An American’s Observations of Korean Education

As a foreigner living in a new land, I cannot help but compare the culture from which I came to the culture in which I currently reside.  One of those constant comparisons is the American and Korean educational systems.  While I have mixed feelings about Korean education, I cannot deny its effectiveness in producing an educated populace.  I firmly believe that part of Korea’s rapid ascension to the economic elite is partially the result of a massive investment in human capital.

I work in a high school.  Korean high schools are often bifurcated – those that prepare students for college and those that prepare students with vocational training.  I wish more American high schools would consider this.  Many lucrative trades are in high demand in the States and many students could benefit from vocational education over strictly academic coursework.  The value of a college degree is stagnating at best, and declining at worst.  

At Namak High School, college preparation is the name of the game.  Most students live in on-campus dorms from Monday to Friday.  There they study from 8:30 A.M.  until 10:00 P.M.  If they leave school instead of staying in the dorms, they often continue their studies at private academies (hagwons).  There they receive additional instruction in Math, English, and other subjects.

This often leads to a sad realization – every time I ask students what they plan to do this weekend, I hear the same bland answer.

“I am going to study.”

I frequently encounter my students on the streets of Namak.  They always warm my heart with a smile and wave.

“Hi, teacher!”

“Ian!  Hi!”

I return the wave and warm smile.  If it is a Saturday, I used to ask them what they were up to this weekend.  Now I know better.  I know where they are going and it’s not where I went as a kid.  Growing up, I played make-believe games in parks as an elementary kid, played video games as a middle school kid, and hung out at the lake or the 7-Eleven as a high school kid.  My students nearly exclusively study.  To them, the weekend is not a break.  It is merely a day two days of no public school.

For many Korean children, there is little life outside of schoolwork.  On one hand, I am grateful that my country’s more relaxed public education system afforded me time to explore my own interests (That interest was video games back then, but I can’t judge.  I turned out okay (mostly)).  On the other hand, every day I witness one big reason for American students’ continued mediocrity on the world stage – other countries’ children simply work harder.  That and a lack of investment coupled with a long history of oppression and hegemony leading to present-day socioeconomic inequalities (but I digress).

While part of me is frustrated by these kids’ palpable exhaustion (between one and eight kids sleep in each of my classes), another part beckons me to critique my cultural biases.

Korea is a strongly collectivist culture.  As opposed to an individualist culture like the United States, collectivist cultures value the cohesion and legacy of groups (family, community, country) over the importance of the individual.  Honoring one’s duty to family, elders, and superiors is a powerful source of meaning.  Therefore, I sometimes wonder how unhappy my students really are.  Maybe putting in countless hours of studying and earning good marks instills a sense of meaning and purpose.  Martin Seligman, a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, says that Meaning is a major wellspring of happiness (It is the “M” of Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being).  In other words, who am I to judge?  Maybe my outsider’s’ perspective is completely off-base and my students are more satisfied than meets the eye.

My co-teacher once told me that Korean children spend 12 years preparing for one exam – the  Suneung – a nationally-administered college entrance assessment (rough translation = “Korean SAT”).  This test is either the ticket to a prestigious university and a high-status career, or the beginning of a vicious cycle to a middling job.  Sadly, Korea also has a relatively high teenage suicide rate.  Some ascribe these deaths to the pressure of this examination.

I remember being 17 years old.  I was still young enough to believe I could be anything.  I had ridiculous and absurd dreams of playing football at UCLA, earning a degree in business, and becoming “hella rich” (I’m Northern California born and raised.  If you judge me, you’re wasting your time).  Life has since body slammed me back to Earth and I now walk a far more realistic and sustainable path.  I am a teacher graciously absorbing a new culture with dreams of graduate school.

However, my experiences in high school lead me to empathize with these young souls.  Many of them have big dreams.  Many of those dreams will be crushed in the course several years.  Damn.

In a collectivist culture, I imagine the pressure being even stronger.  When I failed, it was only a reflection on me.  When they fail, it is a reflection on their family.  That is a lot of weight to carry into one single exam.

While I have the utmost respect for Koreans’ dedication to education, I often question the emphasis placed on one single test.  In American society, many people have abandoned the conventional avenues to success only to forge their own path to success through entrepreneurship or activism.  In America, failure in high school is certainly a setback, but it isn’t necessarily fatal.

I am sure than many Koreans have overcome the stigma of high school underachievement and ascended the social ladder (If you have examples, let me know.  I am always looking to adjust my mental models).  However, the astronomical value placed on a prestigious university education coupled with a vertical social hierarchy leads me to believe that Korean social status starts to solidify after high school.  Again, I really want to be proved wrong.

This gives me solemn pause before I teach my student each day.  Every day, countless students greet me in the hallways.  They smile, laugh, and high-five with me.  However, whenever I tap into my empathic side, I shudder at the pressure that these students must feel.  I fear that one of them will become another suicidal casualty of the Suneung.

There must be a healthy medium.  I know there is.  While I understand the immense value and rightful priority of education, I do not believe that a person’s life chances should be decided by a single summative assessment.  

Perhaps it is unreasonable to be so emotionally invested.  I am, after all, a Native English Teacher.  I am a small blip on the school’s radar.  My lessons have nearly zero relevance to the Suneung.  My school hierarchical position is low and Korea really values hierarchy.  Though I try, I exert little influence on these children’s lives and I know it.  At times this saddens me.  

However, it also motivates me to exude positivity.  If I contribute anything to Namak High School, it will be positivity.  Despite my low level of influence, if I can inspire one student to overachieve on the exam, or help a struggling student develop a more positive mindset, then my work is worth it.  Hell, if I can just put smiles on sleepy students’ faces, then my many hours of lesson planning and teaching are worthwhile.

Photo Corner

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This is one of the most peaceful hotels I ever saw.  I had to pull out my phone to take a picture to remind myself that I wasn’t in Korea circa 1700.  However, some of the doors sported anachronistic fire extinguishers.

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New hair…don’t care,  yet my tired eyes belie a different story.

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I spotted Yeezy Clause in a noraebang one night.  It was dark, so I didn’t get a good look, but he’s definitely real.

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One of my students showed me this photograph.  I had to re-trace my life story to make sure I didn’t repress memories of televised singing auditions.

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“So, little ducks, what do you do if someone offers you a hit of quack?”

3 thoughts on “An American’s Observations of Korean Education

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