[Outlook]A living hell

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[Outlook]A living hell

The scholastic assessment test is being taken today in Korea. Not only do the 580,000 students taking the test feel nervous (not to mention their parents), but so do people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the test. If a student didn’t sleep well last night or caught a cold, he will score poorly and 10 years of study won’t pay off. Such students cannot get in the universities they hoped to get in, even if they have been good students their whole lives. Of course, they can try again next year, but there is no guarantee that the same thing will not happen again, so students will again feel very nervous.
Today, some students were late for the test or fell sick so they couldn’t take it or couldn’t do as well as they are capable of. They will be very sad and might cry. But I hope that no students kill themselves just because they didn’t do well on the test.
The university entrance exam can simply be called “hell” in Korea. Just as Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of the Qin Dynasty in China, desperately searched for the herb of eternal youth, Korea has changed its university entrance system 16 times in search of a perfect model, but a good solution is still nowhere to be found.
But we may find a way out of hell thanks to the experiences of Lee Don-hee, the principal of the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, even though his way would take a long time and many obstacles would have to be removed.
The Korean Minjok Leadership Academy has two different courses. One is called the national track, which is for students who want to go to a domestic university. The other is called the international track, which is for those who want to go to U.S. universities.
Those on the national track take a total of 12 tests, including midterm and final exams. They are all talented students but somebody must be the top and somebody must be the lowest in scores. The students take the scholastic assessment test at the end of their third year so they are nervous the whole time they attend school.
Meanwhile, the students who want to get in U.S. universities are having a meaningful time in school, voluntarily choosing a variety of activities, the principal says. The students take a test similar to the U.S. SAT as many as seven times per year. So even if they get bad results once, they do not worry too much. They can also choose subjects according to their interests so they genuinely enjoy studying.
To get into prestigious U.S. universities, students need to not only have good scores but also be good in sports and be able to play an instrument at some level. Students are engaged in a variety of creative activities and volunteer work.
They run a program that gives away food to elderly people living alone and carry out campaigns to promote their local area. They also take part in volunteer work in Mongolia, help poor families build yurt, or traditional Mongolian dwellings, and help them prepare firewood for winter. It may be hard to take part in many activities but they enjoy it and feel good about themselves because they voluntarily chose the activities and use their creativity.
Many Koreans say the core problem in our education system is that it is focused on entering universities. Except for vocational or polytechnic high schools, students attend regular high schools only with the aim of getting into universities. The problem is not that courses are focused on university entrance but that the university entrance system is a bad one. The current university entrance system in Korea hinders students’ intellectual, emotional and physical growth.
Our university entrance system damages students’ bodies and minds, and in extreme cases, pushes them into a corner where they choose to kill themselves. We need to establish a university entrance system in which students learn subjects they are interested in, have a meaningful life in high school and grow into human beings equipped with intellect, good personalities and health.
However, this will be too much to ask of the incumbent administration when its term is nearing its end. We have to expect this from the candidates who want to become president and lead the country. I would cast my vote without hesitation for someone who can present a vision and strategies that save students who are suffering the hell of the university entrance system and to train future leaders of the country.
But presidential candidates are still engaged in ugly fighting. They cling to the exhausting debate of whether the current education policy should be continued or abolished. I feel as trapped as the students taking the test today might feel. It is hard to find hope in our candidates, at least for now.

*The writer is a professor of education at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cheong Jean-gon
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