Monday, May 12, 2008

[Feature] Korean High Schools: The Korean Parents' Guide to Avoid Spending Time with Their Teenage Children

Its 10PM. Do you know where your children are? I think all of us know this pop culture reference, yeah? The interesting thing is, if you were to ask parents of American high schoolers, youre probably going to get a lot of varied answers. But I can guarantee that youll get an across-the-board, single answer from the parents of Korean high-schoolers: My child is at school. In a country where 15-hour (minimum) school days are the norm for all students, there is little to wonder about what your 16 year-old is doing on a Monday, Thursday, Saturday, or any other night for that matter.

High school education in Korea is a science in of itself, a perfected formula of determination, perseverance, and self-sacrifice that leads to the ultimate desired goal- entrance into the college of ones choice, preferably one of the top ranked universities. To achieve this, all students must put in hours of classroom learning (usually from 7am-5pm) in addition to self-taught study sessions/marathons (usually from 5pm-10pm), in addition to extra hours at private, after-school academies known as hagwons (usually from 10pm-1am). Repeat, everyday. And its not a matter of choice, the education system is set up this way, so that almost every single school and student partake in this rigorous tradition.

But why is it this way? Koreans have a long history of placing the utmost importance on education. Although it is not the case so much anymore, it used to be that where you attended college would be the most important factor in determining your lifes outcome. In theory, this idea is outdated. In reality, not much in the current education system suggests that there has been a change, or that going to college is not important.

Everything in the Korean society caters to this idea of education and going to college- parents spending large proportions of their salaries on their kids' private tutoring, recreational facilities closing early on nights before exams to encourage studying, and even the Korean Air Force suspending flights on exam days to prevent disturbance. And add the growing number of Korean students applying to and attending American colleges (103,000 Korean students study at American schools, more than from any other country), and you get no relief from the intense academic pressures the country has instilled in its young citizens.

In my quest to get into college, I was told to be a well-rounded student. That meant participating in extracurricular activities and volunteering in addition to getting good grades and scoring high on college entrance exams. In other words, life didnt have to revolve around studies in order for me to get into the schools of my choice. That is not the case in Korea, obviously. With only so many hours in the day to memorize pages of facts for the next exam, there is hardly time for play or anything else.

The Korean school system has been credited for producing hard work ethic and dedicated workers, which in turn helps the countrys economic success. It also has produced some major bragging rights: 97% of the country's young adults complete high school, the highest percentage of any country in the world. But the system has also been criticized for being too harsh. More than 8 out of every 100,000 students aged between 15-19 committed suicide in 2003, making suicide the second most common cause of death after traffic accidents in that age group. That is a lot of young people succumbing to the societal pressures placed on them by taking their own lives.

I recently received an email from my 15 year old cousin, who just started freshmen year of high school in Korea. It was 11 at night, she had just returned home from school, and was writing me a quick hello in the little precious free time she had before turning in for the night. I was pretty excited to get an email from her, cause I havent seen or talked to her in a long time. I replied right away, in my very broken Korean, telling her to reply back the next time she had a free moment. I havent heard from her yet, and Im not expecting to anytime soon. Its just the way it is, and shes long accepted it, and I guess I should too.


Ginny said...

Wow, I've heard some crazy stories of the study ethics of Korean students.

And I bet that voluntarily choosing to have no social life as a teenager must do wonders on social skills....

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad my highschool life was in the states.

I'm so glad my college life was in the states too.