South Korea has rightfully become famous for pulling itself up by the bootstraps after decades of colonialism and enduring a brutal civil war. Not only has the economy quickly advanced to being the 13th largest by GDP in the world, but it is a country that has become known for very high ratings in terms of academic tests. According to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, Korea ranks 1st in Mathematics, 2nd in Reading and 4th in Science.
For these reasons it seems that Korea comes off as a perfect place to host the World Education Forum this May 19th-22nd. The Korean Minister of Education, Hwang Woo-yea said “I think that the UN selected Korea to host the event because it believed that it could be a role model for education for many countries in need.” In a moment of unexpected candor he also said he would also be honest about the problems that have likewise come about.
Certainly, one would think if any nation could become an inspiration to the developing world, it would be the Republic of Korea. While the progress South Korea has made is absolutely staggering, it is also important to understand that this did not occur in a vacuum nor has it occurred without problems.
Korea’s obsession with education can be traced far back into its Confucian heritage — an often discussed and very influential force in Korean history. Education in Confucian tradition is valued so highly that government positions and social status were inextricably linked to the passing of the Gwageo, a rigorous exam administered by the state to recruit officials and reward positions.
During the Joseun dynasty, Korea was not just a Confucianist state but was chiefly influenced by Neo-Confucianist philosopher Zhu Xi who, in a world of stuffy education obsessed Confucianists, stands out as a particularly stuffy education obsessed Confucianist. Zhu Xi believed that education was the only path to being a truly virtuous person, and that the exhaustive study of all things was a necessary task for everyone.
One could argue that Korea’s education fixation and rigorous study is not an answer to economic turmoil sought out in modern times, but is part of a long tradition. The only difference is now the scope of study goes beyond the gender and class divisions that previously kept education to the elites, and now unifies the country. I would even say that while there is certainly a lot of baggage that comes with the Confucianist heritage, the strong values placed in education and the willingness of the society to come together played a large role in Korea being able to overcome the challenges of the 20th century.However, Korea’s extreme focus on education has come with great drawbacks. A 2014 survey done by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation stated that just over half of South Koreans between the ages of 14-19 stated that they had contemplated suicide, and nearly one in three stated that they had felt ‘very depressed.’ 40% of the survey respondents said that school pressure and the connected future uncertainty were the biggest source of that, beating out appearance (17%) and family troubles (16%).
Not only is the competition and demands of the students stressful, it is incredibly time consuming. According to a Ministry of Health, Welfare & Family Affairs report that came out just last Thursday, Korean students study on average 3 more hours per day (thus 15 more hours per week) than students in 30 other OECD countries.
While these statistics may seem exaggerated to the outsider, they are entirely believable to anyone who has seen it first hand. The problem is so extreme it has even been recognized by the government who has, over the years, come up with numerous laws meant to curtail the hours that academies can operate — often trying to put the cut off time at 10 PM. Every time I have asked young Koreans about this they have shrugged and noted that Hakwon owners simply closed their blinds to conceal their late night cram sessions, making the regulatory attempts ineffective.
Another phenomena that is occurring which demonstrates the gravity of the situation is the abuse of ADHD medicine in order to improve studying. I have always wondered how anyone could maintain the schedule of the average Korean teenager preparing for University because of the sheer amount of time spent in study is flooring. In order to be able to maintain concentration and productivity some people seek out methylphenidate (MPH). Experts have warned that the abuse of the drug by people who do not need it can result in appetite loss and depression.
Even after all of the time, money and potentially dangerous risks to enhance education, results are often lopsided. For instance, scores from the TOEFL exam place Koreans at 136th out of 161 nations in speaking in spite of the boggling amounts of investment into English learning. Any English teacher can tell you stories about students who seemed virtually incapable of producing anything deeper than highly rehearsed pleasantries in English, yet who can somehow read difficult paragraphs and have good comprehension of the content. Many Koreans are able to (and are expected to) consume large amounts of English language material in University yet struggle to sustain conversation on daily topics in the language.
My own experiences have exposed me to many people who can read and understand difficult thinkers like Wittgenstein or Marx, yet struggle to produce fluid conversation.
The matter has become something of a scandal. Deducing meaning to answer questions on a test is drilled into the students and has produced seemingly adequate results but in this process the beauty and art of conversation becomes lost. Many English teachers first come here with the fantasy that they will be engaging with curious and inspired students who are at least on some level motivated to learn of their culture, but are all too often stuck with students who are not just cynical and uninspired, but worked so raw they often seem incapable of becoming inspired.
The same is true not just in English, but across the board there seems to be a reduction of education to a series of certifications and specifications that one has to meet to achieve a job with desired income and prestige. A little known fact is that Korean universities have to regulate which majors students are accepted into — students apply for a number of Universities then must choose between studying something ‘less useful’ (Philosophy, History, Literature) at a high ranked University or studying something ‘more useful’ (STEM majors) at a lower ranked University. It is rather special to be the person attending a high ranking University specifically to study Philosophy or History due to pure inspiration. If it were not for this regulatory system it is possible to imagine a Korea where, due to pressure to one specific area, the bulk of humanities departments would be closed.
It seems to many in modern Korea, knowledge has become the means to an end. But what is more disconcerting: we have come to a point where many Korean youth come to feel that they themselves are the means, and not the end, when they are taught that their personal interests and passions are ultimately secondary to the career path which will bring home the most money. It reminds me of when one of my Korean friends told me that when he informed his father the lackluster results of his University applications he was immediately angered and blurted out “I have invested so much in you, and this is where you end up?” The words cut him deeply. He had never thought of himself as his father’s ‘investment’ and had thought of himself as his father’s son.
While we can be proud of some of the numbers that the education system has produced, we must wonder if in this process children and young adults have been reduced to rankings and numbers, and that while there has been success in improving living conditions over the last decades, little has been done to actually improve lives.