Education Is Not All About Getting a Job
February is ``education month'' in Korea. Graduations and admissions take place in this month each year. Teachers are busy planning for their next school term, and students are playing as hard as they can in preparation for the months of study ahead. It is, therefore, reasonable for us to take a step back during this season and consider what ``education'' means here.
The Korean word for education is ``gyo-yuk,'' which derives from Chinese characters meaning ``mastery of the classics.'' Not so different from the classic Western ideal, which was the study of literature and philosophy, since the Chinese classics, like the Greek and Roman, generally mixed the two. These aren't very ``practical'' subjects, but both Korea and Europe of the 19th century limited education to a privileged few.
Education in Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) was much the same as in the US at the time. Study went little beyond the ``Three Rs'' (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic). Literature, government documents, and religious texts were the focus of much of the reading. Writing seldom went beyond copying or dictation, and mathematics was limited to day-to-day usefulness. In Korea, lessons taught students to be loyal and useful subjects of the Japanese Empire. Memorization was all that mattered, as thinking was reserved for high government officials.
Prior to 1945, less than 30% of Korean children completed primary school. Government schools were poorly funded, and students often faced a need to help support their families long before their schooling was completed. For those with money, private tutoring or private schools with classic education designs were preferred.
Today, Korea follows a typical American schooling framework; 6 years of elementary school and 3 years each at middle and high school each, with 4 years of classes in university. The similarities end there.
The principle differences in education between Korea and western lands can be seen in the role of tests. It must be admitted that western educational standards continue to evolve, and the recent ``standards-driven'' and ``no child left behind'' programs in the US are moving away from the hard-to-quantify aims that were idealized in the 1980s, but a simple comparison of how one prepares for the university entrance exam is a good analogy for the aims of education in general.
The American high school teacher will say, ``You cannot study for the SAT. You have to develop thinking skills.'' While this is not altogether true, the assumption is that with regular high school lessons and a few hours of homework each day, admission to the best universities is available to anyone. The educational aim is to ``develop the whole person,'' which includes creativity and the ability to analyze new situations based on comparable cases ― the classic literature approach to education.
The Korean parent will say, ``Why aren't you studying?'' The assumption is that the high school classroom is not an adequate source of learning, and that additional resources are essential to obtain entry into top universities. One simply needs to memorize everything to be successful. A child's duty is to study.
Many Korean high school students spend more than 12 hours per day in classrooms studying, nearly double the official national curriculum. Extra hours take place at school, alone, with private tutors and in cram schools (hagwon). Although Korea spends over 7% of its GDP on education, it is estimated that roughly half of the amount is spent on extra-curricular study. The focus is on memorization of data to prepare for multiple-choice tests.
Koreans rightfully take pride in ``best of world'' rankings for high school students' knowledge in mathematics and science on paper and pencil tests. But these students too often lack the ability to apply their learning to life-like situations. They spend little time in chemistry laboratories and field-studies. They regurgitate history and literature as taught, but cannot critique the reasoning. They memorize grammatical rules and vocabulary without being able to write in their native language or in English.
If we look at a typical young Korean job applicant's resume, it is filled with entrance dates, such as when he or she entered high school, entered university, etc. A western resume has graduation dates. Entering the school or company is the success in Korea after which one can then relax until the next entrance exam. Korean university students, with no further educational entrance exams to prepare for, study for professional licenses and non-academic certificates. With increased competition for even the less-distinguished white-collar jobs, students have little time or motivation for their campus studies.
Many Koreans start their professional career before their university term has ended, and professors waive attendance for the final weeks (or months) of classes. And with the slowing economy, more students are delaying graduation, avoiding the shame of being a graduate without a quality job. After all, the purpose of all that education was to get that job! Entering a good company leads to higher status and a ``better'' spouse, and then the process renews itself.
Robert J. Dickey is a tenured professor at Gyeongju University in North Gyeongbuk Province. He has lived and taught in Korea since 1994, and is a former president of Korea TESOL.