Educational Zeal Educational Zeal There’s a saying that frequently comes up when discussing Koreans’ passion for education: “Mencius’ s mother moved three times.” This expression refers to a popular story regarding the influential Confucian scholar Mencius, which describes how his mother moved their family three times for the sake of his education. Although it originates from China, this story shows that extreme investment in education is not a new development in Korea. Parents have deeply—sometimes to an excessive degree— encouraged their children to pursue an education for centuries. Now, the time has come to reflect on how these longstanding attitudes towards education relate to the state of Korea’s education system today. Are students’ benefitting from them and are there changes that could make the system healthier? The following sources explore these questions in depth. The Korean drama “Sky Castle” premiered in 2018 to widespread acclaim. The show follows the lives of Korea’s elite scrambling to secure spots for their children at one of Korea’s prestigious ‘SKY’ universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. For many Korean high school students and parents, reaching one of these universities is tantamount to ultimate success, so competition is fierce. The drama’s content and popularity both speak to the high place education occupies in Korean society. Korea’s Historical Passion for Education Throughout history, many Koreans have put education ahead of all other concerns, regardless of current circumstances. Even amidst the chaos and destruction of the Korean War, parents sent their students to class and teachers taught without classrooms. This article speaks to one individual’s memories of the time and how not even foreign occupation could quench parents’ passion for education. The SBS drama “Secret’s Door” looks further back to the 18th century, during the reign of King Yeongjo. In this scene, a group of commoners implore Crown Prince Sado to give them the right to take the Civil Service Exam, a privilege normally reserved for the elite. Their regard for education is so high that they stake their lives for the mere permission to take a test, one they see as the only route upwards in society. For thousands of years, foreigners visiting Korea have marveled at Koreans’ ardor for education. The following article contains several such accounts, which are summarized below (Article): The Tang Empire The Tang Empire (618 CE-907 CE): In two major historical records, The Old Book of the Tang and The New Book of the Tang, the authors remarked in amazement that all of Goguryeo’s (Old Korea) citizens, even stable hands, eagerly engaged in education. The Song Empire The Song Empire (960 CE-1279 CE): In his 1123 CE report written after returning from Goryeo (Unified Old Korea), Song diplomat Seogeung cited several facets of education on the Korean Peninsula as exemplary. In particular, he noted that Koreans considered it shameful to be illiterate and that not only was the royal library (Imcheongwan) full of books, every street corner seemingly had a bookstore. The Russian Empire Novelist Ivan Goncharov’s 1854 travelogue Frigate “Pallada” contains comments about Korean education, including an observation that “even the poorest Koreans could compose poems.” France During his time as a sailor in the navy, French painter Henri Zuber kept a diary wherein he described the 1866 French expedition against Joseon. Despite being enemies at the time, he complimented Koreans on their scholasticism, pointing out how being illiterate made one a social pariah and how every household possessed books. Indeed, he blushed at Korean educational enthusiasm, deeming his countrymen to be lacking by comparison. Korea’s World-Famous Passion for Education Kim: Korean students study from eight o’clock until 11 every day. Lagarde: How can they do so well in school if they only study three hours a day? Kim: I didn’t mean until 11 AM, I meant until 11 PM. Conversation between Two Leaders Korea’s educational fervor continues to astound people from other countries even today, as the preceding 2014 interaction between former IMF President Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Kim Yong evidences. OECD Education Rankings This article displays how even among OECD countries, Korea ranks particularly highly in education. International Mathematics Olympiad This article describes the recent success found by the Korean team at the 60th Annual International Mathematics Olympiad in 2019. The team as a whole ranked third, with all six representatives winning gold medals and one of them obtaining a perfect score. Two Views of Korea’ Education System At first glance, the level of educational attainment in Korea, both historically and in the present day, is astounding. However, such an achievement does not come without a cost. In particular, Korean education often sacrifices students’ mental state for the sake of performance on exams. The proceeding sources illuminate both sides of this discussion. Comments on the Merits Korea’s educational fervor continues to astound people from other countries even today, as the preceding 2014 interaction between former IMF President Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Kim Yong evidences. One group of schools in Harlem, New York, Democracy Prep Public Schools, took the President’s message to heart by completely reforming to a Korean model. This includes mandatory Korean language courses, a longer school day, and a range of Korean cultural events. Results have been quite promising, with significantly better test scores compared to nearby schools. (1:2) BBC News also reported positively on the educational system of South Korea. Comments on the Drawbacks On the other side are many individuals who lament the ills of Korean education. Two such people are futurist Alvin Toffler and Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey who address several downsides of Korean education in the linked interviews. Other Difficulties Columbia University Teacher’s College Ph. D. Samuel Kim’s 2009 dissertation 1st and 2nd Generation Conflict in Education of Asian American Community addresses some potential pitfalls of the Korean education system. The focus of the paper is the relatively high dropout rate of Korean students at prestigious American universities compared to other international student groups. He attributes this trend to harmful elements of Korean education like excessively long hours and suboptimal teaching methods. Korean schools are frequently criticized for teaching by rote memorization rather than more effective and engaging methods. If the passion for education inherent in Korean culture could be combined with more modern and forward-thinking teaching styles, then Korea may experience an unprecedented boost in its education. As competition in education grows fiercer by the day, implementing such changes becomes ever more important to the health and wellbeing of Korea’s youth.