Korean education is a culprit in ferry tragedy

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Korean education is a culprit in ferry tragedy

Here in London, everyone’s been talking to me about the ferry disaster. The tragedy feels deeply personal. The sight of wailing parents is harrowing. What plagues me the most is that in the two and a half hours it took the ship to tip over and sink, people didn’t manage to escape. The behavior of the crew, who told everyone to sit tight before fleeing, is abominable.

Some foreign media outlets have attributed the large number of missing passengers to the Korean “culture of obedience.” Korean experts countered that it was a typical Western misunderstanding of Confucianism.

The problem is not a matter of Confucianism; it’s about our education system. My guts are in a wrench when I think about the hundreds of school children in their bright orange life vests, clutching mobile phones and waiting for help, because the loudspeaker announcement instructed them not to move.

Having spent their formative years in the trenches of the Korean education, where you do as told, these 16-year-olds would have been good soldiers; they would have followed orders.

What if there hadn’t been any instructions? I wager that every single one of them would have made their way for the exit. It would have been pandemonium; crushing and trampling would have ensued. But they would have had a shot at clambering out of that doomed ferry.

Some kids, acting on personal initiative, scrambled to the upper deck or jumped into the frigid water where rescue boats later plucked them. In tears, one survivor blamed the high number of missing students on the intercom instructions.

The cultural legacy of Korean obedience is world famous. In his 2008 book “Outliers,” Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell went as far as to raise the notion that cultural hierarchy was a culprit of frequent Korean Air crashes in the 1990s, as co-pilots didn’t challenge pilots’ erroneous decisions out of deference.

I grew up in Seoul and can attest that the educational regime is part of our national DNA that cultivates discipline, obedience and respect. Most of these are invaluable qualities for every society. The world has seen too often what happens when humility retreats and hubris takes over: global financial markets crash and countries invade neighbors.

Running under these Confucius virtues is a fiercely competitive spirit goaded by a nation of tiger moms. As a result, our teenagers rack up spectacular test scores in math, reading and science. They are the envy of education ministers worldwide. Our system is meritocratic and efficient. It sets hardworking teenagers into the upper orbit of society. It has fueled the engine that transformed Korea into a global economic powerhouse.

It is also a poison to originality, independent thinking, creativity and passion. How can you learn to reflect, inquire, analyze and communicate when you are forced to parrot back ideas and work mechanical formulas for 16 hours every day?

As one educational reporter said, we churn out Samsung mid-level managers at the expense of Nobel laureates.

The kids on the ferry, who could perform differential and integral calculus, reportedly followed the order to stay under decks, even as the ship tilted. In all the text messages they sent before silence fell, none of them seem to have questioned the stay-put order.

Despite the massive financial and emotional investments in educational success, we have failed to teach these young people that at a moment of crisis, they need to call the shots relying on common sense and confidence that they are doing the right thing.

As a nation, Korea must stop obsessing over rote learning and start nurturing critical thinking and open-mindedness. Veneration of education is a defining characteristic of “Koreanness.” Use it to help young people learn to think for themselves - not just to pass tests with flying colors, but to live their life as rational and caring human beings.

I so wish the kids had said, “Screw this, I’m getting off the ship.”

By Katrin Park, Former UN staff member in Asia and New York, now living in London

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