[Letters] Praise Korea’s education culture, not its system

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[Letters] Praise Korea’s education culture, not its system

Over the last few months, U.S. President Barack Obama has been praising the Korean education system. He said that Korea’s extra hours of study, longer school year and after-school studies have led to a greater number of scientists and engineers and that this system is something America should emulate. These comments have been met with some favor among Koreans, but others have been dumbfounded by them. President Lee Myung-bak has said of Obama’s remarks, “I am sorry. I am very dissatisfied [with our education system].”

Many involved with the education system here can’t help but agree with President Lee. Some would say that Korean success has come about not because of the education system, but in spite of it, and that it has come about from something philosopher Francis Fukuyama would say is much deeper: from the Korean education culture.

I learned of the strength of Korean educational culture not in Korea but during my high school years in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta in Canada. I attended Old Scona Academic High School, which is always ranked the best in Alberta and sometimes the best in Canada. This school had many Korean students. Perhaps one-third of the 300 students at the school were Koreans who, as infants, moved to Canada with their parents. Their parents did what they could to get their children into that school. There were so many Koreans there that we could’ve developed our own idiom to express a difficult task: “It’s like trying to find a ‘Mr. Kim’ at Old Scona.”

My Korean classmates were without exception very good students whose performance compelled me to take my own studies seriously.

But their studies, unlike mine, were not just during the school year - many also took extra-credit classes during the summer and winter vacations. They were driven to succeed and they did ? they became doctors and professors and social workers and dentists. They achieved their dreams not through a Korean education system but a Canadian education system coupled with their own Korean educational culture.

This culture of learning stayed with me through university, so when I finished my undergraduate studies, I began teaching in Korea in order to experience the Korean education system. I was stunned to see after-school institutes - science, math, English, Chinese - and disappointed to see that education involved rote learning, the ability to choose the one right answer from multiple choice exams and an inability think creatively or critically. But despite these demerits, students continued to succeed, going overseas to the best universities in the world. Their studies paid off.

Of course, that wasn’t true for all. The stresses involved with education led to some casualties, with suicides among middle school and high school students rising, making it the second most common cause of death among teenagers. Education costs rose, especially because of after-school programs, leading to more stresses for students. More time spent at the institutes translated into less time spent at home with their parents, so for many students, a sense of dislocation from their parents came about.

The increased demand for after-school programs not just for middle school students but for elementary, kindergarten and even preschool children brought younger and younger children into the muck of education stresses and brought even more financial stress to the parents.

Some might say that these stresses are good since the world is competitive and that they prepare these young children for the real world. But in Korea, fewer and fewer children will be preparing for these stresses as fewer and fewer adults are choosing to have children, bringing the birthrate in South Korea down to the lowest in the world. These adults often point to educational strains as one of the primary reasons for not having children. The education system is compelling many Koreans to forgo children, helping morph the family structure from extended families to nuclear family to childless families in only two generations.

Korea’s education system may have its problems but its education culture does not. It is a culture that is found in the students attending institutes and schools throughout Korea; in my high school in Canada; in the blue-collar workers who populated the night schools that gave them high school degrees in the 1970s; in the hearts of Korean children who pounded the pavement of Seoul streets selling newspapers, gum and pencils to earn tuition in the 1950s and 1960s; in Confucian figures like Jeong Do-jeon and his education reforms at the birth of the Joseon Dynasty; and in Sin Saimdang, the icon of Korean mothers.

It is this culture that has thrived and will continue to thrive not just in Korea but wherever Koreans live. It’s not the Korean education system but the Korean education culture that President Obama should praise.

Brett Conway,

graduate student in Asian Studies at Sejong University and English professor at Hansung University
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