In Korea where I live and work as a teacher, education is entirely test-oriented. One is tested only too frequently throughout one’s education. The reason is to pass that all-important test to go to one of Korea’s top high schools: and this in order to have a very good chance of going to one of Korea’s three top universities, and then land a well-paying job upon graduation. Obtaining that well-paying job is the payoff; Korean education, and Korean society, cannot be understood apart from this fact. If you wish to gain admission to a top Korean university (and so get a good job afterwards), then your entire childhood must be bent towards this single goal—necessarily so, since the competition here is as stiff, or stiffer than getting into Harvard or Yale or Princeton—Korea’s equivalent universities being Seoul National University, Yonsei University, and Korea University.
From pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, mothers are anxiously shopping around, looking for the right private academy, or “hogwan,” in which to enroll their child, as the one way to accomplish this dream. Always in the forefront of a Korean mother’s thinking is this single, all-important goal of education: obtaining a well-paying job. Studying the liberal arts, pursuing “knowledge for its own sake,” studying philosophy, for example, motivate few in Korea. Education must be practical—and most students pursue their undergraduate studies in areas like law, medicine, pharmacy, business, engineering, education, and the like. In the five years spent here, I have met only two students who love to learn for its own sake, but both will pursue practical educational paths; one will study to be a scientist, the other a diplomat.
To an extent we Americans cannot understand, a Korean child’s life is measured less by birthdays or participation in sports or some other extra-curricular activity, as in the U.S., than in moving from this test to that test, of being immersed in this or that private school or academy, often until 8, 9, or 10 at night, every night.
I’ve seen hundreds of students attending one or more academies, after school or in the evening and even on the weekends. Indeed, it is common for many, more well-to-do Koreans, to attend several different academies; and not a few attend as many as six different after-school academies, studying not only academic subjects like Korean, English, Chinese, social studies, science, and math, but also non-academic ones such as Tae Kwon Do, art, and music (piano, violin, etc.).
What is unimaginable in American society is the degree of self-sacrifice Korean parents, especially poor parents, make so that their child can attend at least one academy. Because most public schools are perceived by Korean society to be inadequate to prepare students for the years of critical testing which will determine their entire future, private, after-school academies are seen to be the best way to educate their children—i.e., to pass the all-important exams required to go to a top-tier high school, then be accepted by a prestigious university, and go on to land a well-paying job: the fruit of one’s dedicated labors and the decade-long sacrifices made by the student’s parents and family
Due to the extreme emphasis on test-taking, many Koreans develop such a proficiency in taking tests that they are almost “pros” at it—and their scores often show it. We Americans would not fare well in competition with a veteran 12-year-old test-taker, much less a “pro” of 18 years of age! This is one reason why Koreans do well on international tests and we Americans do not. To watch a 12 year-old attack an exam with equal amounts of calm, self-confidence, and nonchalance is impressive indeed. Tellingly, there are few sweaty palms, palpitations of the heart, or shallow breathing—the by-product of weekly tests, at school or at academies, for years and years.
But a serious consequence of such stressful living since kindergarten, viz., the pressure to be a top student, is that after college most people stop reading. I know dozens of people and not one cares to learn new things, English excepted (though this, too, is a practical subject). They are simply burned-out. The joy that should have accompanied their learning, didn’t—only stress did. If they do anything, they might dabble at art or take up music, though few even do this. But EVERYONE here watches TV, which offers some of the most clownish, inane, or absurd programs on record—a tribute to a society that can’t think.
What you have pervading Korean society and culture, then, is an empty head and distracted heart; consequently, thinking is something only a few here can manage. And for a young, developing country, that is dangerous indeed.
Now add to this the well-nigh universal addiction in Korea to cell-phones and their games (added to TV watching) and one has a slow retardation of society settling in. People increasingly prefer a cell-phone game, or texting, to live, present conversation. I’ve even seen, on many occasions, mothers ignoring their babies when engaged in playing cell-phone games; lovers with cell-phone games in hand sitting silently across from each other; friends oblivious to one another for long periods of time while engrossed in playing games; even people 40 years old and older obsessed with cell-phone games; and of course students who use cell phones in class ubiquitously and compulsively. Society can’t fare well, cannot grow and deepen, under such harsh conditions of mental neglect and absolute self-absorption—yet that describes present-day Korean society, and I suspect many another as well.
Thinking begins—or should begin—when one is young, and slowly develops in strength over the course of many years, indeed, continuing even unto death. New insights, new ideas about life and how we should live together fruitfully, or just sheer joy and wonder at life’s beauty and complexity—books of glorious prose and poetry deep and poignant: these are the offspring of genuine thought, and make life better not only for the reader but, through the reader, the whole of society. This desiccation of the minds of our young, however, has serious ramifications for society as a whole. Yet we have not even begun to address this grave problem—not here in Korea, and hardly anywhere in the West. We blithely assume technology—or education by test-taking—or education directed simply at getting a job, will inevitably yield harvest after harvest of benefits to society. This couldn’t be more wrong. One glance at our western culture today tells us that we are lost: we know neither the proper goals to seek nor the means to reach them. Like the ostrich, we keep our head buried…in game-playing—cell, lap-top, or otherwise. Or to use another image: Rome (western culture) is burning while Nero (us) fiddles (plays games, refuse to grow intellectually, spiritually). It is a crisis of the first order, but Academia sleeps unconscious of the danger.
Civilization needs culture to sustain itself; it needs thinkers, innovators (in non-tech areas); it needs men and women who can discern worthy ends and devise means appropriate to that end. It needs men and women of deep sensitivity and profound minds. It needs artists and poets, writers and thinkers. But today—in Korea—but also around the globe, technology is ruling where thought and creativity once held sway.
And that is a recipe for societal disaster—and the continuing demise of western culture.
Len Sive Jr.