Had an eventful weekend. Friday was Korean language day so it was a 3 day weekend. Last week the weather was nice enough that I was able to go out and enjoy the beach 4 days in a row with nobody else there. Just me, the crazy foreigner going for a swim in October, it’s really nice to have the place to yourself. It’s probably the last time I’ll get to do that for the next 8 months. You actually see fish, the water is clear, and I even found a giant salt water snail that was bigger than my fist (I let him go).
I also watched a film called “Reach for the SKY” at the Busan International Film Festival, it was a great documentary about the Korean university entrance exam. SKY is an acronym for the top 3 universities in the country, Seoul, Korea, Yonsei. It forced me to do some real soul searching on the topic. The film followed 3 different high school students and as they went though their final year of high school as they prepared for the entrance exam.
Movie Trailer: https://vimeo.com/140424882
Education and grades seem to be everything in this country and this university test is the pinnacle of that. Students in the film acknowledge that whatever university they get into will greatly determine the rest of their life through employment opportunities, social ranking, the amount of respect people give you. So it’s no small wonder this 8 hour test that determines the rest of your life is treated with such important.
The movie starts with police and office of education staff loading all the tests onto trucks for delivery to testing locations, police remain with the tests until the day of the test. At testing locations vehicles within 200m are banned, students can call 911 if they are late and police will take them to testing sites, all companies will open late to reduce traffic, during the English listening section all airplanes are grounded, the test is a national news story on TV and radio, mothers are seen praying outside of the school or in churches. The test is only administered once a year, so you better do well!
As the movie progresses you see these kids being pushed to the limit and you develop a lot of sympathy toward them. But then I realized we humans need hardship. It’s the only thing that makes us improve. For me, it looks terrible to me to be put in their situation, to be burdened with so much stress from parents, teachers, community and even friends. However, Korean students are some of the best. They slave away learning things that they will likely never use, but though that process of hardship they are instilled with a good work ethic, the ability to set goals and push toward them with determination.
The movie ends with 2 students getting the schools they wanted. While the other asked to go off to a boarding school where he would be drilled on the test and will attempt the following year. The film shows how the goal of students is not to obtain a quality education, but simply to have a SKY university diploma which once obtained, makes life easy mode. The film also makes note of the million dollar private education industries that cropped up to satisfy students and parents desire to make it into the best school. Boarding schools, after school academies, and university application specialists that can cost $800 are some examples.
Before I watched the film, I viewed standardized tests as a waste of time for students, I saw them as an important tool for the education system to evaluate ITSELF, not the students. I still don’t think it’s possibly to distill a person down to a score, identify their strengths and weakness, and predict their success with a test. I see high school students slaving away to do their very best, studying until midnight or later, and waking up at 7:30 to do it all over again. The stress these kids are under is immense and this educational system combined with the social pressure is no doubt the leading cause suicide, Korea is the world leader in student suicide.
After watching the movie I see one girl get into Korea university, another into a top women’s college, and I look at it and say hey I guess it does work at the end of the day. However only 1% of students can make it into those top schools. The entrance exam has been made easier in recent years, unfortunately this means a perfect score is now a requirement for a SKY university. Get one question wrong on your 8 hour test, your hopes and dream might be done for it was an important section. All this hardship on the students creates problems like suicide but it also forces students to raise the bar. The work ethic you see in Korean society is simply amazing, because they’ve all been raised in this system. Korea is a country with very little land mass and fewer natural resources, yet it is one of the richest nations in the world.
More on hardship. This is a specific tribe of hunters. I am linking to the NPR story and suggest you give it a listen. I’ll summarize here. A specific tribe in Kenyan is producing the worlds best runners, why?
“There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon,” Epstein says. “There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.”
A large part is their DNA, they have thinner calfs and ankles which amounts to a lot less effort required. All the men go though an intense and painful coming of age ceremony (read article) that determines if you are a man or a coward. The children train for the ceremony and the event is about enduring extreme amounts of pain and continuing onward. A mental toughness required for running. So they pass, they become runners and they obliterate the competition.
In summary, the important thing to remember is that balance is needed. Defining where that balance should be is difficult. I’m sort of a hippie when it comes to education. If people want to learn they should teach themselves. You can personalize and specialize your education when you are delivering it. As a society we should encourage people to pursue education outside of school structures. I’ll admit this is probably not the best economic choice for the country because it shies away from a system of forced hardship, and a lot of people will not challenge themselves unless they are required and mandated to. There are of course people who will go out and shove the whole neighborhood after a snow storm and thrive in hardship.
I envy people that take on hardship. I think one motivation to come to Korea was complacency back home and the desire to do something different, that wasn’t comfortable. However now I’m comfortable in Korea. Hardship is something I often seek though my day dreams. I think about surviving on a desert island, or think about hiking the AT, or the PCT, I think about bumming around South East Asia for a few months without direction or care. I found the picture above today and it made my heart jump. I wanted to get on the trail and try it.
As a country I think we’ve lost a lot of respect for hardship, we are complacent now. I think a lot of people in my generation look back to the times of the 60’s-80’s when housing was cheap, the economy was on a tear, you could buy a car with a part time job, and you could support a family with a single earner and a high school education. I know I personally look back and ask what happened. Perhaps we didn’t challenge the next generation enough?
Lack of hardship it not good, it’s dangerous. It creates the welfare state, which produces crime, and a dependence on government (which means you are not free and independent) I’ve been considering employment options when I come home and I have a feeling some blue collar work might be just what I need for a short time.
This blog post didn’t have a lot of focus I wandered a lot. I’ve got another drafted post that I’ve been writing for a few days but it’s getting too long.