Seth Andrew, right, principal of the Democracy Prep Public Charter School, based in Harlem, New York City, has introduced Korean culture and language learning programs. / Yonhap
By Lee Gil-sang
Education in Korea or Korean-style education, along with hallyu (Korean wave), is drawing attention all over the world. The movement to learn from Korean-style education started years ago among developing countries, apparently because they thought that education played an important role in the country's achievement of industrialization and democratization within a short period of time, and thus felt they needed to learn from South Korea's experience.
Education methods adopted by Korean colleges and texts developed by Korean education content developers are being exported to other countries. U.S. President Barrack Obama has often referred to a need for Americans to learn from Korean-style education.
Korean-style private institutes specializing in entrance exams have emerged one after another in large cities in the United States. In international academic achievement tests, Korean students have consistently displayed excellent scores. This something we Koreans feel proud of and of which people in other countries are envious.
Korean-style education has been regarded as a charm with influence on people the world over. Recently, a success story about a small school in the U.S. that adopted Korean-style education became the focus of attention, concerning Democracy Prep Public Schools in New York. They are privately run charter schools with support from the government.
Seth Andrew, who founded the schools, used to teach English at a middle school in Cheonan, South Korea in 2000. He was surprised at the respectful way Korean parents and teachers treated teachers, including himself, and the earnestness shown by Koreans towards education. Korean-style educational culture and values uniquely Korean impressed him very deeply. After returning home to the U.S. in 2005, he founded a school and taught American students Korean values and adopted Korean-style education methods.
The school designated Korean as a required subject and taught Korean culture such as talchum (mask dance), samul nori (Korean traditional percussion quartet) and taekwondo. The result was a great success. Within a very short period of time, the school ranked first in New York in terms of students' academic achievements, with most of the graduates entering prestigious colleges.
Seth Andrew believes that hallyu, including the K-pop frenzy, is a product of Korean-style education. He says that Korean-style education will soon be another hallyu phenomenon. Let's think then about what factors in Korean-style education have such great strength.
I asked foreign students in my graduate course class on education about their opinion on the strength of Korean-style education. They pointed to "Koreans' infinite trust in the power of education and their earnestness for education." Koreans' eagerness for education has developed over a long period of time.
According to a recent study, during the Joseon Period (1392~1910), even slaves belonging to the lowest class established seodang (private schools) for their children. Many foreigners staying in Korea found Koreans' earnestness for education extraordinary. In an article carried by an American magazine in 1947, Frank L. Eversull, who served as Chief of College in the Department of Education of the United States Army Military Government in Korea right after Korea's liberation from colonial rule, said the following about Koreans' earnestness for education: "I have never met a group of people in my life who were more interested in education and wanted it more badly."
Professor Michael J. Seth at James Madison University of the United States, who wrote a book "Education Fever" about Koreans' fervent eagerness about their children's education, exchanged dialogues with students last week in one of my classes for graduate students. Asked about his opinion on Korean education by a Chinese student, he did not hesitate in saying: "Would it have been possible for South Korea to achieve such rapid development and democratization without education? To many people in foreign countries, Korean education is a symbol of hope."
It is ironic that the fervent eagerness about education and Korean-style education are regarded as a social evil by locals, while foreigners view them as a source of the country's power. In a recent lawsuit in Korea, the court recognized a parent's excessive earnestness regarding the education of the children as a legitimate reason for divorce. Not only that, but recently some politicians started a campaign to enact a law for the suppression of excessive eagerness for education.
It has been a generally accepted practice for parents to make their children learn things that are normally taught at the next grade in advance in an effort to have them stay ahead of their classmates and then enter prestigious colleges.
Other parents - opposed to such a practice based on the belief that children are driven into too harsh a condition amid fervent competition - are asking for the enactment of a law that prevents schools or private institutes from following such a practice. Foreigners will find it a curious situation. Perhaps, South Korea will become the first country that enacts a law that attempts to suppress parents' excessive eagerness about their children's education.
Here, let's think what makes locals find their education-related situation a crisis, when many foreigners feel envious of it? It can be explained in two ways. First, individual Koreans tend not to recognize their inferiority compared to others close to them. They tend to attribute their poor performance in school, for example, to a problem in the system or growth environment rather than thinking that their failure is a result of their poor ability or insufficient efforts. Many of them think that they or their children failed due to an inadequate education or entrance exam system.
Education has become an easy target of criticism in this country. Second, only a small percentage of Koreans achieve their life objectives through education, because most of them put priority on entering a prestigious college. Only 5 percent of those who have finished the entire course of public education enter "first-rate" colleges. The remaining 95 percent tend to think that they are victims of poor public education.
I do not mean to be a strong supporter of Seth Andrew's praise of Korean-style education. Still, Korean-style education is not so bad, as some parents think in asking for the enactment of a law that prevents schools or private institutes from teaching things to students in advance. What I would like to suggest is that we should avoid appraising the country's current education system or suggesting alternatives from the perspective of a victim of the system.
Measures taken to suppress people's earnestness about education, which many foreigners praise as a great strength of Korean-style education, are those taken by those who regard themselves as victims of circumstances. We should pay attention to the views of foreigners who think highly of Korean-style education and regard it as the basis for hallyu and the country's achievement of rapid industrialization and democratization. K-education had already reached a spot close to the top of the World Education Charts well before K-pop did the same in Billboard's World Music Charts.
The writer is a professor of education at the Academy of Korean Studies and the author of A History of Korean Education in the 20th Century (2007).