Wednesday, February 8, 2012

One Shot at the “Good Life”

An article I read last month in The Economist helped me to put my current job in perspective. “The One-Shot Society”* described the education system in South Korea, which places a huge emphasis on college entrance exams. This is because, in South Korea, a degree is required to do pretty much anything, and 100% of parents want their children to go to college. The single set of multiple-choice tests, taken at the end of high school, determine whether or not a student gets into a “good” university, a mediocre university, or any university at all.
In Korea, it is unlikely that one will change jobs, as this is frowned upon. Also, prestigious companies directly recruit from prestigious universities, and promote from within. Therefore, in Korea, one’s life and livelihood is basically determined by the series of tests taken at the end of high school. (Hence, you have parents paying to have native-English-speakers flown across the world to teach their four-year-old the difference between long and short vowels.)
As the article explains, there are benefits and drawbacks, of course, to this system. On one-hand, it is fair and efficient. The test-results are clear and non-negotiable. Also, while wealthy parents can offer their children an advantage with expensive private schooling, they will still have to prove themselves on exam-day, guaranteeing that a child’s success is based on ability instead of legacy. Also, poor yet intelligent and hard-working Koreans are able to rise up in the ranks.
This system has resulted in an extraordinarily high level of education in South Korea. Parents know how important it is to prepare their children for exam day, and go to great lengths to do so. Huge amounts of time and money (Seoul families spend an average of 16% of their income on private tuition) are devoted to a child’s education. Therefore, “The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-sized countries” (p. 54).
This highly educated populace has in turn fueled a soaring economy. The country was only recently in poverty, and is developing at an astounding rate. “The country has risen from barefoot to broadband since 1960, and last year, despite the global slowdown, its economy grew by 6.2%. In the age of the knowledge economy, education is economic destiny. So the system has had far-reaching and beneficial consequences” (p. 54).
However, there is also a dark-side to the South-Korean miracle. The cons to the education system include a high youth suicide-rate, greater than America’s and twice that of China, which one can imagine to be due to the incredible amount of pressure placed on children by society and their families, 100% of which desire for their child to attend a university. “In one survey a fifth of Korean middle and high school students said they felt tempted to commit suicide. In 2009 a tragic 202 actually did so” (p. 55).
            In addition, due to the high cost of raising children in this society, South Korea is facing a dramatic decline in population. Korean children go an array of private academies, where they practice English, math, science, piano, art, Korean, taekwondo, Chinese, guitar, jump-rope, robotics, etc. Many of these academies cost around $1,000 a month, and some attend quite a few. When I’ve asked them, many of my students have listed five or six. “Parents engage in an educational arms race. Those with only one child can afford higher fees, so they bid up the price of the best hagwon” (p.55). This has resulted in families having much fewer children, in order to be able to devote more resources into the ones that they do have.
“Since 1960 the fertility rate in Korea has fallen faster than nearly anywhere on earth, from six children per woman to 1.15 in 2009” (p. 55). If each Korean woman continues to have only one baby, each generation will be half the size of the one before it. The dramatically shrinking population is a huge problem in Korea, one that has prompted many to rethink the system. While there is much to be said as to what South Korea has achieved as a result of it’s education system, it seems that a change will soon be necessary, so that it's citizens will be offered more than one shot at the "Good Life."

*I have only included some key points from this article. To read the rest of “The One-Shot Society,” published in the December 17th-30th edition of The Economist, click here.

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