Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Yi Kwang-su on South Korean Education?

South Korean Students
Art by Andy Rementer

Se-Woong Koo, writing "An Assault Upon Our Children: South Korea's Education System Hurts Students" (NYT, August 1, 2014), argues pretty much what her title asserts:
After my older brother fell ill from the stress of being a student in South Korea, my mother decided to move me from our home in Seoul to Vancouver for high school to spare me the intense pressure to succeed. She did not want me to suffer like my brother, who had a chest pain that doctors could not diagnose and an allergy so severe he needed to have shots at home . . . . Thirteen years later, in 2008, I taught advanced English grammar to 11-year-olds at an expensive cram school in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam . . . . When I asked a class if they were happy in this environment, one girl hesitantly raised her hand to tell me that she would only be happy if her mother was gone because all her mother knew was how to nag about her academic performance.
This is not a new phenomenon in Korea:
There is a historical explanation for South Korea's education fervor. During the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), having children pass the civil service examination administered by the royal court was seen as a sure conduit to social and material success for the entire family. As the late Professor Edward Wagner at Harvard noted, even then a form of private education persisted, with candidates taking years of lessons to prepare for the exam and wealthier families splurging on special tutors.
The much maligned Yi Kwang-su identified the problem:
Decrying the state of young people's existence in Korea, Yi Kwang-su, an early reformist intellectual, wrote in a 1918 essay, "On Child-Centrism," "As long as parents live, children have no freedom and are treated like slaves or livestock not unlike subjects of a feudal lord."
Parents attitudes of the Joseon Era (i.e., "Choson Dynasty") have lingered on, as Koo has shown, though I actually think the attitudes are shifting, especially among students, who are more and more choosing their own path.

But I'm glad to encounter Yi Kwang-su's name mentioned in a positive sense these days . . .

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