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Korean Educational Achievement Comes With Baggage


I have a 13-year old daughter.  She does well in terms of grades at her public school and has fairly high test scores.  I could push her to do better I’m sure, but I do not spend a lot of time pushing her to attain perfect grades.  Instead, I ensure that she has ample time to be a child, to explore her creative side, and to think critically about ever day issues.  I have high expectations but I don’t think they are unreasonable.

This past week, I participated in the Salzburg Global Seminars, which have taken place in Salzburg, Austria since 1947.  The seminar’s theme is “Optimizing Talent – Closing Education and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide.”  One of the speakers was Hi-Won Yoon, the president for international affairs at Seoul National University in Korea.  She talked about the remarkable post-secondary participation and attainment in Korea.  In 2010, for example, 53 percent of 25 to 34 year olds graduated from college in comparison to only 11 percent in 1980.  A new emphasis on higher education that begins at birth has had almost magical results.  According to Yoon, students are encouraged to work as hard as possible on academics; anything less is unacceptable.  In the words of child psychologist Kang-ee Hong, Koreans have a single goal.  She notes, “From the beginning of childhood, the importance of money and achievement are emphasized by their parents, so they feel that unless you are successful in school grades and a good job, good prestigious college, you’re not successful, and the parents behave as if ‘you’re not my child.’”

Many people in the United States are looking to Korea as an example for increasing degree attainment in our race to the top.  Although the higher education results in Korea are admirable, they come with some dire baggage: the highest suicide rate in the world. This was not the case 30 years ago (Korea had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world), but as the country has become obsessed with academic success, the suicide rate has climbed to the point that in 2010, 40 people per day killed themselves.  In particular, suicide rates spike during both high school and college midterm exams.  Many young people leave suicide notes that detail their struggles to be perfect in their academics and how it was too much; they had shamed their families.Korea has a very different culture than the United States.  Its citizens view the world in vastly different ways than we do.

 When I asked Hi-Won Yoon about the high suicide rate in Korea as well as Korean notions of happiness or quality of life, she responded by explaining that happiness comes through working hard all the time and that she and others love to work. Moreover, she noted that the country was implementing programs to prevent suicide; she did not appear overly concerned.  She claimed that Koreans have difficulty with saying sorry and issues of shame.  Realizing, as I mentioned previously, that countries have different cultural norms, I find the academic extremism and resulting suicides deeply troubling.

While I am being critical of the Korean approach to academic “success” at the higher education level, I definitely do not think that our approach in the United States is working.  Our participation rates are not high enough and we have not reached acceptable levels of equity.  Too many low-income and students of color do not have access to higher education and if they do they are often not supported sufficiently to succeed.  We need to expose children to educational experiences at an earlier age, we need to encourage children to work hard, and we need to hold them accountable.  But we also need to encourage creativity, critical thinking, play, and a healthy quality of life. 

Life is precious and short. I hope for our children’s sake, including my own daughter’s, that in addition to working hard, achieving academic success, and securing a job, we encourage them to dream, laugh, relax, and reflect.  Although we may have a goal of being first in the world in higher education, it is vital that we communicate to our children that life is to be lived completely and boldly and should be enjoyed.

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