So deeply ingrained is the education problem in Korean society today that not a day goes by without some mention of it by the mass media. The fact that Korea boasts the largest discrepancy between academic achievement and intellectual curiosity amongst students of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries has already become all too familiar.
What the majority of the people have got terribly wrong is this - Korea has an education problem. What we classify as education problems on the surface level, in fact, stem from rigid social structures or outdated conventions.
After having directly imported the Japanese style of large-scale, uniform lectures (first devised in Britain to churn out an educated mass ready to take on the Industrial Revolution) in the colonial era, little has changed in the classroom scenery. Educators involved in policy-making have attempted to shift the focus from knowledge acquisition to creative collaboration in the classroom.
They are yet to revolutionize the classroom. That’s because Korean society is still a long way from intellectual democracy. Confucian ideals and respect for ”the more knowledgeable” aside, teachers as well as bosses and parents consider themselves to be in a hierarchial relationship when it comes to the exchange of ideas. A positive correlation exists between age and expected wisdom.
A five-part documentary series titled “Homo Academicus” went on air last year. Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) had hired four Harvard students to go on an eye-opening odyssey to Korea, Israel, China, and parts of the US. They visited schools, libraries, and households to interview students, educators, and parents. In societies where students garnered a true sense of intellectual curiosity, it was evident that the overall social atmosphere highly encouraged open discussion. Jews who have won in total 41% of all the Nobel prizes (definitely more than any other ethnicity, and the highest per capita ratio) have a unique discussion culture. Young moms and dads teach their children the Talmud and bombard their children with questions on ethical dilemmas, whilst the child slowly but surely formulates his own opinions about hard, answerless questions about life. When these children grow a little older, they are welcome to the haven of knowledge otherwise known as a library. Jewish libraries are the perfect ecosystem to breed creative problem solvers. Unlike most other libraries where students are allotted personal tables with dividers shutting all possibilities for communication, Jewish libraries comprise of open-ended tables where people can face each other and fiercely debate about the best way to solve a math problem, for instance.
We criticize the ajumma (middle-aged married woman with children) next door for making her children endure crazy hours at the private institutions. We are outraged by the lack of fair opportunities to all in university admissions. We cannot conceal the shock and surprise that 81% of the Korean population go to university. But the individuals have no choice to change something about this crazy system which now has gained a momentum of its own. If we can create a society where a doctor gets similar treatment to, say, a plumber, and where people do not judge by whether or not you have had some sort of higher education, and if the government encouraged the diversification of jobs, these problems can be solved in no time. Not everyone is born for higher education, and this is no haughty remark. There are so many jobs other than office jobs that don’t require university education, but require some other specialized education. What if you want to be a carpenter, an artist, a chef, an electrician, or a technician? Why must you follow the same path as everyone else, and became that insignificant sheep silently following the rest of the herd? There is no reason to do so.
When I said Korea did not have an education problem I obviously was not being literal. Korea has education problems that are making the lives of young students living hell. But let’s go back to the very basics. Aren’t all these problems a spin-off of our ailing society drowned by outdated perceptions?