In order to accommodate the transition to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many US colleges have been introducing alternative grading systems to temporarily replace the standard letter grades used in most American educational institutions. On March 13, MIT announced that it would adopt a mandatory pass/fail grading policy for all undergraduate and graduate courses taken during the current semester. Other top universities followed suit with varying degrees of flexibility; Columbia and Stanford University are mandating pass/fail grading, while Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon are allowing students to choose between pass/fail and traditional letter grades on a course-by-course basis.
Despite these universities’ attempts to alleviate the pressures experienced by students during this unforeseen time of crisis and to accommodate students’ personal circumstances, some student activists, particularly those at Yale and Harvard, are advocating for even more lenient grading systems that take into account those who need high grades to apply to graduate or professional schools — particularly the “universal pass” and the “double A” system. Under the “universal pass” system, students will pass every course that they are taking this semester, while the “double A” system guarantees an A or A- in every course.
Yet, among Korean colleges, the implementation of such grading systems — even during a worldwide emergency — is unheard of and likely even scoffed at. But why?
Why is it unthinkable in Korea — when Korean universities have also kicked students out of dorms and resorted to online lectures — to implement pass/fail grading? Why is it unthinkable to acknowledge the limitations of online learning and move out of their comfort zone (and modify even a bit of the established guidelines), when every other citizen, organization, and even government has sacrificed the entirety of their daily lifestyles? Why is it unthinkable to place more value on the wellbeing of underprivileged students in adverse circumstances than on a single letter? Is distinguishing between mediocre vs. high-achieving students that important in the midst of a deadly pandemic?
Perhaps, the reason is embedded within a distinct and inherent part of Korean culture — its overemphasis on scores and grades.
While South Korea is globally praised for its consistently high standardized test scores, the ugly dark side of how this is achieved — the expensive hagwons, or cram schools, that students attend until late into the night, and the suneung, the 8-hour be-all-end-all exam, that students dedicate the majority of their childhood and teenage lives to, is infamous.
Further, unlike the American public education system, which practices absolute grading, Korean systems grade relatively, beginning in high school. Such a system of relative grading perpetuates a constant cycle of competition among students, creating an excessively cutthroat academic environment. Although this pressure from both peers and parents motivates students to study around the clock with the sole goal of receiving admission to a good university, it is often toxic to their passion for learning. A common Korean phrase, “Gosams (students in their third year of high school) are not people,” accurately reflects students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and their robotic studying behavior, which largely consists of rote memorization and solving the same practice problems over and over again. Inevitably but unsurprisingly, students become burnt out from studying by the time they enter college, and it is in college where students drink and party to their heart’s content, to make up for their prison-like life in high school.
High school is not the end — it is merely a preparation process for the real studying that occurs in college and graduate school. Studying should be a marathon, not a sprint — and treating it as a sprint may prove to be a hindrance to the development and the potential of not only the students themselves, but also that of the nation as a whole.
In essence, the South Korean education system molds students into academic robots that mindlessly recite solutions to practice problems memorized in their entirety, without a care for the subject at hand. Yet, rather than simply churning out already-established facts and formulas, isn’t the purpose of education to develop our ability to utilize this acquired knowledge to think innovatively to solve novel problems and adapt to today’s ever-changing world? And shouldn’t college be the place to truly begin our studies and to thoroughly explore our passions?
Maybe — just maybe — the institution of a pass/fail system in this time of crisis will prove to be the first step in fixing this country’s strained and outdated education system, and more importantly, the utterly flawed mentality that your classmate, peer, and friend is just one more obstacle to surpass.