“The world may look to South Korea as a model for education…but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow”

The world may look to South Korea as a model for education — its students rank among the best on international education tests — but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.
There is a historical explanation for South Korea’s education fervor. During the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), having children pass the civil service examination administered by the royal court was seen as a sure conduit to social and material success for the entire family. As the late Professor Edward Wagner at Harvard noted, even then a form of private education persisted, with candidates taking years of lessons to prepare for the exam and wealthier families splurging on special tutors.

Korean culture’s special focus on the family unit is also a major factor. Many parents believe that their right to decide their children’s future is sacrosanct. And the view that the family is an economic unit perpetuates such tight control over children. Marriage, for example, still often functions as a financial transaction between two families. To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience.

But to effect any meaningful change in education, a culture that treats its children as a commodity to be used in the service of the family or the national economy must be radically altered. The government must halt its unrelenting pursuit of a higher birthrate in the face of a shrinking population and cease viewing children as mere cogs in the country’s economy with no right to personal happiness.

Se-Woong Koo, “How South Korea Enslaves Its Students”, The New York Times (3 August 2014), SR4.