Korean youth can compete and dream

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Korean youth can compete and dream

It is impossible for me to sit idly by after reading the assertion that Korea’s youth has no dreams (“Korea’s youth has no dreams”, Nov. 23). I was equally irked and disheartened that an individual in the educational community who must be privy to all the toil and suffering that Korean students go through in order to survive and, hopefully, succeed would make such an averment.
As a teacher at one of the prominent high schools on the peninsula, I have found myself in the classroom over the years with the youth that Jun Sang-in spoke of. These are individuals who have and continue to tackle the tempestuous task of making it through the ever-changing and consistently tortuous education system here. They are certainly cognizant of the fact that they have to jump through hoops and assume the roles that are required of them.
It would be impossible to count the number of hours of their youth they sacrificed in order to devote themselves to studying. For them to ape what they’ve learned is a given under such circumstances.
Moreover, I wonder what Mr. Jun is missing given his post. He speaks not one iota of his experience in the classroom. I’d like to know what he tells his students and what they tell him. When I talk to my students about life they speak of the pressure they’re under, the utter lack of sleep they get but, at the same time, they speak of what they hope for the future, how uncertain they are, but it is clear they have ambition to succeed. They are constantly molded to be the best and they see from their parents what it takes.
Yes, students at my school are expected to volunteer and do charitable work with groups like Habitat for Humanity, the Korea International Cooperation Agency, Unesco and numerous other groups. However, this is an aspect of their lives that is intended to mold them into decent human beings and to expose them to the less privileged. This gives them the courage to pursue leadership and know they can help make a difference. I often talk of the difference that people like Bill Gates, George Soros and even U2’s Bono are making in the world.
It is also a given for today’s Korean youth that they must work hard, that they must compete and that they must strive to be among the best. This is no clearer than in schools like mine, where students have to compete with several thousand others just to get in. They then are subjected to a series of standardized tests that play an important part in what is called the “triangle of death,” which also includes the Korean SAT and the essays that are now required by many universities. Competition is part of their lives much as the inherent will to survive is part of mankind. The words of Aristotle certainly make sense to them: “The roots of education are bitter but the fruits sweet.”
In addition, many of these students have successful parents. It is common knowledge that an elevated education here usually requires sound financial backing. These young people know that financial success brings elite education and vice versa. They speak of being diplomats, attorneys, journalists, judges, politicians, archaeologists, actors and CEOs. Are these the dreamless students who “do not excel at anything” Mr. Jun speaks of? Warm-hearted, yes, but that does not mean they don’t have ambition and aspiration. Isn’t it possible to be munificent, competitive and ambitious at the same time?
I find the biggest flaw in Mr. Jun’s piece to be that he asserts the values of kindness, generosity and charity somehow efface the ambition to succeed amongst Korea’s youth. I would aver that these values form better, more complete young people who will go on into society with open minds and hearts yet with the equal understanding that they must compete and do well to ultimately prosper and be of service to society.
John Rodgers, English teacher at Daewon Foreign Language High School
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