South Korea’s Education System is a Form of Child Abuse

Former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said that Australia should strive to emulate the success of East Asian education systems. However, as Save Our Schools has pointed out on several occasions, there is a dark side to the success of East Asian that Gillard and others wilfully ignored. This dark side was highlighted in a recent article in the New York Times on the South Korean education system.

Former fellow and lecturer in Korean studies at Yale University, Se-Woong Koo, wrote that the South Korean education system amounts to a form of child abuse.

The world may look to South Korea as a model for education — its students rank among the best on international education tests — but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.

Koo also has first-hand experience of Korea’s notorious cram schools called ‘hagwons’. He taught advanced English grammar to 11-year-olds at an expensive cram school in the wealthy Seoul neighbourhood of Gangnam.

Cram schools like the one I taught in — known as hagwons in Korean — are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later.
Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying. Hagwons consume more than half of spending on private education.

He says that the private education industry has run amok and must be better regulated to put children’s welfare first.

Although successive presidents have made attempts to rein in the cram schools, including mandating a 10 p.m. closure, many hagwon owners flout the regulations by operating out of residential buildings or blacking out windows so that light cannot be seen from outside. And some parents hire private tutors to get around the rule.

While hagwons explain South Korea’s spectacular success in international tests such as the OECD’s PISA, students are forced to bear huge physical and psychological costs for this success.

Many young South Koreans suffer physical symptoms of academic stress….Students are also inclined to see academic performance as their only source of validation and self-worth. Among young South Koreans who confessed to feeling suicidal in 2010, an alarming 53 percent identified inadequate academic performance as the main reason for such thoughts.
Not surprisingly, South Korea’s position in the international education hierarchy is flipped when it comes to youth happiness, with only 60 per cent of the country’s students confessing to being content in school, compared with an average of 80 per cent, in 2012, among the world’s wealthy nations.

Another cost is the lack of autonomy for South Korean children:

To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience.
Obedience to authority is enforced both at home and school. I remember the time I disagreed with my homeroom teacher in middle school by writing him a letter about one of his rules. The letter led to my being summoned to the teacher’s office, where I was berated for an hour and a half, not about the substance of my words but the fact that I had expressed my view at all. He had a class to teach but he did not bother to leave our meeting because he was so enraged that someone had questioned his authority. I knew then that trying to be rational or outspoken in school was pointless.

Koo says that despite decades of outright abuse and the entrenchment of this disturbing system, signs are emerging that some people are beginning to take reform seriously.

In the course of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorial rule, South Koreans have embraced the notion of “healing,” with the understanding that past political repression and continuing social pressure have engendered psychological ills that require redress. That trend has led to discussion of the detrimental effects the education system has on students and what should be done.

However, he says, “to effect any meaningful change in education, a culture that treats its children as a commodity to be used in the service of the family or the national economy must be radically altered”. Above all, the conviction that academic success is paramount in life needs to be set aside completely.

Before South Korea can be seen as a model for the 21st century, it must end this age-old feudal system that passes for education and reflect on what the country’s most vulnerable citizens might themselves want.

So, beware of politicians who say we should follow East Asian education.

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