A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 26 2011

On President Obama and South Korean “Nation Builders”


As someone of Korean descent, I noticed something particularly interesting during President Obama’s State of the Union address last night: he referred to South Korea on 4 separate occasions–more than to any other country (even China, which was only mentioned thrice). According to Obama,

  1. In South Korea, teachers are revered as “nation builders“;
  2. South Korea’s Internet infrastructure is deeper than ours;
  3. South Korea has symbolized the benefits of free trade;
  4. South Korea is one of our closest allies abroad.

I was struck by the penchant Obama seems to have for South Korea. Every reference was a positive one. Of course, I’m glad he views my native country so favorably.

Yet, I have to say that his references to South Korea were either oversimplified or hyperbolic.

On the question of infrastructure, he oversimplified the nature of South Korea’s extreme connectivity. Sure, its Internet infrastructure is deep. But is that necessarily a good thing? Too much Internet isn’t always the best. In fact, it creates numerous problems (Korean society appears to need a lesson in temperance).

Turning to education, I also sensed oversimplification and hyperbole when Obama mentioned how South Korean teachers are referred to as “nation builders.” I really have no clue what Korean expression Obama had in mind (not that I know close to a majority of common expressions). A little Internet sleuthing bore little fruit. In a quick family email thread, I learned of the expression that Obama might have been referring to (i.e. “나라의 역군”).  Even then, it is hyperbolic to translate that phrase into “nation builder,” as the connotation of “nation builder” is too positive relative to the original phrase’s.

In short, yes, teachers in Korea are probably better respected than teachers here in the United States–but not by that much.


I’ve really taken an interest in the amount of positive press South Korea’s education system has gotten recently. The South Korean education system is absolutely amazing on paper–no doubt. But I’m not quite sure if that’s the kind of system we should use as a model or exemplar. Though I’ve never actually been educated in Korea, I know what the “culture” of education is like. And it’s not always pretty.

There, education is so deep a focus that it clouds out other important social goals. At the “top” of Korean society, the institution from which one earned a degree replaces the ideas or character of the person in question. The constant pressure to succeed in school and place in the top of the class-in order to get into a good school–makes for a very unpleasant childhood (just ask my younger cousin, who just earned a spot in one of Korea’s most rigorous, but insane, high schools). To this end, parents, and students alike, will go to extremes. (This cutthroat culture applies to Koreans across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.)

As someone who has straddled multiple cultures throughout my life, I can firmly say that the “culture” of education in the United States is the one in which I would want my child; South Korea’s would be one of my last choices.

This was not meant to be a full indictment of the South Korean education model. Nor was this to say that we should be satisfied by the  US education system. But, given the intense, ongoing debate that compares the US education system to ones abroad, I think we have to be more careful.

Indeed, one explanation for the inflow of Korean students into the United States is that test scores aren’t–and shouldn’t be–the only things that count. Values matter too:

[One Korean school's] founder, Lee Won Hee, worried in an interview that while [his school] was turning out high-scoring students, it might be falling short in educating them as responsible citizens.

“American schools may do a better job at that,” Lee said.

Sure, Korea succeeds on international achievement tests. But on numerous qualitative factors, Korean schooling is off.


Obama’s references to Korea, then, proved a platitude: “the grass is greener on the other side.” There may be reason for the US education system to emulate Korea’s. But if Korea’s were perfect, why would so many students strive to attain an education in the United States? Why, for that matter, would western schools open up in self-contained villages in Korea?

In fact, the oversimplification and glorification of Korea’s education system also has the potential to hinder educational progress in America. In short, this is because the American context is very different from Korea’s. It may not be as much of an apples-to-oranges comparison as, say, comparing the US system to Tanzania’s; it’s more like a Granny-Smith-apple-to-Red-Delicious-apple comparison. Modeling directly off of Korea’s system likely will not produce the same results.

Rhetorically, Obama’s “nation builder” comment was brilliant. The world is buzzing about that (so are all my teacher friends on Facebook). But, from a “truth” standpoint, it was off the mark.

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3 Responses

  1. well, its just like any other system where there is too much focus on the numbers and not the whole structure, just like the stock market where people are focused on the indicators, but didn’t even read the financial statements of the companies they are dealing with…

    purely quantitative….a serious lack of qualitative ingredients….

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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