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History behind Korea’s obsession with education

November 15, 2013
Korean students go to another school, to do better in their regular school. (Newsis)

Korean students go to another school, to do better in their regular school. (Newsis)

By Kim Hye-sung

U.S. President Barack Obama has called Korea’s education system a model to be emulated. After all, Korean students rank the highest in the OECD PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment) and other exams.

But, Korean students spend long hours at the cram schools – called hakwon –  trying to outdo their peers in their regular school classes and college entrance exams. Typical high school students sleep only 5-6 hours a day. And, Korean parents who place a great emphasis on school performance, spend an average of 12 percent of their incomes on their children’s tutoring and schooling.

It’s also interesting to note that their interest in learning is very low, and suicide and depression rates are extremely high in Korea. Despite endless debate among politicians about changing the system, the education pressure never seems to ease.

This “education fever” dates back to the gwageo, a civil-service exam that flourished in the Joseon Kingom (1392-1910). Back then, people were classified into four main categories – Yangban (the upper class), Jungin (the middle class), Sangmin (the commoner) and Chunin (the lower class). A combination of Confucian values on learning and social hierarchy ranked people by their academic knowledge.

Both China and Korea have had the civil-servant exam system for several centuries. But, it was the Korean War that differentiated the two, with Korea’s education fever gaining momentum. In the wake of independence, Korea’s social order collapsed. Without a drop of oil or other critical natural resources, Koreans believed the only way to turn rags to riches was by getting a better education.

Although schools and classrooms were in ruins, parents and teachers set up tent schools and ran classes in shifts to educate children. Over time, this aspiration for learning intensified until it became a fever.

The Joseon Kingdom not only created a caste system, but also ranked individuals into four types of jobs: scholars, farmers, artisans and merchants (士農工商). The strong emphasis on “scholars” persists today, with job titles ending with the word “士” such as doctors (의사), lawyers (변호사), and accountants (회계사) valued the most.  As a result, students strive to get into the best universities as the first step to get a foot into the so-called “God’s place”: government offices, banks, and major corporations.

In their quest for secure, well-paid and prestigious jobs, students study hard and focus on improving their academic credentials and resumes.

Lack of natural resources, Confucian values, war, and society’s definition of “success” have accelerated Korea’s education “arms race.” But with falling birth rates, soaring suicide rates, and an aging population, it may be time to to take concrete measures to cool the fever.

34 Comments

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