enrolled in top universities so that they can maintain the school’s position in national rankings. As a result, they neglect to teach their students life skills and emotional intelligence.
Taiwanese society is full of people who have impeccable academic credentials, but who cannot control their emotions enough to cope with even trifling issues, leading to the phenomenon of the “mama’s boy.”
Several years ago, Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, the city’s leading boys’ high school, was accused of interfering with freedom of speech by removing a rainbow flag that students had put up on campus.
School principal Hsu Chien-kuo (徐建國) spoke of their need to act like students at a prestigious school, not like migrants. Does anyone believe a school run along such lines values freedom of speech?
The principal of a high school in Hsinchu wrote a letter to senior-high school students stressing the importance of national rankings and included a roll call of alumni who had studied at NTU’s College of Medicine or other medical schools. The letter was met with a fierce backlash from students and alumni, who criticized the school’s preoccupation with credentialism. Such an antiquated “scholar-bureaucrat” mentality is absurd.
During a morning assembly, the principal of a prestigious girls’ school in Chiayi told the students: “Vocational high school students can have fun for three years. You are different from them. Do not hang out with them — your IQ levels are not the same.”
What sort of an education is that, where students are taught to despise their peers?
Higher-ups within the nation’s education system dress up pedagogy in fancy words, while acting out bad role models before their students. They fall into the trap of believing the Chinese proverb that says: “To be a scholar is to be at the pinnacle of society, and learning is the noblest of human pursuits.”
Are students at prestigious high schools enrolled only as a stepping stone into prestigious universities? For many, their only aspiration is to enter NTU’s College of Medicine, yet nobody has taught them how to function in society, how to be a well-rounded individual or how to improve their emotional intelligence.
Education is not only about students burying themselves in books and absorbing facts, but also about human attainment and practical skills — including looking out for the vulnerable in society, thinking independently, treating others with respect and navigating life’s difficulties.
Philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey wrote that education is life and school is society; therefore, an education cannot be separated from life and society.
Students at prestigious schools have an advantage over their peers because of the schools’ superior academic resources, so they should strive to apply what they have learned in a way that contributes to society.
After all, studying every waking hour and amassing diplomas is not as important as being a well-rounded person — someone with a strong sense of morality and courage, who has the ability to question irrational acts and behavior.
Principals of prestigious high schools only ask one thing of their students: Gain admission to a prestigious university. This is too narrow a definition of education.
Perhaps because nearly all high-school principals are graduates of teaching universities, they have inherited a blind worship of the “scholar class,” which is then passed on to parents and students.
Students at prestigious schools must shoulder many burdens that society places upon elite students, but instead of only functioning as feeder factories for universities, schools must equip students with the skills needed to reflect on the meaning of life and to cope with life’s misfortunes. Students with suicidal thoughts will then see that there is still a way around whatever obstacle they are facing.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Taiwan’s educators, parents and students would do well to reflect on Nietzsche’s wisdom.
Teng Hon-yuan has a doctorate from National Taiwan University’s Department of Physics and is an associate professor at Chinese Culture University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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