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Education Fever: Society, Politics, and The Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea by Michael J. Seth

I’ve decided to stop doing the “bookdumps” I’ve been doing, where I briefly review a ton of books, and instead give individual reviews — however brief they might sometimes be — their own individual posts. I’m starting with the Hawai’i Michael J. Seth's Education Fever cover picture.Studies on Korea series hardback Education Fever: Society, Politics, and The Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea by Michael J. Seth, an academic text about the history of education, attitudes towards it, and its development in South Korea.

This book should, in my opinion, be required reading for anyone who’s coming to work as a teacher of any kind in Korea. Why? I believe this for a number of reasons.

First of all, it shows a side of the Korean educational dilemma I’d never quite grasped before. I’d observed the push-and-pull dynamic between oddly hyperzealous parents who watched their kids’ grades like hawks, and schools which were too short of resources to give individual children the attention they needed… plus rapacious hakwon owners who took advantage of the parental zeal to cut a huge profit without really having to ensure quality instruction was going on. (Thus the drunken fratboys, middle-aged alcoholics, and other losers one meets living here and discovers are teaching English to children and adult students alike.)

But I’d missed a huge part of the dynamic that defines education here, which is the push-and-pull between government and parents. Parents’ main concern — at least, the way they frame their main concern — is that “fair access” to education, or “fair competition” for access, at least, be ensured for all Koreans of schooling age. (Seth hints at a few points, and correctly, that many parents are interested more in having degreed children than educated children, which is why it’s not uncommon for them to push their kids, during the senior year of university, to get a full-time job before they graduate.) Seth points out that while this rankles foreign observers — reasonably so — it also is quite rational on the part of Korean parents, who, correctly, perceive that higher education (especially higher education in the humanities) has traditionally translated to a better standard of living for their offspring. (And, in a society where offspring often support their elderly parents financially, also translates to a higher standard of living in old age for themselves — that is, more general social mobility for the whole family, in the long run.)

In contrast to this, the government’s concerns have — in the past — been with streamlining education to produce the kinds of demographics that a society needs, especially scientific, technical, and vocational training which has been all too unpopular. University graduates are generally unwilling to clean toilets or mop floors, but plenty of the people who would be doing those sorts of jobs manage to coast through Bachelor’s degrees at less-demanding universities, and end up in a position where they feel like they can refuse this sort of work. (Which, anyway, is currently the province of older women, though as more and more women slowly become professionals, one wonders who will someday take over the poorly paid janitorial duties. All those Southeast-Asian wives that Korean farmers seem to be marrying these days?)

Of course, the government wants to limit the money, time, and energy that is spent on education because, as in everything else, the excessive zeal of Koreans knows nearly no bounds… but, according to Seth and the researchers he cites, the yangban (gentleman-scholar) heritage has been retrofitted to include the masses, with arts and humanities education far more popular than scientific and technical studies. The People want their education, they want it for their own kids if possible, or even if impossible or exhorbitantly-priced, and they want it now… so the government is forced into a corner because it cannot cut funding to universities — even bad ones — and cannot force hard limits on enrollment. Even minute changes to the university entrance exam system have been enough to destabilize support for a government, and, given enough time, almost every administration — even the series of dictators who ran Korea until fairly recently — has been reduced to mere tinkering with educational policies.

As an individual teacher, the themes of the book were quite familiar to me, for I have faced all of them in my own classroom at one time or another: class size issues, the fast-and-loose approach to standards of admission and academic advancement that results in the graduation of effective incompetents, the (to a Westerner) rather extreme zeal with which Koreans regard education, the universally-agreed-upon insanity of the University Entrance Exam and its paradoxical continuation into the present day, the stunning impotence and occasional outright ineptitude of the Ministry of Education, and the puzzling insistence that university studies (and especially English-language studies) are the hope of the nation. All of these are things I have bumped into myself time and time again.

What the book does is snap these issues into perspective, showing how and why they got the way they did, as well as establishing that, no, you — the white foreign teacher who is encountering these things for the first time ever — are not the only person who perceives there is a problem, and that your simple solution probably would work, in Canada, but for some reason — cultural, societal, linguistic, pedagogical, or logistical — is seen by Koreans as inapplicable. Reading this book, you don’t just realize what the wisest of us have intuited or picked up in conversations — that Koreans see many of these problems too — but you also see that you’re far from the first Westerner to suggest the very same solution to these problems. Most of them walked away in frustration, muttering darkly, and though their predictions about Korea’s economic future turned out to be flat-out-wrong (they thought the society would be stuck in poverty forever) many would agree that socially and developmentally, Korea’s developing much more slowly than it could be, and the bottom line is its educational system.

Then there is the John Taylor Gatto viewpoint, which is that schools are designed not to prepare us for fair, intelligent, educated contributions and competition in an open skills-and-talent marketplace, but to school (read: brainwash) us into obedience when confronted with authorities, passivity when faced by unreasonable bureaucracy, and a disconcertingly high degree of comfort with doing things we don’t personally care about for most of our living days. (Perfect training for a society full of, say, factory workers. Perfect, that is, from the point of view of the factory owners, like those in Prussia whom Gatto elsewhere claims invented what we North Americans now call the public school system.)

Well, there’s no mistaking elements of that trend in Korean education, either: Seth traces, from the earliest days after the end of the Japanese colonial occupation of the peninsula, the machinations of various postcolonial Korean ideologies and their impact on education. Who introduced the “Koreans are of one blood[/heart/mind]” ideology as the root of nationalist feeling in the curriculum? Seth’s book will tell you precisely whom, why, in reaction to what, and when. Why was a kind of mystic racial-nationalism (reminiscent, Seth reminds us, of Nazi and other fascist race-fantasies) the major alternative to flat-out communist ideology (actually popular among some educational reformers) or wholly Americanizing the Korean school system? Seth’s book explains who pushed this agenda and why. How did the dictatorships mobilize students and conflate anti-communism with pro-dictatorship attitudes? Seth’s book traces it pretty throroughly, but also points out how, in many ways, even the most iron-fisted dictators here have found one of their Achilles’ heels to be the education system. The public wants what it wants, and in Korea, it has, more fervently than freedom, more fervently than justice, more fervently than almost anything, wanted its education. The ingenuity with which people have found ways to game the system to get access to education for their children, or even to gain access to a chance at a slightly better education, outshine the cleverest moves by Korea’s political activists by far, and their resistance to government policies — including quite sensible ones — have been more fervent, and more effective, than any mounted in the name of freedom or democracy.

These days, Lee Myung Bak’s current, wholly populist gambit to bring about the rapid, sweeping anglicization of Korean education — the (rather preposterous) idea to use English as a Language of Instruction (LOI) in non-language classes like science or history, which he somewhat tactlessly announced on Hangeul Day, of all days! — has revolted some Korean observers, most prominently Lee Waesoo (이외수), who has taken it upon himself to point out that Lee Myung-Bak, the man pushing to have Koreans speak and read and write better English, has thus far failed to master his own native Korean language. The novelist pointed out that maybe Korean-language education needs fixing first instead of everyone rushing into All-English-All-The-Time, given Lee Myung Bak’s problems in writing his own language in the very pronouncement he made about English education. The stern corrections of Lee’s grammar and spelling were not only entertaining but also a shining example of how the Internet ought to be helping us to see through the bogus respectability conferred on men by suits and funding and a title, if only people would bother to look!

But Lee (Myung Bak) — also known among some younger online non-supporters as 2MB, or “two megabytes,” since the number 2 and the surname “Lee” sound the same in Korean — may have been clever in deciding to offer to parents the magic wand of a better English education. The pipe dream of English everywhere is, after all, the biggest myth in education in Korea: English Is Important. Universally Important. It Does (And Should) Affect Your Academic and Professional Life Profoundly. (This is, apparently, not so popular among respondents to a recent online survey in South Korea:

More than half of parents surveyed said they supported English classes being conducted only in English, but believe that a public education too focused on English is unnecessary.

According to online education site Topia Education, 61 percent of 624 parents with children currently in middle school said they support having English-only classes, while 31 percent opposed it.

The majority said such classes will help their children learn English more effectively, which could also help them become more globalized. Only 6 percent said the method would reduce spending on private education.

However, 75 percent of respondents said they prefer such classes to be limited to the English subject. About 18 percent said they do not want these classes at all, while only 3 percent said all classes should be taught in English.

— but it should be noted that there were fewer than a thousand respondents, and the survey was on a website dealing with education. I suspect that the majority of parents don’t visit websites about education because most people have better things to do with their time. People “value” education — just as they “value” democratic freedom, or honesty in news reportage, but when you examin what it is people really value, it’s often an idiosyncratic understanding that people believe in. And I suspect that the majority of parents out there, like so many students I’ve met over the years, seem to believe not only in the demonstrable, rationally-recognizable association between socioeconomic or professional success and English-language ability, but also the somewhat more mystical and irrational claim that Korea as a nation needs widespread fluency in English to succeed as a nation.

Now, a close look at the history of education in Korea shows a degree of social atomization so extreme that parents are willing to tolerate all kinds of indignities and absurdities for the sake of their own children’s advancement. Consciousness of national needs, of social concerns, play second fiddle to the familial concerns of many Koreans today. This is strange because, in a society where a great deal of top-down dictating of rules and order occurs, this is one very important (perhaps even special) case where the government seems unable to resist ceding to the demands of the public.

And this is, if not the tragedy of Korean education, then the roots of what could turn out to be its greatest tragedy, and one which Seth only briefly touches upon: the public doesn’t really know what it needs. This is such a triusm of education anywhere that it hardly needs saying: people who don’t know, don’t know what they don’t know. Education most usually consists of learning and mastering things you never thought you didn’t know, or never realized you couldn’t do. That means that parents who want their kids to do better than themselves need to realize that they don’t exactly know what their kids’ education needs to look like. This is a dilemma likewise facing North American families as their kids plod through an antiquated school system that is doing very little to prepare them with the kinds of skills we really need and use in the world we’re already living in. Interested readers, check out Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End — yes, the novel is available online, for free — for one imagined version of what schooling might need to become as technologies already around now revolutionize the world more deeply than we have imagined. I doubt the world will look exactly like the one Vinge depicts — just because the real world is a world of curve balls and the future never looks exactly like what someone predicted — but it’s an interesting comparison to our schools today.

Korea today finds itself in a world where pirating or purchasing technical innovation from abroad is possible, but no longer is feasible, because it has become too wealthy and advanced to support itself on industrial manufacture anymore. The problem is not that the population isn’t fluent in English — no matter how good everyone’s English is, language mastery will not confer the skills truly needed for survival in this century. On that subject, Vernor Vinge (in Rainbows End, the book linked above) writes:

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the rulers of modern states realized that success did not come from having the largest armies or the most favorable tariffs or the most natural resources — or even the most advanced industries. In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom. (Chapter 1, a bit down from here)

And yes, that kind of freedom is risky. Vinge goes on, immediately after:

But this utopia was a Red Queen’s Race with extinction.

In the twentieth century, only a couple of nations had the power to destroy the world. The human race survived, mostly by good luck. At the turn of the century, a time was in view when dozens of countries could destroy civilization. But by then, the Great Powers had a certain amount of good sense. No nation state could be nuts enough to blow up the world — and the few barbaric exceptions were Dealt With, if necessary with methods that left land aglow in the dark. By the Teens, mass death technology was accessible to regional and racial hate groups. Through a succession of happy miracles… the legitimate grievances of disaffected peoples were truly addressed.

Nowadays, Grand Terror technology was so cheap that cults and small criminal gangs could acquire it…

The Red Queen’s Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.

I’m not saying Korea should cut itself off from the rest of the world — that’s economic suicide, as North Korea and Burma and other nations have amply demonstrated. But at the same time, mastering English won’t move Korea anywhere nearer to achieving the kinds of economic expansion and development it achieved in years past (through industrial means). Globalization is not about the world needing to speak English fluently. Globalization — at least for those countries that opt into the system at the level Korea is, a point reached by industrially modernizing itself and industrializing before really jumping into the system — is about being able to put stuff out onto the world market that nobody else has put out before.

The wealth of the world is not in English, the wealth of the world is in ones and zeroes, in the binary code that runs better machines, in the language of new hardware and biotech innovations and new patents attached to them, and in the language of the creative, inventive, problem-solving mind. While Koreans are busy competing over yet another arbitrary characteristic (English ability is added to age, regional background, physical appearance, social class of origin, and wealth) with which to organize yet another hierarchy (educational, professional, social, career, workplace), the independent, creative, artistic, and inventive minds of their youth are being distracted, cluttered, and pressured away from what they should be doing — thinking up the most amazing things — in ways that will doubtless have a far-reaching cost.

UPDATE: Lime provided me with another example of the corrections. Maybe Mr. Lee is an example of how improved Korean-language education works, since he only made the mistake once this time.

Perhaps he should buy Lee Wae Soo a can of Demi-Soda Apple, or a cup of machine coffee, at least, for being such a thoughtful and generous teacher…

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