The grass always seems to be greener on the other side. Here in the United States, we like to put the education systems of countries like Finland and South Korea on a pedestal. Finland is a phenomenon of sorts, after all. And South Korea tests really well on an international setting yet spends 30% less than we do; we perform, in relative terms, miserably on tests. If only we could replicate the Finnish or Korean systems!
But, as I’ve argued before, life’s not all rosy in these “exemplary” countries. A recent New York Times article, “Elite South Korean University Rattled by Suicides,” reminded me of just how far from exemplary South Korea’s education system is.
The article describes how the recent suicides of four students and one professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, one of the nation’s most rigorous universities (and commonly known as KAIST), have forced a society-wide reexamination of Korean values. While South Korea rightfully stands on the podium when it comes to TIMSS and PISA, the flip side is that it has had, for the past three years, the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries. Suicide is everywhere. Though there are several other social ills that combine to create this unfortunate situation, I believe that the culture around education is a major contributor. KAIST is just one salient example.
Why has morale at South Korea’s elite university crumbled? The simple answer is that the competitive pressures at the school created an atmosphere in which, as one student described, “we no longer have the ability to laugh freely.” Viewed as national treasures, KAIST students feel the burden of responsibility towards society. This pressure, however, goes beyond abstract notions of duty to society. KAIST has had a system by which students were obligated to pay extra money to the school for each hundredth that a student’s GPA fell below 3.0. This was real, financial pressure placed on top of every other.
Obviously, KAIST is KAIST; one elite school shouldn’t be expected to, and can’t, represent the educational experience of an entire nation. Yet, the undeniable pressure to “succeed” educationally illustrated by KAIST pervades a Korean child’s life from birth.
The average Korean child, no matter her socioeconomic status, place of residence or cultural background, arrives in this world and is immediately put on a treadmill of education that runs in overdrive: intense studying at school that leaves little time for sports, other extracurriculars, or the down-time that enables reflection and personal growth; outside of school, even more intense studying at “hakwon” (cram school) guarantees a sleep- and fun-deprived life; a culture in which parents bribe their kids’ teachers compromises the general integrity of the system; a system in which the rank of one’s school is all that matters, substantively, to one’s life opportunities. This is Korean education.
A kid can get by in this culture for a couple years, maybe more. But when what seems temporary becomes permanent, and when the kid realizes that this is the life he is living and will continue to live, the glory of being one of the most competitive students on an international stage means nothing and, instead, thoughts of suicide mean everything.