School as small society
Time to think about education’s fundamental issues
Koreans like rankings like few other peoples in the world. If the education ministry pushes ahead with its plan, they will have one more regular ranking, which grades the nation’s more than 10,000 elementary and secondary schools by campus violence.
Still the ministry’s first such report, made public on its website Friday, was more disappointing than promising.
The rankings, based on student surveys during the winter vacation, were grossly misleading by inflating the figures. In one extreme case, a school was categorized as highly violent, as one of only two respondents said so. Overall, only 25 percent of students bothered to answer with none taking part in the polls in 143 schools.
Teachers and parents in those schools branded as violence-infested are understandably upset, taking issue with the poor surveying method as well as its hasty announcement, which they believe is intended to pass the buck for the nagging problem of bullying and their victims to the schools. Officials seem content with just the enumeration survey and vow to conduct it every semester, while failing to present any follow-up steps.
We don’t completely agree with the schools’ complaints. The government needs to grasp the exact situation to work out countermeasures. Yet the whole episode leaves a bitter taste, as it comes on the heels of President Lee Myung-bak’s recent remark that a nationwide survey and opening the results to the public would help curb school violence. Polls cannot be a cure-all or even any remedy by themselves but rather the basic data for a long task that should be handled rather carefully.
What all this brouhaha shows is the shallow view and easygoing approach with which President Lee and his education team are dealing with the increasingly serious social issue of violence among teenagers.
A school is a microcosm of society, in which students mimic what adults do. Some teachers don’t hesitate to call the nation’s middle and high schools as hell where students are forced to undergo ceaseless exams and told to win over other schools or other students in the same class or grade. These teenagers are friends and enemies to one another at the same time, like gladiators in ancient Roman arenas. Those who cannot keep up with this rat race often try to reaffirm their existence by bullying and harassing weaker colleagues.
Teachers are easy targets for what the Korean education has become. Sure, some elementary schools are less interested in their students’ condition than in their parents’ financial condition, and most secondary school teachers have long been reduced to trainers of test-taking robots. Many students no longer listen to, much less respect, their teachers. But teachers have only followed what parents wanted them to do _ make their children think only of themselves and their competitiveness rather than caring for and cooperating with others, wanting to prolong their home training to schools.
In an increasingly polarizing society where poor school records lead to perpetual second-class citizenry, no small missteps are forgiven, driving teenagers to suffocating competition and awakening the devil in them whenever things go awry.
The time has long past for the entire establishment _ parents and teachers, political parties and business enterprises _ to seriously ask themselves whether Korean education should continue to emphasize only competition and competitiveness or at least mix it with such concepts as humanity and empathy.
Education has always been in the domain of politics, and will remain so. The neo-liberalistic Lee administration shows why it has clear limitations in addressing the fundamental problems of Korean education. And this in turn explains why one can’t help but harbor new expectations in this election year. Koreans can ill afford to turn society into a big hell.