[Viewpoint] Why not send our kids to Jeju?

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[Viewpoint] Why not send our kids to Jeju?

Jeju boasts many fabulous attractions, ranging from great hiking trails to gorgeous seafood. But I recently found another wonder of the southernmost island of Korea. Jeju Global Education City opened last month and I happened to be at its opening ceremony. North London Collegiate School was the first foreign school to open a branch in the education city. A Canadian school will follow suit next year.

The campus of the British private school was impressive. Built on an expansive 100,000-square-meter (25-acre) site, the campus smacks of a prestigious private school in the United States or the United Kingdom, except that it has much more modern structures. High-power Apple iMac computers for each student, Internet-connected multimedia auditoriums for special lectures and an Olympic-size swimming pool are some of the features the school is equipped with.

But impressive hardware is not the only thing that caught my attention. There is also the software and tradition of running one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious educational institutions for 161 years.

Competing head on with Eaton and other premium schools in the United Kingdom, North London Collegiate School is known for its highly disciplined and rigorous education system, producing creative and critical intellectuals. More than 40 percent of its graduates are admitted to Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy League schools in the United States, according to school officials. Its Jeju programs will be run under the same standards as the U.K. programs, making graduates eligible for acceptance by any international university, including those in Korea.

As the father of three daughters, I was instantly interested in the Jeju school. As a firm believer in an educational system based on critical thinking and creative problem solving, not textbook memorization and score-obsessed tests, I played with the idea of sending my younger kids to that school, which promised exactly the former. That idea has a lot to do with the guilt I have for my eldest kid, now attending college in Seoul. I thought about sending the younger ones to the Jeju school because I really don’t want them to go through the same process their big sister had to go through.

My eldest daughter belongs to the so-called Cursed Generation of 1989, the year when she was born. Her cohorts believe they were cursed because they had to go through perhaps the most treacherous path to college in Korea’s history. When they entered high school, the government experimented with a new college entrance system, which was supposed to free them of the burden of studying day and night for the college entrance exam.

The idea was simple: If you do well at your high school, you will be accepted to a good university. You don’t have to have expensive private tutors or go to a cram school after school hours and stay there well past midnight. Our tattered public education system will be restored as students quit cram schools and focus on regular school classes, the government promised.

What happened was, unfortunately, quite the opposite. Because the new system gave much heavier weight to high school exams, the students had to study even harder to score well in those tests. That adds up to 12 exams during three years of high school (midterm and final exams for each semester).

And each exam had as many as 10 subjects (English, math, science, Korean language and literature, social studies, music, art and so on). That meant that the kids had to study nonstop for all those subjects throughout the year, and cram schools and private tutors became even more popular because of that. Some kids even had tutors for music or art.

I vividly remember how terrible these three years were. There were a series of suicides stemming from the pressures. Classmate friendships disappeared amid cutthroat competition for higher scores. There were reports of kids stealing and burning other kids’ notebooks. During exam periods, my daughter would drink tons of coffee and at one point experienced minor insomnia and headaches even after exams were over. Luckily, she endured those pains and entered a fairly respected college.

Since my eldest daughter finished her ordeal, I haven’t paid much attention to our college entrance system. Having suffered so much for so long with her, I had no intention of doing that again. But as her younger sisters in elementary school grow to face their own round of the ordeal in the near future, I now have to care again and make some choices. One idea is to send them overseas to be totally emancipated from the pressures of Korea’s school system. But that means I have to live as a lone goose father, missing my family overseas, let alone the tons of money I would have to send for their high tuitions.

Another alternative is to send them to Jeju. They could attend a foreign school where they would master English and receive internationally approved diplomas with a lot less stress. And the costs would be cheaper than sending them to a school in a foreign country. They might have to stay in dorms, but I can always make that one-hour flight to see them on weekends. In the meantime, they can enjoy the ultra-modern facilities of the campus and the clean air and beautiful scenery of Jeju. Our ancestors used to say: Send people to Seoul and horses to Jeju. Maybe it is time to send people to Jeju.

*The writer is a Newsweek contributing correspondent.

by Lee Byung-jong
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