[Viewpoint] Cramming is only part of education

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[Viewpoint] Cramming is only part of education

No society is happy with its education system. The discontent can grow as the society becomes wealthier and more advanced. Reform is always atop the election agenda.

Yet it is also one of the trickiest of time bombs. An education system takes its form on varied strands of historic, social-cultural and class components as well as educators’ interests.

Today, foreign language high schools are in the hot seat, but few are sure what buttons to push and what strands to remove from the education bomb for fear of triggering an unwanted explosion.

There is much room for improvement in our current secondary education system. The curriculum should allocate more time to train the mind and body by encouraging reading and physical education.

Our secondary students’ academic standards are excellent. Our students rank in the top three in math and science in the Program for Intellectual Assessments administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But their success is a product of uneconomic labor. A recent study showed our secondary school children devote 49.4 hours a week to study, far exceeding the average 33.9 hours spent by students of other OECD countries.

In the 2003 PISA survey, Finnish students on average studied four hours and 22 minutes a day, just half of the nearly nine hours Korean students spent at their desks, yet they scored 544 in math, beating Korea’s average of 542. Japanese students studied six hours and 22 minutes a day and yet scored 538.

Can’t we trust our students to perform equally well if they spend one more hour at school to read and play ball?

Public education has the authority to make the change happen. It is heartbreaking to see youth wasted in the small rooms of cram schools while sports fields at schools and elsewhere stand idle. We witness the kind of inefficient use of resources in our education system that Africa finds in its electrical grids. There, each household needs to keep their own generator due to a lack of a public power supply.

The purpose of secondary education lies not only in the supply of knowledge but also in the formation of character and moral values that can better all of society.

The best schooling in today’s fast-changing world of information and technology is to sow the habit in students to self-educate and continue learning in adulthood. Good reading habits have always been top priorities in education, but should be highlighted even more as teenagers often opt to spend their free time on the computers and digital game players rather than with books. Our children must turn to books for wisdom that teachers and parents fail to provide.

Physical education is important not merely to make the body fit. Through sports, youth naturally learn obedience to rules, perseverance, cooperation and self-control.

These are essential life values that books and even the best cram school lecturers cannot teach. The British widely believe sports at private boarding schools were a driving force behind the expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century.

These schools placed importance on field sports like rugby, football and cricket to nurture group spirit, moral courage, self-discipline and teamwork.

Knowing the ways to win and lose, and more importantly, how to pick oneself up after falling down, is valuable beyond the playing fields and applicable to every sphere of life. The Duke of Wellington, the British general who defeated Napoleon, famously said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” a private British boarding school. Dr. Welldom, a former headmaster of Harrow School, another private British school, also remarked, “There are no cricketers worthy of their name, who will not be glad to sacrifice themselves if his doing so can win the victory for his side,” to emphasize that the spirit of courage, obedience, self-control, self-respect and cooperation learned on the playing fields were the values that helped build the British Empire.

The law cannot be enforced mainly by police. A country’s rank doesn’t climb purely on publicity and economic growth figures. Education determines our future social disposition and standards. If our teenagers devote at least one hour a day to expand their minds through books and also pick up self-control, teamwork and a healthy body through sports, the future of our society can be bright regardless of various other problems within the education system. How about having the progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union initiate such a campaign? And if the government plans to increase the education budget, shouldn’t it boost spending to fill our middle and high school libraries with new books? If these ideas actually become a reality, we won’t be moving toward a great society. We will already be one.

*The writer is the head of the Sogang University of Graduate School of International Studies.

by Cho Yoon-je
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