[Letters] College entry exams and the inconsolable desire

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[Letters] College entry exams and the inconsolable desire

Last week, over 600,000 Korean students took an exam that seemingly determines their destiny in life. To most of them, the college entry exam is a potential path to entering Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University, commonly christened as SKY.

And they know quite well that credentials from the “sky” comfortably land graduates plum jobs with big companies or the government. The three institutions are considered the academic cream of Korea.

There is nothing wrong with an education that assures one a stable, happy future; after all, it is every parent’s dream to see their children prosper in all aspects. However, observers have termed the College Scholastic Ability Test in Korea as either a national obsession or radically esteemed.

On the day of the nine-hour exam, the country changes. All flight landings and take-offs at the airports are put on hold while the arriving international aircraft are ordered to circle at altitudes above 10,000 feet for some while.

Motorists are also asked to lower their speed and avoid honking near the test locations during the listening comprehension assessment. In fact, traffic is usually banned from within 200 meters of the test centers until the exam is over.

At the periphery, parents, friends and school juniors gather to wish their loved ones success. Some parents pray outside the exam centers. Recently, a mother reportedly vowed to bow 3,000 times, kneeling down with her forehead touching a red cushion perhaps to invoke luck to her beloved son. Most schools will also give a day off to students who are not taking the exam.

But beyond the facade lies the fundamental question that many parents, activists and teachers raise regarding the education system in Korea. Some argue that a competition-oriented education system is the wrong approach.

At the end of a discussion with parents and students last week, there was a supposition that the problem with education in Korea could be what the society perceives as the goal of schooling. That unless the culture fundamentally defines from whom, through whom and to whom educational activities are carried out, there will always be unmet desires.

There being no neutrality in education, Korean society has a way of perceiving education and a graduate for that matter. If, for instance, a university graduate is perceived as a cog in an economic structure, and that SKY institutions produces the best of cogs, then therein lays the misfortune.

The sad reality is that individual, family and national economic success has become the deity of the day.

Though there is nothing wrong with economic growth, commodification of students’ desires, future and dreams is tantamount to radical economic rationalism whose result is pressure, suicides and an elongated dissatisfaction.

Of course, there are many other factors that make the Korean education system pressurizing to students and addressing them is of paramount urgency. Seeing the purpose of education solely as informing rather than forming is a dangerous view as far as education continues to shape people’s desires and world views. And as long as education remains deeply revered in Korean ethos, only an authentic definition of a educational goal is perhaps what will quench what C.S. Lewis called the inconsolable longing in human beings.


Benson Kamary, a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at Kosin University.
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