Circles and Squares

Insights into Korea's Sudden Rise

“The Challenges of Korean Education in Historical Perspective” Asia Institute Seminar with Professor Michael Seth

Asia Institute Seminar

Interview of Michael Seth

 “The Challenges of Korean Education in Historical Perspective”

September 4, 2012

 

 

Speaker

Michael Seth

Professor

Department of History

James Madison University

Emanuel Pastreich:

Koreans are quite aware of the problems in Korean education, and yet they are having great trouble coming up with solutions to those problems.  Why is education reform so difficult?

Michael Seth:

KOreans put great emphasis on gaining and maintaining social status. Social status is not a feel-good luxury, but essential for one’s career and one’s livelihood, and that has been the case for  generations. So you find a strong emphasis on degrees, more than education itself, as a determiner of social status in Korea. The roots of this problem can be traced back to late Joseon period, but that pattern was reinforced by Japanese colonial education policy which set up different career tracks for children in school that determined one’s future career.

Under the Japanese rule, higher education was reserved for the elites. Originally there was a six year primary school and then in middle school students were sorted out into vocational schools for skilled labor, or some sent to more elite academic middle schools tracked towards university. Everyone has a clear vocational track by the age of twelve. Under that system , ninety percent of children could see that their options were very limited by the age of 12, and that they had little prospects other than attending a vocational school. So that experience from the colonial period established the precedent reinforced the tradition of determining social status based on education. But ironically, when that tracking system was eliminated, then every stage of the education process offered opportunities to move to a higher level of status for any student and the entire the school system became competitive at all levels. The result was fierce competition to get into good middle schools, good high schools and good universities.

After World War II there was a breakdown in the  old  hierarchy of Korean society and a greater fluidity in Korean society which many Koreans took advantage of. In that fluidity and chaos they found ways to get their children into better schools than was possible under colonial rule and to get better job opportunities for themselves. The educational system that the government adopted in the late 1940s eliminated early tracking and   made every level of school open to further advancement, making the system competitive at every level. These institutional developments encouraged a highly competitive educational environment in which education became the primary means of achieving or maintaining social status. As long as this situation is true, as long as degrees are the best way to maintain social status and move up in society, as long as employers hire on the basis of the degrees from established schools, the situation in Korea is not going to change.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Why is status so much determined by what school you attended in Korea? Sometimes it appears as if Koreans are not interested in education, but rather obsessed with the certification that gives them status. Learning does not seem that so important, per say.

Michael Seth:

That attitude of students towards school is entirely rational because in a winner take all society, you want your child to be successful and have a good job. The prestige degree insures that opportunity and if they do not have it, no matter how well educated they may be, their chances for success are not so great. As long the degree brings stature, the response of parents is rational. You can have changes, but those changes would have to be global.

But I am not optimistic for change soon. Let us face the truth. Kora is increasingly a leader in education, for better or worse. If anything, other countries are increasingly becoming more and more like Korea in their approach to education. In terms of the relation between eduation to status. Education in other countries is becoming a winnowing process for the power elite in the same way it is in Korea.

I see this trend in the United States. Increasingly political leaders and CEOs are the from the same elite schools, certainly in terms of their graduate degrees, but often undergraduate degree as well. This was not the case a generation ago. So although there are exceptions, the general trend in the United States is towards the Korean model. How do you change a culture like Korea’s when is at the center of the economic trends?

Emanuel Pastreich

So what exactly are the pressures that are transforming all countriesin a similar manner, making education into high pressure industry for affirming social status?

MIchael Seth

I suppose if we look at the problem historically, the previous determinant of status was family: a good blood line, the authority of an aristocratic family. Modern society has shifted to a certification meritocracy in which status comes from training, set skills and prestige. Korea perhaps has gone further than most just about any country in eliminating all traces of the traditional hereditary classes social status.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Certainly in Korea today being a grandson of the former king has no value whatsoever. That is different than most countries. So education is under immense pressure as the only status item available.

MIchael Seth

So that process of replacing aristocracy with certification is just accelating these days. It seems quite unfair to determine your  future  at the age of eighteen with a test. But the truth is that in Korea if you fail to get on that elite track in life early it is extremely hard to get back on at a later date. There is no way to make a breakthrough when you are 45 or 50.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I understand something of the history of Korea, but does that fully explain where this hyper-competitive Korean culture came from. What elements in Korean culture brought about this sort of society—which clearly did not exist one hundred years ago.

Michael Seth:

We see the emergence of a combination of culture and institutions in modern Korea that transformed the original Korean tradition of learning into an all-out  competition and made education the most significant determinant of one’s life chances. School systems, tests and the practice of hiring and promoting in Korea exacerbated many extent tendencies in Korean society. In my own work, I place emphasis on institutions, which can be traced, as opposed to “values” which are vague and difficult to pin down.

Korea was highly ascriptive (hierarchical) society, a caste system with  a rigid class structure based on heredity, but that hierarchy was reinforced and justified through education Everyone knew their place in society and  there was relatively little social mobility. When this system broke down in the 20th century, now opportunities for social advancement emerged. And from the late 1940s the government committed itself to universal standardized education, promulgating policies that were remarkably successful in educating all citizens. by the late 1950s. almost everyone in Korea was getting the same education ,by the same standards. For many, there was the possibility for the first time of improving one’s status through education.

Emanuel Pastreich:

That concept of universal education was a radical change for Korea. Previously there was no such concept.

Michael Seth:

There were demands from the beginning of the20st century for universal education. Koreans had no sense of equality or equal opportunity previously; it was a nation based on inherited status. But the nature of status changed extremely quickly in the first half of the 20th century. Intellectuals and citizens embraced an ideal of equality. Koreans accepted early on the idea of equal opportunity with great ardor.

To some extent these ideas came in through Japan, for the Japanese also promoted the idea of equal opportunity, but many ideas continued to come in from the West via Japan during Japanese occupation. Ideas of equality resonated very strongly with Koreans. Something in the culture, despite of, or because of, centuries of rule by aristocrats. There were many elite educators active in Korea during the 1920s who had been educated at teacher’s college Columbia, one of the most innovative programs. Koreans viewed a strong education as a sure means of providing equal opportunity for all people. There was a broad consensus among educators and the public on this point. Moreover, the writings of Marxists by 1940s were very influential. Most Korean historians of the time were Marxists and the Marxist interpretation of social and economic issues were powerful for citizens. The rhetoric of equality could be seen everywhere before the Korean War.

So you found in Korea at the time egalitarian ideas, a strong emphasis on social mobility and the implementation of a true meritocracy. People felt that society should be led by the most capable regardless of background. It was a combination of modern rationality with traditional Confucian ideas linked to the examination systems.  But all those trends towards a more equitable society occurred within a society that continued to emphasize social status and rank.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I suppose what is interesting about the Yangban is that although they were hereditary elite, they felt always a need to justify their elite status in terms of education. By contrast, the samurai in Japan never felt a need to justify their status in terms of their moral superiority or in terms of their education. They were just samurai. That make the yangban less willing to adopt more modern ideas (because learning was linked to Confucianism was linked to their social status) but it also meant that it was not acceptable in Korea traditionally just to be ruling class. It had to be backed up by scholarship.

Michael Seth:

Education was essential for constantly reconfirming social status  Confucian ideology held that leaders should be the most virtuous members of society and power elites felt obligated to affirm that view. Therefore the elites in Korea, although they owed their status to their family lines, they were obliged to demonstrate that they were virtuous, that they were enlightened. This contradiction parallels the contradiction of modern Korea: a highly egalitarian society that is also extremely status consciousness.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Chris Hayes, an American writer, wrote a fascinating book about America entitled “Twilight of the Elites” in which he identifies the lack of interest in public life on the part of most American elites as the central problem in American society. Hayes traces this problem back to meritocracy. Chris Hayes argues that meritocracy at first encourages more people to succeed, but that over time the groups who come into power seek to control their status and keep others from rising to that status—thus creating the opposite of meritocracy. That crisis was repeated throughout Chinese and Korean history.

Michael Seth:

South Korea in the1960s and 1970s was a relative meritocracy, to a rare degree in the world, and especially to a rare degree for a developing nation. But it is far less a meritocracy today because as the new elite increased their stature, it is natural that they tried to protect what they have obtained. In the case of education today, it serves increasingly the role of gatekeeper because the expense of education becomes so prohibitive. That cost makes of education society less equal-even though education previously served to make society more equal.

Emanuel Pastreich:

How do feel about standardized tests?

Michael Seth:

I think that standardized tests can play a very important role and I recommend careful use of standardized tests to see whether students are meeting certain objectives. I would also suggest that standardized testing can have advantages, although we must be aware of its limits. The tremendous challenge for Korea lies rather with the college entrance examinations. College entrance exams that determine a lifetime are a more serious question.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You suggest that educational issues are related to basic institutions in Korean society, and that makes sense. But what thoughts do you have about how education might be conducted differently?

Michael Seth:

The biggest problem in Korea is the amount of time that children spend in out of school, in hakwons and other tutoring programs. The Korean case is extreme. Korea is an outlier far from global norms. Korea spends more on education than any other country in the OECD, or anywhere I know of. Korean private expenditures on education are more than three times the OECD average. Korean students spend more hours a week in out of class instruction than any other country as well. More than twice what the average is for other advanced nations. It is extreme, expensive and a tremendous waste of resources. More than any other factor, this problem must be addressed head on.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So why is it that Koreans are just reduplicating what they have already learned in the classroom? What is the logic behind it?

Michael Seth:

Koreans find themselves in a culture is so competitive that students spend immense amount of money for what are only marginal gains. Studies have shown that such cramming produces only marginal differences in education. Here is the problem: Koreans will continue to press for further cramming even as the effectiveness is drastically reduced

Because all of the hakwon teaching is entirely focused on passing the college entrance examinations its general application is marginal. And what are Koreans gaining from such education?

Emanuel Pastreich:

It seems to be a tremendous loss. If children read books or played games related to what they learned in school, they could better integrate that knowledge into their experience and remember it, understand it.

MIchael Seth:

The reform in Korea should be focused on those cram schools that hold students back. This is the heart of Korean complaints about education.

Emanuel Pastreich:

And Americans are primarily hearing about how good Korean schools are.

Michael Seth:

Korean education is held up for praise internationally. The Program for International Student Achievement (PISA)  is the only systematic comparative test of students, and Koreans scored first in reading in 2009, first in mathematical literary and third in science of all countries. Overall, Koreans scored better than fifteen year-olds anywhere else. Not only did they score better, but they just get better and better at taking the PISA test.   So people look at those scores and they think Korea must have a great system.

Korea has the highest rate today for high school graduation and even in analytical reasoning Koreans score near the top. The  real problem could be identified as the lack of challenging higher education.

Emanuel Pastreich:

It does seem that Korea is particularly good at educating the bottom third. What makes Korea so competitive is not how educated its elites are, but rather how well educated working people are. Although there is no “Harvard” in Korea the average Korean is quite literate and capable in mathematics. America is a country supported as by a thin elite of 10% who are extremely well educated and incredibly competent. But the average American is rather poorly educated, in fact. Korea is the opposite.

Michael Seth:

This focus on average students was the approach to education that was explicitly dictated by government policy. That is of course less true now than it once was. When the South Korean government was authoritarian, it was far better at imposing its uniform standards on schools and parents. The democratization of Korean society, oddly combined with neoliberal policies, has eroded the universal standard for education that so impressed me in the past about Korea. Education is still pretty good for all Koreans—although in some respects education is not as balanced as it was twenty years ago.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

So could it be that democratization ironically has reduced social equality and the commitment to helping the disadvantaged?

Michael Seth:

Bureaucrats will have far greater difficulty insulating themselves from interest group s in a democracy. Politicians have to be reelected and they need devoted followers—which means special interest groups.

It was impressive just how much the authoritarian government in Korea was able to impose policies that were fair to all people and beneficial for citizens. At the time, the government was made up technocrats who made decisions for what they thought was good for the country. Many moves taken by the government were extremely unpopular, especially among the middle class interested in social mobility. Korea pursued school busing very aggressively to make education fairer. Lottery systems were enacted that had students assigned to schools other than those near their homes. The government made sure there were not concentrations of good teachers and students in one school. All these policies were immensely unpopular with upwardly mobile people in Korea.

Emanuel Pastreich:

We know how unpopular busing was in the United States. Sending children to poorer school districts in Chicago became an immense political problem that could not be solved.

Michael Seth:

At the time, the technocrats could put forth policies without having to worry about special interests creating problems, and the military had the muscle to make those policies happen. Now such an approach would be much more  difficult.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Do you think Korea should be more decentralized in its education policy?

Michael Seth

Of course over-centralization is not good. But if we compare Korea with the United States, which is extremely decentralized in education, we find that although the United States has the advantage in terms of its ability to experiment, it cannot assure quality education to many students.  So I think that a little more decentralization for Korea could be a positive as it might give local schools to experiment. There would be some benefits. Nonetheless, the Korean system has worked well for the average student.

The US policy of decentralization creates some remarkable school districts, but overall results in extremely unequal school systems. Such a system continues to accelerate inequality in society. The challenge is for the country to decide where the balance is between centralization and decentralization.

Emanuel Pastreich:

And then in terms of implementing policy, what method can be used to decide on the policy. Should parents vote on policy? Should it be determined at the local level.

Michael Seth

In the 1950s local autonomy in Korea was a big issue. Many editorials in newspapers called for greater educational autonomy and there were even experiments in 1950 in electing school boards and getting parents involved in schools. That system was abolished in the 1960s. There have been attempts to implement these policies again, but the response has been unenthusiastic. When there have been elections for school officials the voter turnout has been low. I am not sure whether parents were cynical, or just uninterested.  You cannot have parents running schools unless they have a high level of commitment.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What are some possible solutions to this education crisis?

Michael Seth

The best approach for Korea in reforming education  is looking around at other countries.
Finland is a similar homogenous society with a strong emphasis on education. In the case of Finland, it is almost at the same level in terms of achievement in education as Korea is. The educational system is extremely strong, but there are no cram schools—the classes in themselves are sufficient. Finnish students study 15 hours less a week than Koreans and score about the same as Koreans.

Finnish students do not suffer the levels of stress of Koreans; they do not commit suicide in the same way. Obviously they are doing something that is more efficient. The Fins discourage private tutoring, so Koreans can learn from that example.

The other remarkable fact about Finland is that schools are run by teachers. There are no elected school boards, or politicians, or bureaucrats who control policy.  Teachers are given complete autonomy to make decisions. This approach has been very effective. Finland’s educational system has not always been that good. It underwent reforms and achieved this state in a short period of time.

 

One response to ““The Challenges of Korean Education in Historical Perspective” Asia Institute Seminar with Professor Michael Seth

  1. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader | The Grand Narrative

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