Lime told me today, as we were talking about the educational system in Korea, “I don’t believe this country’s future is so bright.” The reasons she gave, though, were interesting. “Young people aren’t interested in anything that matters. They don’t think about politics. They aren’t interested in science, philosophy, or history. What they worry about is getting a job, and money… and then, getting married and settling down and having kids. And then the only thing that matters is their kids, sending their kids to a good University.”

She lamented the person she was, and said that until high school, she was the sort of person who very vocally aired her opinions, her dissent. “What do you think of the word ‘outstanding’,” she asked me, and of course, I knew what she was getting at. In her educational experience, anything ‘outstanding’ has to be normativized, made average. Being different is unacceptable, if it involves deviation from the norms, the standards, the party line. She said she used to be more outstanding, and lost that. And she claims it also killed her creativity, her passion, and her imagination. Which is not true, but I can feel how they were stifled by the schooling she went through.

So anyway, one thing we touched upon was that schooling children here is something we’re both uncomfortable with, even down to elementary school. I’m more uncomfortable than her, it seems… she thinks kindergarten and maybe grade one or two might be okay, but I’m thinking that, while that might be true for a Korean kid, it’s probably not so true for a mixed-race kid, right now anyway. Things might be different when the time comes, but anyway, we both feel it’s very important to get whatever kids we might have an education that equips them to think critically, evaluate things logically, have an opinion, dare to be different, and an education that nurtures creativity instead of stifling it and then choking it to death under the weight of a life-determining exam written at age 18.

From my own side, I noted that education in the West isn’t perfect, and is missing some major and important things, too, but that a lot of them seem to be missing from Korean education as well. Korean public education, in other words, seems to have most of the negatives of a Western education, and few of the positives.

As for my current frustration, after a week of meeting students one-on-one about their essays, what distresses me most is this pattern I’ve seen. Almost every time a student comes to me with his or her essay, and says, “What does this note mean?” and I explain the note, and how the passage thus annotated opens whole cans of worms in terms of assumptions — in other words, nearly everytime I ask a student, “Is that true? Show me some evidence!”– the student asks me, “Should I just cut this passage?”

Even though they know that they are expected to expand their essays with material gotten from research, the vast majority of students who find themselves having to question their assumptions or get some evidence to prove their claims seem to interpret my demand for evidence, or faced with a request that they reflect on whether their assumptions are true and why, seem to think that I’m telling them their answer is wrong and needs to be cut, or at least seem to be thinking, “God, I don’t want to think about this and write about it, can’t I skip the fundamental questions?”

Which brings me to an interesting discussion of plagiarism, of presentation-making as more than just downloading and reading content from Wikipedia, and of how our department is, and should be, handling this issue. One of my co-workers has handed around an interesting, but I think somewhat problematic, passage from a book on cultural differences in terms of thinking and education. I need to read it again and think about it before I comment further.

UPDATE: While on the current state of affairs of education here, a couple of worthwhile links to Marmot’s, one on effective censorship of an employee by his university, and the other on parallels between historical and contemporary opposition to academic reforms in Korea. Sobering stuff.

7 thoughts on “Outstanding

  1. I used to be the student rep on my university’s discpline committee. Most of the cases were for academic dishonesty and nearly all the cases involved north asian students.

    Then I came to Korea and found that my students were far more to used terms like ‘hacking’ or ‘cunning’ to describe cheating rather than ‘ssagi’

  2. Woah! To be fair, when I taught in Montreal, the cheaters came from a wide range of backgrounds. And without prejudice, they were all flunked. Only the serious hardcase repeaters ever were pushed harder than that, but one supervisor I worked under got someone expelled once, because he repeatedly plagiarized everything he wrote for classes. He was an Anglophone Canadian, I think.

  3. Gord,
    I should have fleshed out my thoughts more.

    I think that part of the problem with Korea and to a certain extent East Asia in general is that it tends to value more a correct answer more than how they got the answer.

    Which when the kids jump into the western system where they asked for how they got there and not just that they got there that can tend to situations where students might be tempted into academic dishonesty and not view it as such (certainly the problem we had happen).

    Oddly enough the worst case I ever saw was an MBA student who came from a rather prominent family from the local maori tribe and got a Queens Counsel to to basically scare the university into letting him go through threat of law suit.

  4. Mer,

    While I might have issues with “unschooling” in practice, the theory sounds interesting.

    (With my reservations being related to remembering being, sometimes, a hell of a lazyass as a kid. I don’t think I ever would have learned quadratic equations if I hadn’t been forced, and I am glad that I learned them, now.) I probably would have played AD&D for two years straight, if I’d gotten my way. Then again, if I hadn’t used it as a way of escaping from school, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten into AD&D so much in the first place.)

    I’m curious to hear how it turns out. It’d be an interesting blog, a bunch of parents Unschooling their kids. Though another thing that makes me leery is the way that half the links I see on that page you linked are to “Christian homeschooling” and “Christian unschooling”. Some part of me sees such an association and worries about the lack of outside influence in raising a kid. I think I would want some mitigating factor for that, since I may not trust teachers all that much — I remember what drunkards and idiots they were in high school, a lot of the people who ended up as ed majors a few years later — but I think it would also be foolish to trust myself too far, too.


    Wow, a lawsuit. That sounds awful.

    I certainly agree that the focus on the “right answer” is a huge part of the problem, and I think that I understand your earlier point better now. Until that “right answer” tic is sorted out — until students can really, truly grok “There is no right answer, guys, but what do you think?” — education here will be skewed and unlikely to produce the kinds of results that would even approach those of Western schools, as problematic as those, too, often are.

  5. Hey Gord,

    The thing with quadratic equations is, if you’d been an unschooler and wanted to learn them, you’d have learnt them. (why are you glad you leant them just out of curiosity?) And I think what you say about AD&D is about right, you may not have wanted to play it that much if you had been “allowed” to play it that much. And even if you DID play it that much, so what? You’d have had thousands of hours of extra time that kids in school have had to waste while they wait for others to finish up and exercise, or while they look out the window because what’s going on in the classroom is too hard, or while they study a subject in which they’ve no interest and will promptly forget.

    Homeschooling/unschooling is what you make it. If you want to be reclusive or a Christian or some other cult and lockdown and have no outside influence, you can do that. If you feel that would be unhealthy for your kids, then you don’t, and you provide them with lots of outside experiences. Most unschoolers I know are not religious and have packed social schedules. These kids are loving life. They have many more outside influences than schooled kids who only have a handful of Education Majors spending time with them all day, and they are learing what they want to very very quickly (when they want to) and are fitting in a lot more fun and happiness than kids at school could ever hope for. (‘specially Korean kids!)

    I don’t think schools are great places to learn social skills, or great places to find mentors or meet a variety of people from the wider community.

    Anyway…ramble ramble…there are lots of unschooling blogs out there, some of the kids are in their teens and early 20 by now.


  6. I was thinking earlier this evening, after talking with Lime about some of my current students, about what the hell could possibly benefit someone going through a Western high school. I came up with just one answer: one gets reconciled with the fact that most humans are f___ing chimpanzees, on other words, that groups of humans in packs act like morons surprisingly often, and that they’re vicious, and how to avoid their wrath. I’m not sure this is a happy lesson, but it is a useful one, I suppose. But other than that — a lesson which can be learned less wastefully (in terms of time and energy) in other venues, I imagine — I can’t say I think school’s a good place to learn social skills or much of anything else people claim it’s good for. The demands are too high on the teacher. I had exactly one teacher whose management of this didn’t involve either “Sit there and shut up!” or “Go to the library and work on Project X of your own devising.” She always had these self-teaching exercises we could do if we completed our work, and they were always fun and interesting, and you got better grades if you did them (and somewhere along the way learned a lot). But that was one teacher in 12 years of primary and secondary education.

    I’m glad I learned quadratic equations and all that other math I learned because it opens doors to me. I can’t follow equations that I don’t understand too well, and I can’t understand lots of complex mathematics, but I think there are all kinds of other skills that get developed by studying mathematics, which are immensely useful to me. Skills like breaking down a big task into manageable chunks, like devising algorithms for deduction, like carefully checking that all elements in a deduction are accounted for. I don’t think that math necessarily leads to more logical thinking, but I think that it exercises mental skills that are certainly related to other, quasi- or non-mathematical thinking. Also, math’s just important. Nobody who doesn’t understand math’s importance, and the mysterious holy-shitness of the fact that math somehow works, can ever really grasp how important the scientific worldview actually is. One’s much more susceptible to anti-rationalism, anti-science, or supernaturalistic mumbo-jumbo when one doesn’t grasp that.

    Though, really, I have a feeling I would have played AD&D constantly for a couple of years there But given all my free time, I suppose that would’ve been okay. And I would have gotten better at saxophone faster, and…

    And I do suspect part of the reason I was a lazyass was because it was a way of protesting being rammed in a room with a bunch of chimps.

    Have you read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age? In it, there’s what I consider the closest possible solution to an optimal educational system, if parents have no choice but both to work. There’s a little girl who spends most of her “learning” time with an interactive book. The book teaches her, tells her stories, plays games with her, and so on. Of course, there’s a real person interacting with her, because the tech is just too subpar to allow for an AI to exist in the story, but it seems to me a kind of metaphor for what, say, wikipedia and other sources will become in the future, as more and more people get dissatisfied with “mainstream” education. In fact, I’m starting to think that a very good business could be set up where people get access to really good, fun materials online — kind of like wikipedia, but exploded into a whole world of resources through which kids and their parents can explore knowledge. I’m sure there’s a big fat wonderful industry out there just waiting to boom.

    I’ll have to look at some of the blogs you mention…

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