(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture. So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners. In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)
Prior to the Japanese Colonization of Korea only the Korean elite were educated. The poor were left to roll mud into balls and then smash them up into mud over and over again. It was a redundant system.
One of the effects the Japanese Colonization had on Korea was that after it was over Korean society was effectively reset to ground zero. The class system was left in shambles and for the first time in its history Korea opened up education for the masses. Provided the masses had the money to pay for it, of course. Rolling of mud continued on a wide scale.
But something happened while traveling along the mud rolled path. Korea started to make some money. Many of those who had rolled mud switched to building things with steel. One of the benefits steel has over mud is that it can be used to build stairs which, by definition, can take you higher. Moving higher and higher, many people earned some money and suddenly the dream of sending your children to a university wasn’t so far off.
So there it was. An entire generation of Koreans who had the dream of educating their children and sending them to prestigious universities so that they might get good jobs and make even more money. Elevators would supplant stairs. Korea moved higher.
With education the key to a brighter future it became a fixture of Korean culture.
However, as with all societies, a class system again began to take hold. A system of University Patronage developed and those who went to the most prestigious of universities hired others from prestigious universities, regardless of qualifications.
At the end of the Japanese Colonization the University Entrance Exam was introduced, not much unlike our SAT. A person’s score on this exam fully determined what schools they were eligible to attend. With a person’s job future largely dependant on what university they went to the exam took on a new importance. Behold, the holy grail of Korean education. Everything that schools teach in Korea, everything students study, everything students think all leads to this exam.
Once the score is achieved and a position in a good university secured then many students no longer need to care about their education. Why should they? Provided they are not a complete idiot, their future is secured.
This system leads to an abundance of after school classes that many parents and students feel is more important than the government provided education. After school students go off to as many as four after school classes that gear them for this exam. Then they study till late at night. Then the next day at school they sleep and don’t listen to teachers and don’t care and there’s really no reason why they should. They already learned that day’s lesson in their private class 3 weeks ago.
I told my co-teacher, who admits to studying till 2 in the morning every night during high school and never during college, that I felt bad for the Korean students for the burden that is placed on them so early in life. She told me that Korea kids feel sorry for American kids who have to get after school jobs.