Last Sunday I watched on TV3 a French documentary on Korean secondary-school kids, “South Korea, Slave to Education.” The film explains that Korean students are doing marvellously according to the PISA yearly report and also that they hold a top world record in that 8 out of 10 attend university. The thesis, however, as you can see from the title, is transparent: the price you pay for a good education is being enslaved to it.

Watching the poor teens in the film I can only say that I’m sorry that South Koreans are putting their kids through such impossible schedules. Basically, responsible South Korean parents seem to have convinced themselves and their children that in order to succeed in life by first getting a quality university degree, they must attend regular classes from 8 to 5 and then take a second helping until midnight or past. This is provided by private institutions and teachers in a way totally unregulated by the state. The whole point of the documentary was to show how dangerous for the physical and mental health of the kids this competitiveness is becoming. When a teen girl was told that in France kids don’t attend private classes after school unless they choose to for very particular reasons, she was flabbergasted. In self-defence she exclaimed ‘I’d rather learn than play.’

I know nothing except what the documentary taught me about South Korea but I should think that there’s a Catch22 at the bottom of all this. No country needs so many college graduates and even supposing only half of the 80% who attend university get a degree that is already too much. Logically, universities must want to select the best possible students and this unleashes the ferocious craving for ‘learning’ at secondary-school levels, prompted by quite pushy parents (doing their best, I’ll assume). The problem is that with rising standards, universities will become even more demanding, and kids will be further victimised. Someone stop this horrific snowball…

I was the kind of little girl who’d rather learn than play, but that was because learning was a pleasant game for me. Children have a right to enjoy their free time, and I used mine to read. I am speaking of a primary school system in which children were busy from 9 to 6, and then when we got home we were expected to do homework until at least 8 (supper-time at home has always been 9). Not much free time, then, except for weekends and holidays, though my impression is that the balance was fine. I see kids today deprived of some of their scant free time after school by harried parents who drag them to English, computer or sports classes, and that seems already too much. If you ask me, a good school system should need no extras (which makes me wonder what is so wrong with the South Korean system). Homework is quite another matter, as already a senior lecturer, I don’t seem to have ever stopped doing it, weekends included…

Perhaps the bottom line problem is that if we compare the basics needed 50 years ago with the basics needed today they have dramatically increased and there’s no way a kid may know enough to satisfy all his/her secondary school teachers much less his/her demanding university ones. Now, that might explain some of the difficulties South Korean students are facing but what baffles me is how here, on the other side of the world, we get university students capable of claiming that Abraham Lincoln was the king of the United States or, alternatively, a runaway slave that became the first black President (as seen in actual History exams). There must be a middle ground, I guess, and I just wish some of that South Korean ambition to do extremely well would come our way for the benefit of those who don’t have it.

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