Education reformer faces long, uphill battleLast September, after turning down many lucrative offers from prominent law firms in the United States, 25-year-old Korean-American Joshua Park, who goes by the Korean name Park Gyu-il, accepted a teaching position at the private Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul.
Mr. Park obtained a law degree at Harvard University last year. In his first year as an academic adviser for the Study Abroad Program at Daewon, his 64 pupils have all been admitted to American universities ― 19 of them to Ivy League schools.
“Education in Korea is only one-eighth the standard of that in America,” Mr. Park said.
He explained that because education is composed of intelligence and humanism in equal parts, the Korean system is automatically reduced by half because it doesn’t include humanism. The Korean system is knocked down in half again because it depends entirely on textbooks, he said.
Finally, the system gets reduced in half again after considering that Korean texts contain only simple information that students don’t learn how to apply.
With his students, who are targeting foreign universities, he supervises discussion and essay writing classes. During the scorching summer, he struggled day and night with the students, preparing admission documents and writing recommendations.
Mr. Park has plenty to say about the shortcomings of Korean education.
“Above all, Korean schools and parents should change their mindsets,” said Mr. Park.
To illustrate his point, he recalled how his students conducted a six-way simulation discussion on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He was shocked when a student who was playing the role of Japanese foreign minister insisted that South Korea, China and Japan could solve all problems by invading the United States, because he said the country is the core of all evil.
When Mr. Park asked for the specific reasons for reaching such a conclusion, he was shocked once again: The student replied, “Because my father said so.”
Mr. Park also criticizes the trend of studying abroad. “Most students pick colleges based only on the school’s name value. But they should also consider how they will adapt to the unfamiliar circumstances they will face.”
In fact, his zeal for Korean education and students became evident when he rejected attractive offers from leading American law firms. More and more people are beginning to listen, as his first year as a teacher has been a great success.
In March, Mr. Park sent five of his students to “World Student Debate,” a competition in Germany that involved students from all over the world. The Korean students defeated teams from Slovakia and the Netherlands in the event’s early stages, a tremendous success considering it was the first time students from South Korea participated.
Afterward, he was offered a lucrative private tutoring job but turned it down, saying he wants to remain a schoolteacher.
Why does he favor a teaching position such as this in the face of more glamorous offers? His answer is unexpectedly simple: “When I was at law school in Harvard, an English friend told me the most intriguing issue at the school was how to integrate Korean students, who only seemed to stick to themselves, with other international students. It was really a shock to me.”
Mr. Park says there is even one notable private high school in the United States that allows Korean students exclusively a second chance if they are caught cheating on tests. He was ashamed to find out the school’s policy stems from a concern that Koreans are accustomed to a cheating culture at home.
He has always wondered why Koreans, who have some of the highest I.Q. scores in the world and who consider themselves a superior people, are held in such contempt by people from other countries. As a Korean, he wanted to find an answer.
Beside teaching, he devotes every weekend to helping foreign laborers, providing them with free legal advice. He has a special interest in immigrants and human rights, which comes from his difficult school life, when he had to help out at his parents’ clothing shop in Seattle.
Saying his efforts are only a small beginning, Mr. Park said there are many more things to be done, especially in respect to the steep increase in the number of Korean parents who want their children to study abroad, or the Korean education system as a whole, which focuses so much on rote memorization.
“I believe that the Korean education system is changeable and will be stabilized someday. I will dedicate my efforts to fostering an education system that produces talented students who can compete globally without studying abroad.”
by Kim Pil-kyu
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