SOKCHO, KOREA — Since the 1950s, Koreans have demonstrated amazing resilience and determination to overcome the aftermath of a devastating war and construct what has now become one of the largest economies in the world. Unfortunately, Korea’s competitive market plus the cultural pressures placed on students to succeed has created a toxic atmosphere for Korean youth in secondary education.
Thanks to government protection, Korea’s economy is dominated by a number of manufacturing and technology industries (chaebols). This stable and resilient economy has not only weathered numerous economic downturns (in 2011 the economy grew 6.1% despite the global slowdown) but has also greatly improved standards of living for all Koreans. Although the Korean government has reduced regulations in recent years, their cooperation with the chaebols causes a great deal of dissatisfaction among significant portions of the elctorate who think this arrangement reduces competition and innovation, and thus leaves many Koreans out in the economic cold.
Korean domestic politics aside, the reality is that the heated competition for prized chaebol jobs places enormous pressure on students before they ever enter a university. A Korean’s entire life (both economically and socially) quite literally depends on how well he or she scores on the College Scholastic Abilities Test (CSAT): a brutal six hour long exam students take their last year of highschool. It’s given only once a year: a national test day that literally grounds aircraft and clears the road of traffic so students can arrive at their test sites on time. While students can take the exam again, they have to wait till the following year and endure another year of grueling study.
The pressures placed upon Korean students, though, transcend mere economic prospects. Traditional Korean values of education, hard work, and family loyalty also weigh heavy on the youth. South Korea has incredibly high attendance and graduation rates throughout primary and secondary education. The fact that the State only compels education through the sixth grade and requires parents to pay for secondary education underscores how much Koreans value education. While Americans discuss whether they should force truant students to attend highschool for their own good, no such discussion takes place in Korea: you’re going because your family says so and you’re going to do well.
It is of no surprise, then, that the CSAT casts such a long shadow on primary and secondary education in Korea. While elementary school children for the most part maintain their enthusiastic curiosity about the world, when they enter the grim halls of middle school and high school everything becomes centered on doing whatever one possibly can to prepare for the big, soul-crushing test.
A typical Korean secondary school day is as follows: lecture based classes start at 8:30 and end at 4. Instead of going home to do some homework and relax, the schools, parents, and economy give students one of two options: either they stay at study tables until 10pm preparing for the CSAT or their parents pay for them to attend one of the local hagwons: a private CSAT predatory (ha! prepatory) school where they sit through additional lectures and study even later into the night. Either way, they must study. In 2010, 74% of students in 2010 attended hagwons. While Amanda Ripley—a correspondent for Time Magazine—aptly describes the hagwons as a “sweatshop for children’s brains,” it’s hardly fair to lay all the blame on the hagwons; after all, without traditional Korean virtues coupled with an extremely competitive economy, no market would exist for the hagwons.
Unfortunately, this atmosphere has created an epidemic of physical and mental exhaustion. The result: Korea has the highest suicide rate among school age students: up to twenty percent of students claim they have considered suicide as an option with over half saying that the major cause is academic pressure — and pointless pressure at that. Koreans score phenomenally well on tests, but Swedish students, for instance, still outperform them without the help of hagwons.
In response to this appalling problem, school officials have actually begun patrolling their districts to breakup late night study sessions. They have even offered bounties to anyone who reports such illicit behavior. But it’s a difficult and tragic mission. Parents still willingly shell out thousands of dollars a year for such training and students throw themselves into their studies because without a good CSAT score they will find themselves locked in a dead-end job for the rest of their lives. The dark irony is that while Korean families care for their children and teach them discipline, they also paradoxically and tragically facilitate the oppressive educational atmosphere so detrimental to their children. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, Korean students suffer as they try to reconcile their sense of duty to their families and the demands of the market.
Of course this prompts the question: who is to blame? Is it overly demanding parents? Inefficient educators? Or is it the economy? Koreans are still trying to answer these questions and find solutions, but in the meantime, students suffer.
While we may bemoan the state of American education and envy the academic achievements of Korean students, both Americans and Koreans are still left with the fundamental question, what is the point of education? As it stands, both systems encourage the memorization of information necessary to pass tests and develop marketable resumes.
It’s clear, at least in Korea, that there is something wrong with such a narrow-minded model. If the Korean education system could emphasize something more than the bottom line, students can pursue knowledge for its own sake even as they struggle with the rest of us to put bread on the table.
Adam Petersen teaches in the city of Sokcho in the province of Gangwon, Korea. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.