Monday, July 27, 2009

Min Young Hahn: "Lack of Individuality"

Things have changed?

About one week ago, I finished teaching a summer course at Ewha Womans University for the EPO. In that course, we focused on education in Korea, and most of the students had generally negative things to say about the Korean education system for middle and high schools. I was quite interested in the students' papers, so I asked if any would like to have their remarks posted to my blog. I had wanted to write an entry of my own using quotes from the various papers, but that turns out to be impossible. The only student to send her paper was Min Young Hahn, who wrote a paper titled "Lack of Individuality," so I'm pasting it below in its entirety:
I changed my school two times, once middle school and then high school. In first case, the reason why I transferred was for a better curriculum. I attended a very good private primary school, so my parents and I could not be satisfied with public school. The next transfer, in high school, was to get fairer teachers as well as a better curriculum. Through these experiences, I learned that near Seoul, you can have an improved curriculum with more honest and more competent teachers. In spite of the better education, however, overall Korean education seems wrong to me. Having a better school is not enough for a good education if it is not based on individuality.

First of all, getting the best grades is everything at school, but grades should not be the goal of students at all. The real goal should be the learning that helps students to open their eyes toward society. When I was in middle school, I was one of the worst-graded students, so teachers ignored me and had bias against me. Most of them did not try to teach me anymore. The attitude caused me to repeat a vicious circle: I got bad grades again and again. Even when I became one of the highest-graded students in high school, I had to study for my grades, not for my knowledge. If I went to ask teachers things out of curiosity, they said, "just memorize." Even if you get good marks, it does not mean you know much, it means you memorize well. And according to your marks, you'll be regarded well or badly.

Secondly, school teaches students to obey. I learned it from the inspection of students' uniforms and haircuts at the front gate of school. Sometimes it did not fit my character. I agree that sometimes, obedience is important to keep order in school, but it must not trespass on my personal rights. Particularly, I had to cut my hair in compliance with the standards of school despite my body being mine. While I was being inspected in front of the gate, I could not stop thinking "Why on earth do they want to decide the length of my haircut?" The reason may be that the school had decided to dominate students thoroughly regardless of their individuality. Hair became a symbol of personal freedom to me. Having to be examined from somebody itself was disagreeable, too. School should distinguish between obedience necessary for order and obedience that infringes on students' rights.

In addition, wrongful conformity is the worst violation of individuality. On the surface, school looks peaceful, and students cooperate well. Because they come to a situation to spend their whole year with the same friends in a small classroom, they try to make conversation with other students so as not to be isolated. As a result, they follow general trends passively. Therefore, it is not cooperation, but lack of individuality and wrong conformity. I was a gregarious student. At least I believed I was. However, I realized that I was nothing more than adapting myself to conformity regardless of myself. The blinding effect of this hypocrisy disgusted me and wore down my self-respect also. Conformity without one's own individuality is harmful compared to real cooperation.

In conclusion, although Korean education appears to be advanced, it still lacks respect for individuality. Because of the extremely oppressive education, I misunderstood the concept of freedom. I yearned for freedom so much that as soon as I graduated from high school, I did things without restriction or duty. This resulted from pursuits radically reversed to my former education, for it was full of restriction. I wandered to find my individuality for a long time. If I had had an education based on individuality, I could have saved some time.
Several other students wrote similar essays on Korean schools, so I'm inclined to think that a problem of excessive restriction does exist. For this and other reasons, my wife and I are thus going to homeschool our kids. Sa-Rah will begin homeschooling in January 2010, and En-Uk in January 2011. Later, they will probably go to American universities.

Incidentally -- though this is not the fault of Korean education -- in searching for pictures of Korean school uniforms, I encountered some deceptively labeled sites that I'd have preferred not to see, for there seems to be a fetish about such uniforms, but I finally found a safe site with the image provided above.

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At 9:28 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

You're making the right choice. If I ever got married and had kids in Korea, I'd never put them through that educational system. For all its many, many faults, the American system does a better job of not producing robots.

While I'm leery of a certain sector of homeschooling parents in the States (I'm thinking of biblical literalists who don't want their kids learning actual science and critical thinking), I think homeschooling is a perfectly rational-- possibly even morally obligatory-- course of action in Korea. And in your case, the kids are in great hands, what with two teachers on the premises. (I'm assuming that "homeschooling" here refers to parents teaching their kids at home, not tutors teaching the kids at home.)


At 9:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for your vote of confidence, Kevin.

Yes, we'll be teaching them ourselves . . . though we might need to get a tutor for math. Even though I took calculus, I find that my quantitative skills have declined enormously since the 1970s.

I hope that you're doing well, by the way, though you've got a hard row to hoe.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:15 AM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

This will not stand, ya know

While all of what you (and your student) say is true, I'm amazed at how creative and free-thinking students can be, even given what they have gone through at the hands of, really, their parents.

I teach in an English Literature and Translation Department, so I guess my students have already self-selected for something a little outside of the cultural norms. Still, they can critically think with any student I knew in the United States and their curiosity about the world is sometimes staggering.

I think it was James Turnbull over at The Grand Narrative who first pointed out to me the importance of generation in Korea (like race in the US and class in the UK, with race now coming a hard second). But as I look at the current crop of 20-28 year olds I am teaching I have to think that there is an ongoing attack on intellectual conformity taking place in that generation.

It is interesting to hear them, as they contemplate their one chance at a job and then the likelihood that they will be in that job for about forever, try to figure out ways to find wriggle-room.

I suspect (or is that hope?) that they will be agents of change and begin to break the Korean educational system out of its lockstep model.

OTOH, who better than a "Gypsy Scholar" to teach young children. Just make sure they get appropriate socialization.

Back when I worked at the CC level we had a name for home-schooled girls who finally had to come to an open college. We called them "single mothers." ;-)

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CM said: "This will not stand, ya know . . ."

Then, it'll just have to sit and rest a spell.

You make an excellent point about the younger generation. They are different, for which there are a number of reasons, of course, such as 15 years of native-speaker instructors of English for them to learn from in private academies, the ubiquity of the internet for them to use for over ten years now, and enough wealth for them to travel outside of Korea and experience various cultures.

They know that things can be different, and they must be chafing not only against the school system but even against the hierarchy of Korean society.

I expect changes from below.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:17 PM, Blogger Teacher Leo said...

As someone who is at present teaching in a public school at middle school level, I find that your student has voiced all of my frustrations with the Korean education system not only comprehensively, but with a critical and poignant eye.
I cannot count how many times I have had conversations about how restrictive the system is with my fellow teachers, and how many times they agree with me and then say:
But we have to teach like this because the principal, the parents and the university wants this.
As long as Koreans regard a grade as the be and end all, it will persist.
And if I had kids of school-going age, they'd be homeschooled!

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

TL, I think that Korean schools work fairly well up to the end of elementary school, but middle and high schools are hell. I knew that already, but my daughter's altered experience in the shift from 6th to 7th grade has given me closer evidence.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:35 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Uniforms, I'm thinking Sailor Moon, but that's Japanese.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You know about Sailor Moon?! I didn't realize that this character had made her way to the States. Yeah, it's that sort of fetish (but rather worse in the deceptive websites that I happened upon).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:20 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

She was pretty popular in the US and other Anime characters. My son loved the Anime style and drew his own characters.

At 5:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've missed out on a lot of what goes on in the States by living overseas so long, so I guess that accounts for my ignorance.

My daughter also likes drawing in the Anime style.

Jeffery Hodges

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