An uncomfortable myth

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An uncomfortable myth

It’s already been six years since the JoongAng Ilbo published a series titled “A Society Where High School Graduates are Underrated,” which explored the culture of valuing academic backgrounds. Team members from different departments gathered to discuss the direction of the series and feasible alternatives, and we struggled with the gap between ideals and reality. We were also faced with the unexpected challenge of interviewing successful people who had only graduated from high school.

Thinking that these cases would bring hope to the high school graduates who felt limited by their academic background, we contacted executives and managers at well-known companies. The intention of the series was good, so we never thought finding interviewees would be a challenge. But we were seriously mistaken. Most refused to be interviewed, and those who agreed asked to remain anonymous.

Those who were recognized for their competency and diligence, and have risen to executive-level positions, didn’t want to be featured in the media because of their lack of a college degree. “I don’t want my clients to find out,” or, “My family does not want my academic background made public,” were some comments they gave. They were more concerned about their academic background being revealed than being proud of their success in overcoming challenges. It reminded us once again how serious prejudice on education is in Korean society. When those who have been successful in their careers were so reluctant, we could imagine the struggles others go through.

Once you join a company as a high school graduate, the label follows you no matter how high you rise or whether you go to college or get a masters or doctorate degree later. Just because you made a different choice when others go to college, you are labeled as a high school graduate forever, even if you study later or acquire valuable knowledge in a field. When you accomplish something, others will praise, “You are amazing - for a high school graduate.” The praise itself shows how deeply rooted the prejudice is.

As former Samsung Electronics Executive Yang Hyang-ja recently joined the Minjoo Party, her success story - more specifically the legend of high school graduate moving up the corporate ladder - garnered attention. The former managing director has acquired master’s degree, but she is still labeled a high school graduate.

There is no need to emphasize that we need more success stories like that of Yang. However, we also don’t want to see the distorted “high school graduate legend” by defining their success based on academic background.

The author is head of the new digital team at JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 19, Page 35

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