A National Obsession

On Monday mornings, I always ask my students how their weekend was. I expect tales of teenage parties and perhaps a family picnic, but am usually disappointed. Most of the time they tell me they did not have a good weekend, and that they are tired and sad. “Why?” I ask, remembering how much fun I had on my weekends when I was in High School. “Study only”, they tell me.

Despite the fact that 2012 marked the first year that all South Korean schools were required to close on Saturdays, all senior students come to school on Saturdays to self study and some younger students attend various after school classes or self-study sessions. For instance, I teach a voluntary English lesson on a Saturday for two hours. In addition, many of my students attend private academies known as Hagwons on both Saturdays and Sundays.

Before coming to teach in South Korea, I was aware that academic education was a national obsession. I was told that most students attended at least two different educational institutions each day, and that competition for university entrance was rife. Nonetheless, when I learned that my school was building a dormitory so that students could stay overnight and spend more time studying, I was surprised. It became clear to me that this obsession was more pervasive and unhealthy than I had previously imagined.

My students often ask me what time students in South Africa finish school. When I tell them that students in South Africa leave school at about 2pm each day, they explode in a series of laments. “I envy them”, some tell me. Most of the students at my High School are at school for 13 hours a day. Classes end at 4pm and then students are required to self-study until 9pm under the supervision of a teacher. The senior students, who are under more pressure to perform on their university entrance exam, are at school until around 11pm. Students eat both lunch and supper at the school.

The self-study hall at my High School, where students spend about five hours studying every day.

Beware the Hagwon

Some students leave school after their last class to attend Hagwons, which specialise in teaching certain subjects. Until 2009, when a law made it illegal for Hagwons to teach after 10pm, some remained open until around midnight. Since Hagwons teach from early in the afternoon, some students, Middle School students in particular, leave school early and skip supper to ensure that they attend their Hagwon for a certain length of time. Sometimes Hagwons give the students sweets or snacks, but this is not standard practice. And they definitely don’t serve supper.

The Definition of Success

From a statistical perspective, South Korea’s focus on education has certainly produced its desired results. As data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows, South Korean students score way above the OECD average in both reading and mathematics. While the country is benefiting economically from its education system (South Korea has one of the fastest growing economies and is currently ranked as the 13th largest economy globally), the side-effects are manifold. According to 2011 data, Korean students were ranked as the unhappiest amongst the OECD countries. As some of the interviews in an upcoming documentary by Kelley Katzenmeyer shows, students are aware that the problem is systemic but don’t feel they have the power to combat the expectations that Korean society places on them.[1] Considering the extremely high teen suicide rate in Korea, which has been the topic of many a news article in the last five years, the Korean education system should be doing more to address student’s emotional and physical wellbeing.[2]

Working Hard rather than Smart

I often think that the fixation on academic excellence here is, ironically, detrimental to Korean students’ overall education. My students are often too tired to concentrate in class and they have very little time for homework. In addition, they are not provided with any time to develop independent learning skills. Without time to process and apply the bulk of information that is being taught, I doubt they understand much of what they are learning. While they are able to memorise them very quickly, my students often don’t understand the English phrases and words that I teach them. Here, knowledge is defined as a set of memorised facts, with little emphasis on creative thinking or a holistic approach to education.[3] My school seems to be better than others in this regard: Physical Education and Home Economics feature regularly in the timetable.

While the Hagwon crackdown and elimination of Saturday school is evidence that the Korean government has begun to implement change, the issue is compounded by the role of both schools and parents. If schools don’t provide self-study facilities and extra academic classes, it will affect their reputation in the eyes of parents. Similarly, parents who want to raise their children in a manner that deviates from the status quo often feel as though they are limiting their children’s ability to compete with other students at their level. It seems that all involved have tied their hands to the same stake and major policy reform is necessary to enact the change that governments, parents and students are hoping for.

As a tiny cog in the system, I find it difficult to combat these issues in my own classroom. I never give homework and all my after school classes are focused on popular culture and language games in the hope that I can provide a break from their rigorous academic schedule. That said, I often question the value of English (and thus my role) in their lives. What has unquestionable value in the life of any growing person, I would argue, is the imagination, and free-time enough to use it.

[1] Katzenmeyer’s documentary investigates South Korean youth culture in public High Schools, including the effects of Korea’s education mania. You can pledge to see the film here.

[2] For a perspective on the Korean education system from a High School student in my city, Daegu, see here.

[3] There are alternative schools in existence that deviate from the national curriculum, but attendance at such schools is not an option for most South Korean students.

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The Culture Muncher by Deva Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

13 responses to “A National Obsession

  1. So much to think about, lovely Deva. But it is so sad to see how these kids can’t gain perspective on anything. I hope the system changes within our lifetime, because imagination is the key that will put all of that Korean potential to use. Good on you for doing what you can and throwing more starfish back in the ocean 🙂

  2. It’s really is hard to comprehend just how hard these kids work until you’re here and seeing it with your own eyes. Coming from an English hagwon perspective it’s even harder to relieve the academic pressure for the children, when the hagwon’s number one objective, at the end of the day, is to make money. It’s a business after all, but it’s hard to keep that at the front of your mind when you’re in the classroom. It’s a sad day when turning a profit takes priority over the academic welfare of the kids.

    I blame both the parents and the hagwon owners. The parents dictate the level they want their kids to be at so teachers have to rush them through levels, regardless if they understand the syllabus, in order to keep the parents happy so that they keep their children at the hagwon and thus the ‘business’ keeps making money. The lucky ones are the children who are naturally gifted and can keep up with the fast-paced learning. It’s the slower kids I feel sorry for; given the time and support they could be equally as successful as the gifted ones, but they’ve just not got a chance…

    What can we do to change this? I try and tell my kids that it’s not all about academic success. What’s more important is that they find learning fun and that they understand what they are being taught. But even at their young age, I feel it’s too late and they have already been conditioned to ‘be the best’. It’s depressing when you delve into this topic 😦

    • In South Korea, there is no system to support students who cannot keep up with the pace. For example, there is no such thing as ‘failing’ a year. All High School students will graduate regardless of their performance or abilities. In South Africa, a student will redo a grade if they score below 45% on their final report. Is it the same in the UK Lauren? Here, their qualifications are effectively rubber-stamped.

      As for making a difference, it seems difficult but not impossible. At the moment, I feel the best I can do is try to get my students to have fun and relax while trying to get them to speak English. Notice I used the word “try”, because this happens around twice a week! Most of my students know that the system is unfair and a recipe for misery, but they have no power to do anything about it – yet.

  3. I wonder if this lifestyle is the seedbed of a “Super sad true love story?” One can only speculate where this evolutionionary stamen of the human is going.

    • Absolutely. In Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (http://supersadtruelovestory.com), Eunice Park has a typically Korean-American family, and much of the subtext will probably be understood best by Koreans and non-Koreans who are familiar with the culture.

      Foreigners in Korea, I highly recommend giving it a read!

  4. Hi lady!

    Re-posting to your blog as asked:

    1) I find it interesting that you did not mention the high rate of suicide in Korea that is related to the demand for perfection. This is very evident, even in Middle School. My friend had to deal with a girl at her school who had lost a friend to suicide because the pressure to achieve was too much.

    2) I’m not sure if you are aware: but now that Saturday school is closed, the students simply stay on later at school during the week and also school vacation has been drastically cut. Last year public schools enjoyed a 6 week vacation. This year it is 3 and a half.

    3) While this emphasis on education is intense and ridiculous (as you say: kids sleep all day at school and then go to hogwan) at the same time it is very important to also very clearly see this emphasis on education and parents wanting the best for their children as the direct result of Korea’s history (especially relating to the war). From having nothing Korean parents and grandparents now want the best for their children. And in this incredibly full society only the best becomes good enough.

    4) On a different note (not mentioned in my previous message to you), don’t forget that this expectation for academic success exists alongside another expectation: that of also attaining perfect beauty… achieved here through plastic surgery. Korea has one of the highest, in fact I think THE highest, rate of plastic surgery in the world.

  5. 1) Thanks for emphasising the high rate of student suicide, which I mentioned it but did not give a clear impression of. In her documentary on Korean HIgh Schools, Kelley Katzenmeyer addresses it in much more detail. These kids are unhappy to say the least. They feel completely trapped.

    2) I didn’t realise the holiday period had been shortened to accommodate the time lost on Saturdays. What can I say? Eish. ㅏㅣ고 (Aigo).

    3) I think parents always want the best for their children, which is why many of them are complicit in this obsession. A teacher at my school told me yesterday “I feel it is a tragedy that my children were born in Korea” because she is aware of the side-effects of the education system but feels there is no other way to ensure them a secure and prosperous – albeit not happy – life. A teacher at Jenna’s school is also trying to raise her son differently and allow him to have a childhood that is more carefree. Both these teachers have hired tutors to teach their children conversational English after-hours – and these are the dissenters!

    4) I have planned whole blog post on beauty – thanks for highlighting the link with education. As you point out, success is measured in very specific ways in this country and the pressure to achieve academic success is only one aspect. Katzenmeyer’s documentary also makes this link.

    • Dee, I can’t wait to see your blog on beauty – after our chat tonight I was thinking about all that had been said and it seems that between the absolute stress experienced by these poor children for educational perfection, and the striving to be beautiful (again, striving for a perceived perfection), Korea and in fact much of the world, when I think about it, teach values that are so skewered and I find it incredibly sad that we buy into this.

  6. Beautiful writing, Dee – I really enjoyed reading your take on life in Korea.

    Really sad that studying has been measured by the number of hours spent at a desk and accumulation of information received. In many other Asian and Middle Eastern countries too, ‘learning’ seems to have such a negative effect on children. A great education is what one should aim for, but not at the cost of inner peace, contentment and joy in day to day life.

    I have heard a few stories about children even as young as 5 who are pushed to excel at ‘school’, and get very upset and disturbed when they do not get full marks or come 1st in class. Education, especially at the level of Pre-primary school, should be informational, interactive and most of all the children should find it enjoyable and have fun through the learning process.

    I think about when, during examination periods, teens sometimes commit suicide due to the pressure of ‘not doing well enough’ which is translated by children as ‘I am not good enough’.

    We are all good enough – we are great. We just don’t always know it, and if we are not encouraged as children about just how great we are, we will never know it as adults.

    No one is ever stupid – we ALL have gifts that cannot always be measured by ‘conventional education’ criteria.

  7. Pingback: Teacher Small Face: On Beauty in South Korea | The Culture Muncher·

  8. Pingback: Korea’s Dying Young: Student Suicide Spikes | The Culture Muncher·

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