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Korea’s Educational Goals (Part 1)
The most recent Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), comparing the academic performance of 8th grade U.S. students to students of the same age from around the world, ranked Korean students among the world’s top five in math and science. Other international student rankings have produced similar findings, including the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which ranked Korean students 2nd in reading skills, in addition to their excellent results in math and science. You might assume, therefore, that Koreans would be satisfied with their education system. However, when I recently asked two of my advanced conversation classes to assess their system, most people claimed that Korean education is deeply flawed. They were certainly aware of Korea’s strength in basic skills, and they were sure that their education was well-designed to help them get a job. So what was the problem?

Here are some of the complaints I heard from my students: “We just memorize things, we don’t really learn.” “It’s all about testing.” “We only focus on getting into a big-name university. Learning doesn’t matter, just the name.” “Our education doesn’t encourage creativity.” There were two more comments that seemed especially important, because they summarized all the others: “We are only taught what is already known, but not encouraged to have new ideas.” “We acquire knowledge, but not wisdom.”

Any education system has goals. And the people who design the system choose the goals. In a public (i.e. government-controlled) education system, the main goal is to produce the kind of citizens the government wants. So the education system can only be as good as the government’s idea of a good citizen. A modern, industrial economy needs good workers, people who have the skills needed to do modern jobs, and who have the proper attitudes for being useful to society. These attitudes include diligence, respect for authority, and a willingness to dedicate your energy to your career. It seems to me that Korea’s education system is better at achieving these goals than most western education systems. But there is, indeed, something missing. The system produces “knowledge, but not wisdom.” In other words, students study and remember the facts and ideas that are presented to them, but seem unprepared for the difficult tasks of integrating this information into a system of understanding that can lead to new knowledge, or of seeing the entire range of knowledge as part of a bigger picture of life and the world.

Korean children study all day, almost every day. They study in the evenings, and early in the morning. They study in groups, or in large study rooms. They are rarely alone. This means they learn, but they are not encouraged to think. Thinking is a private activity. Insight is the product of private thinking. Wisdom is the highest form of insight. Friedrich Nietzsche uses the image of the mountaintop to explain the wise man’s life. The philosopher “comes down from the mountain.” Why a mountaintop? Because there you are alone. Public criticism and the social pressure to conform are the enemies of original thought. On the mountaintop, no one is questioning your ideas. Your mind is free to develop itself without interruption. This is the condition that can lead to wisdom. Wisdom requires solitude, and the time to take advantage of it.

The elementary, middle and high school system is excellent for producing good workers for the Korean economy. It is not designed to produce wise people, and it cannot produce them. That leaves only two places where this can be achieved: the mountaintop and the university.

Daren Jonescu  d_jonescu@yahoo.ca

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