Jeff, over at Ruminations in Korea, has a very interesting and informative (and saddening) post about the pressures on kids writing the Uni entrance exams in Korea, and the suicides related to it.
All I have to add to it is that not only does the nature of this form of University admission create a ton of unnecessary pressure, it also atomizes students and forces them to reject the idea of cooperative learning, a pattern that stays with them for a long time (I see it in my Uni classes all the time). Not only that, but it (along with the other all-or-nothing tests students face regularly in life) fosters an ineffective understanding of what education is. Education is not about learning something, and tests are not for showing what you’ve learned; education is an endurance test that is all about performing well on exams. Learning might occur, as a side effect, but exam-performance is the key issue. And for the most part, for a large number of the students I’ve known, education ended after high school, and in University they can medicate your brain with soju till graduation. What’s learned at University is so unimportant that outside Seoul (at least, and perhaps in Seoul as well) it’s an absolutely common practice for students to find a job after their third year and tell their professors, who credit them with passing their classes. Well, all except their stickler foreign English professors.
I can understand why high school grades aren’t used for Uni admissions, like in Canada; not only is it a problem of culture, becuse examinations to enter bureaucratic positions have existed in Korea, like the Mandarinate in China, for a long time. But it’s also a problem of standardization. If it all came down to grades, then you’d have oodles of students with grades in the top one percentile and grading would all be about tenths and hundreds of the last percentile, which is insane and unfeasible.
But it blows me away that all of this, so much of a student’s future, is riding on a single exam that has only two or three subjects: Math, English, and Korean. I mean, what about the philosophers, the artists, the sociologists-to-be? What about the people who suck at math but would make excellent science-history professors? It’s pretty ridiculous. Why not at least use departmental examsstandardized across the country, or within provincesto test students in their regular classes, and then use those grades to determine who’s top-school material?
Oh, but of course, that endangers the aristocratic privileges of the few, and we can’t have that.
Then again, there’s one more thing I need to say, which is this: the young Koreans I know, in school for example, tend to think that everything needs to flow down from the chaebols. Those big conglomerate family business empires seem to have a grip not just on the politics and the money in this country, but also on the imaginations of its citizens. There are examples everywhere of small businesses that are functioning fine, and Korea has room for all kinds of new industries and business models. Given the ineffectiveness of some practices and models (such as opening all the furniture shops on the same street in town, or building a new toolshop next to an already extant toolshop, and flooding the local market), someone with a little brains and imagination and guts could probably do well, with or without going to a big Uni.
But the young people I know seem to think they must either become bureaucrats, or salaried employees of the chaebols, or live a life of destitute horror. Nobody seems to think they could start a business, open a new shop. Well, they can, and they should try it instead of relying on the chaebols to provide for all. The chaebols won’t. They just won’t.