South Koreans treat school like a full-time job plus a full-time marriage. They put in day hours and night hours, followed by weekend hours. It is not uncommon to see children in school uniforms walking home late at night. It is not uncommon to see them studying through weekends. There is private English education on top of the public education. Families split apart to improve a child's training. You hear stories about schooling that runs from sunrise past sunset, with breakfast, lunch and dinner being served in the building.
What you don't hear is cheerleading squads. What you don't hear is spring break trips to Cancún. What you don't hear is classes to boost self-esteem, to celebrate an ethnic group, to explore the arts. What you don't hear is "Glee" or "High School Musical" or other coolness-driven entertainment fantasies about high school fashion, sex, talent or jockdom.
There is an obsession with getting ahead here that begins with the classroom and permeates the adult workplace, where rigid hours and meager vacation days are the norm. The attitude mimics one you heard among American immigrants in the early 20th Century: "If you don't do well in school, you won't get to college, if you don't get to college you won't get a god job, and if you don't get a good job, you'll be a loser."
There is no shame in that lecture here. It is not viewed as corny or clichéd. It is part of the national pride, if not the national obsession.
How are American kids going to copy that? We're not disciplined enough, we're not hungry enough, and, most importantly, either parents don't say it enough, or if they do, kids ignore them.
Which, by the way, doesn't mean Korean kids are happier. It may be quite the opposite. Everywhere I went, I encountered teenagers in love with my book "Tuesdays With Morrie," because the teacher in it showed compassion and encouraged humanity, not just grades. Many kids told me, "I wish in my life I would meet a Morrie."
Korea's kids just like ours, 100 years ago [Detroit Free Press, via Marmot's Hole]Our kids laugh more, play more sports, express themselves more openly. The kids here are serious beyond compare, and they are driven to succeed. I'm not sure which system I'd prefer, but I know they are apples and oranges, and the length of a school year is only a tiny difference.
It is very easy to find many, many faults to Albom's column. Albom's self-professed expertise in Korea amounts to all of one week visit to Korea. Accordingly, in the course of making this point, Albom filled the column with trite charcterizations of Korean culture. ("Gee whiz, Korean language has honorifics! How exotic!") The biggest fault is the headline. The column's headline is provocative, but the column itself makes no attempt to actually make the connection between Korea's students and America's students of 100 years ago. In fact, the Korean has to wonder why that headline was even necessary, given that the headline, standing alone, seems to suggest that Korea of today holds something good that America used to hold. But one of Albom's points is that Korea and the U.S. are apples and oranges, and America's attempt to emulate Korean educational system piecemeal is naive.
But the Korean does think that Albom's true main point, although poorly articulated, is worth considering: that fixing America's educational system cannot be limited to nibbling around the margins of the system. Instead, it will take a holistic look at the major forces that fuel and animate the system, and direct such forces to the way we want them to go.
In fact, that is a point similar to the one that Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson makes:
School reform's meager results [Washington Post]"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. ... The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard and don't do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited "student apathy."
The Korean does think that there are many tangible things of Korean educational system from that American educational system can emulate, including longer school hours. (To be sure, this is not an exhortation that American education system to become exactly like Korean educational system, which has plenty of faults of its own.) But as Albom and Samuelson point out, ultimately it will take a change of attitude to truly achieve reform. The Korean thinks such change is possible, but only over a long period of time following a series of reforms toward a consistent direction. But that's a topic for another day.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.