After my older brother fell ill from the stress of being a student in South Korea, my mother decided to move me from our home in Seoul to Vancouver for high school to spare me the intense pressure to succeed. She did not want me to suffer like my brother, who had a chest pain that doctors could not diagnose and an allergy so severe he needed to have shots at home.
I was fortunate that my mother recognized the problem and had the means to take me abroad. Most South Korean children’s parents are the main source of the unrelenting pressure put on students.
Thirteen years later, in 2008, I taught advanced English grammar to 11-year-olds at an expensive cram school in the wealthy Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam. The students were serious about studying but their eyes appeared dead.
When I asked a class if they were happy in this environment, one girl hesitantly raised her hand to tell me that she would only be happy if her mother was gone because all her mother knew was how to nag about her academic performance.
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.
Granted, the South Korean system has its strengths. The idea that success is most important, no matter the cost, is a great motivator. My report card after the first exam in middle school ranked me 21st out of 60 students in my homeroom class. My mother, who was enlightened about the extreme horrors of South Korean education but nevertheless worried about my grades, immediately found me a private tutor for math, which helped me shoot up to a respectable No. 3 in the homeroom hierarchy.
But that was the early 1990s. Since then, this culture of competition has only spread.
Cram schools like the one I taught in — known as hagwons in Korean — are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later.
Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying. Hagwons consume more than half of spending on private education.
This “investment” in education is what has been used to explain South Koreans’ spectacular scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, increasingly the standard by which students from all over the world are compared to one another.
But a system driven by overzealous parents and a leviathan private industry is unsustainable over the long run, especially given the physical and psychological costs that students are forced to bear.
Many young South Koreans suffer physical symptoms of academic stress, like my brother did. In a typical case, one friend reported losing clumps of hair as she focused on her studies in high school; her hair regrew only when she entered college.
Students are also inclined to see academic performance as their only source of validation and self-worth. Among young South Koreans who confessed to feeling suicidal in 2010, an alarming 53 percent identified inadequate academic performance as the main reason for such thoughts.
Not surprisingly, South Korea’s position in the international education hierarchy is flipped when it comes to youth happiness, with only 60 percent of the country’s students confessing to being content in school, compared with an average of 80 percent, in 2012, among the world’s wealthy nations.
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.
Obedience to authority is enforced both at home and school. I remember the time I disagreed with my homeroom teacher in middle school by writing him a letter about one of his rules. The letter led to my being summoned to the teacher’s office, where I was berated for an hour and a half, not about the substance of my words but the fact that I had expressed my view at all. He had a class to teach but he did not bother to leave our meeting because he was so enraged that someone had questioned his authority. I knew then that trying to be rational or outspoken in school was pointless.
Despite decades of outright abuse and the entrenchment of this disturbing system, signs are emerging that some people are beginning to take reform seriously. In the course of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorial rule, South Koreans have embraced the notion of “healing,” with the understanding that past political repression and continuing social pressure have engendered psychological ills that require redress. That trend has led to discussion of the detrimental effects the education system has on students and what should be done.
Another sign that things may move in a positive direction is the election in June of a large number of progressive education superintendents around the country, spurred by the growing desire of the public for reforms.
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.
South Korea must also encourage its citizens to see marriage not as a dutiful union that must yield tangible economic benefits, but as a life choice that can bring contentment and well-being. Only then can children be perceived as individuals with free will, rather than mere producers of wealth and status subject to onerous education.
A private education industry run amok must be better regulated to put children’s welfare first. Although successive presidents have made attempts to rein in the cram schools, including mandating a 10 p.m. closure, many hagwon owners flout the regulations by operating out of residential buildings or blacking out windows so that light cannot be seen from outside. And some parents hire private tutors to get around the rule.
The fight against these abuses would be far more effective if legislation were passed criminalizing excessive private education. Otherwise, South Korean parents may never recognize that the current system is a direct assault on the welfare of their own offspring. But above all, the conviction that academic success is paramount in life needs to be set aside completely. South Korea may have become an enviable economic superpower, but it has neglected the happiness of its people.
Decrying the state of young people’s existence in Korea, Yi Kwang-su, an early reformist intellectual, wrote in a 1918 essay, “On Child-Centrism,” “As long as parents live, children have no freedom and are treated like slaves or livestock not unlike subjects of a feudal lord.” Before South Korea can be seen as a model for the 21st century, it must end this age-old feudal system that passes for education and reflect on what the country’s most vulnerable citizens might themselves want.
This essay first appeared in The New York Times on 2 August 2014.