Amanda Ripley, an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation, recently wrote a compelling piece in Time that describes how the South Korean government is now cracking down on students who study too much. In "Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone" Ripley states that the mission of the government raids is simple:
To "find children who are studying after 10 p.m. And stop them."
I've heard of "drug busts." But I've never heard of "study busts." Until now.
President Obama has said: "we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." And as I have written in an earlier article If You Are Creative, Are You Also Intelligent? the U.S. is not doing well in international comparison tests in the areas of math, science, and reading. In the latest comparison, China was first on all subjects, with Japan, Korea, Singapore and Finland trailing closely behind.
So why is the Korean government cracking down on kids who choose to study? Could it be because they are studying after 10 p.m. that the nation's scores are near the top of international comparisons? Some American's think so, and a recent book, Surpassing Shanghai (edited by Mark S. Tucker), suggests we should learn from the educational systems of countries like Korea (I also suggested this in my article Is This How To Fix Our Math Education?). But some of the Korean's are seeing a problem with their obsessive educational culture.
South Korea's Education Minister explains: "You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system, but Koreans are not happy with it."
According to Ripley, "At the national and local levels, [Korean] politicians are changing school testing and university admissions policies to reduce student stress and reward softer qualities like creativity." And in China, "universities have begun fashioning new entry tests to target students with talents beyond book learning."
In my earlier article, I wondered why the Chinese were trying to emulate Americans because they were already doing so well. Now I realize that it's not just the Chinese but the Koreans too. Perhaps these changes will be good for the students. Yet on the other hand, I wonder, are the Korean and Chinese governments making educational moves that will reduce their performance in international comparisons?
And here's another question: do you think the Chinese and Korean's are easing up because they simply feel that they have already blown their competition out of the water?
But let's get back to the story. So why exactly are Korean students so obsessed with studying?
In Korea, it all comes down to this: getting into one of the top universities. There are only so many slots, and Koreans think the rewards that come from attending one of the top schools are enormous. They also believe that where you go to school will determine where you end up in life. This is very similar to the select university mania that we see among the educational elite of America. Many believe that admission to one of the Ivy League will provide a tremendous advantage in education, work, and life. And in some ways this is likely true.
So while Americans are dreaming about "Surpassing Shanghai," are Asians dreaming of slowing down to become more like Americans? The grass may really look greener in the other lane.
And the title of Ripley's article says it all: "Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone." Perhaps there is enormous pressure from Korean parents and teachers for students to perform at the highest levels and pursue excellence. But I think that lost in all this are these questions:
What about those students who wish to study because they are choosing to pursue excellence on their own? What gives the government the right to tell them they have to stop studying?
In America, this is a bit like how our educational system holds back many of our brightest students. In A Nation Deceived, it was found that in many ways the smart fraction of America are being trapped in the lock step of the educational system. In other words, many students are ready for a faster pace and they wish to study more, but we are simply not letting them.
And in the end, I think it all comes down to this: adults almost always think that they know what is best for children.
Perhaps it is time that the South Korean government allowed their children to have some say in whether they can study after 10 p.m.
But there is still hope. In Korea, as the government curfew tightens its grip, the people fight back. According to Andrew Kim, a successful tutor at one of the large companies in Korea, "The tougher the measures, the more resilient hagwons [after hours tutoring academies] become."
Which shows that despite what the government tries to impose, the people will still choose to do what they think is right.
© 2011 by Jonathan Wai