Korea’s barbaric education system
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.
A painful school day memory remains vivid to me. Teachers coupled well-performing students with underperforming ones during class. The aim was to stimulate and aid the slower students to keep up their studies and raise their grades. The result was the opposite. Some teachers would give a question to my friend seated next to me and scolded him when he was unable to give the answer. The seat designed to motivate him eventually discouraged him. The friend, being a good-spirited fellow, would shrug and laugh it off. I, however, felt bad, as if I had done him wrong.
In my school days, many schools posted the grades of an entire class from the top to the bottom on lobby bulletins. Students, like workers in factory lines, had to produce good grades. Anyone who studied well was loved and respected both at school and at home. We thought things would become different if our livelihoods improved and society matured. We believed such cruelty imposed on young students would disappear when our children grew up to become adults. We thought we would be the last of the “savage generations.”
I came to learn of grammar school while I lived in Britain. Grammar schools are elite secondary schools. One famous school receives students after testing them with its own examination. It sent most students to the University of Oxford or to the University of Cambridge. The school, however, does not hold any award ceremonies. It picks students who excel in each subject and invites the student and their parents to privately congratulate. The reason is that the school perceives academic excellence as just one of many qualities, along with a good personality, artistic or athletic talent and creativity, and therefore does not think it needs to be singled out. The British education system values both individuality and communalism, not the scores on the report card.
I once had an opportunity to meet the late Kim Geun-tae — a multiple-term lawmaker who served as health and welfare minister during the Roh Moo-hyun administration — in Britain. He asked me what I liked most about my life in Britain. “The people,” I answered without hesitation. My son was chosen as the school head although he spoke poor English. His peers had elected him because they valued his leadership from the way he played football and believed the position would help improve his English more quickly. Kim seemed to be stunned by the deep and generous thought of elementary school kids. As he said, “Education truly defines the dignity of a nation,” I nodded in full agreement.
I returned home after a lengthy stay in Britain. I had expected classrooms in Korea to have changed from the time when I had attended school. That hope was dashed when I visited a top high school. It was famous for sending students to Ivy League schools in the United States and top universities in Korea. A long post caught my eye as soon as I entered the school building. It was a ranking from top to bottom on the scores students had received on a mock SAT. It listed the student names and class. I did not wish to stay any longer at the school.
The irony is that tyranny is forced upon the students mainly by their parents. The so-called consultant paid handsomely to get students of wealthy families into a top medical school coolly spoke with a parent behind bars after she was arrested in JTBC’s latest hit TV drama “SKY Castle.”
“Frankly, it is not I who made a victim of the kids. It is you parents,” a character in the drama says. Korean schools are merely servicing parents in their desires to send their children to elite universities. The heart of the problem with Korea’s rigid and college-obsessive education system lies with the adult generation who cannot shake themselves out of this savage tradition and mentality, more than the college entrance system and private education. In Korea, universities remain the most sacred religion. No beliefs can replace blind faith in top school names.
Many university professors are baffled to find today’s students, who are rich in specs and grades, less bright than past pupils. A professor who recently retired after teaching more than 30 years at the elite Seoul National University said he had witnessed the gradual deterioration of student performance. Given the time and resources spent on studies, today’s students should be best in the world. Even if their abilities are no different from the past, the waste in time and money has been colossal.
Education can mirror the future of the nation. If education proves to be both costly and inefficient, and therefore unproductive, so too will the future economy. An education that values good grades cannot create innovation. Those who endured inhuman schooling cannot be happy later in life. But no one in the government talks about education. It is a regular campaign theme, but is forgotten as soon as the election ends. The ruling power gives up on education because reforming it is impossible and politically risky. That means the barbarism will continue. Parents must ask themselves whether they want such a grim future for their children.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 10, Page 31