Cartoons and Education in Korea

The question on our minds is: what is unique about Korean education? Well Barack Obama spoke of Korean education several times in his 2011 State of the Union Address, but I did not have the impression that he had any concrete sense of what is unique about Korean education.

If you ask many Koreans, they will tell you that Korean education is a mess and many wish they could send their kids to the United States to escape from the land of forced memorization. But this story also doesn’t seem quite right. I meet many extremely well educated and thoughtful young people in Korea who are educated entirely in the Korean system. The level of education in the country as a whole is extremely high.

So what is it about Korean education, at the primary level, that is outstanding? Well, I think that the supplementary materials are quite sophisticated. Of course there are the secondary materials to assist students in their studies. Such materials are quite well written and systematic. But even more significant are the new programs developed to introduce science to young people, some of which I think may be the best in the world. For example, the Hankook Institute of Life Science (한국생명과학연구소) runs a weekend program for youth to introduce the basics of biology and physiology that is both well planned, intellectually compelling and rigorous. The program is run on weekends and is not required for school.

Then there are the comic books that my children enjoy reading so much. Unlike many vapid comic books circulated in the United States, there are Korean comics with considerable intellectual content that are popular in Korea. I would not say all comic books meet that standard, nor will I pretend to have conducted an extensive survey of Korean comic books, but let me draw attention to two comic books that stand out.

First there is the comic book “Math Bandit” (“Suhak Doduk” 수학도둑) which  teaches fundamental principles of mathematics in an engaging and entertaining manner. I have read through a few sections and I honestly believe the quality is high enough to warrant translation into English.

"Math Bandit" a remarkable comic book introducing mathematics in a fun manner for kids





















“Tales Runner” (테일즈런너) is another popular comic book that is full of information for kids. The particular edition that I have selected has the title, “Let us try working for the United Nations.” Not only does “Tales Runner” present a positive image of working for the United Nations, it also includes within it extremely detailed descriptions of how the United Nations, and related global organizations, work. It is hard to imagine a mainstream American comic presenting such a positive image of working in foreign aid programs, let alone such detailed technical facts about the workings of any organization. These comic books are not required for any particular class, just fun reading for those interested.

The cover presents a very enticing vision of working for the United Nations and helping people

Portrayal for kids of what is is like to be poor.

Parachuting out of the sky to save the world

Introduction to UNICEF

Very detailed descriptions of global organizations for 4th graders.

One response to “Cartoons and Education in Korea

  1. Craig January 20, 2012 at 7:33 am

    I find th egeneral attitude Koreans have about their education system is frustratingly obtuse. I mean this in a balanced sense.

    1) They view it as a failure, for its rote memorization instilling of more or less soul-crushing uniformity and passive-aggressive behaviour. While true, I’d argue the education system merely reflects social order in this country. And on the other hand, this is often quite good at teaching many things, including a good bit of life skills.

    2) They view it as a success, for the step-up it gives some kids.

    A lot of this is sour grapes. The truth is, like everything else in Korea, this is a land of bizarre extremes, and the education system is at one and the same time a total failure and a profound success. All aspects of it.

    Sure it could use more balance. But vested interests being what they are, I doubt this could be modified without some of the babies being thrown out with the undesired bathwater.

    Koreans whine a lot. But I say meh: the truth is, most wouldn’t change all that much, if push came to shove. Like everyone in the world, familiarity is the ultimate warm blanket. No matter how much delicious cheese you have and tasty sausages and fantastic local wine (me when I go home), within a short time I’m itching to come back to the land of the sleep-deprived, the tired, the one-nap-away-from-total-catastrophe overwork capital of the world.

    Complaining that your oatmeal has no zing or that your caviara isn’t quite the right kind is such a basic cpart of the human condition that it hardly merits noting.

    That said, I’ve never met a people, aside from perhaps the inevitably morose but oddly resigned Hungarians, who have a propensity to complain quite as much as Koreans do.

    The real enemy is fashion. All Ajumas have to d ois stop status-mongering with the neighbours, and SHAZAAM, their kids will start to have more balanced childhoods. But that would involve losing face with, oh, say, the in-laws or perhaps the cousin who makes snide comments all the time.

    I guarantee you a dozen men I know would drop hours of their daily work to stop paying fees for hagwons ther kids can’t possibly appreciate.

    I think this whole thing will abate. Balance will come. Of course, the demographic time bomb might make it less relevant. Or it might exacerbate the prince/princess syndrome. Who knows.

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