Politics and Quality
Korean children spend more time in school per day than Canadian children do. I believe that too much time in school negatively impacts the development of independent thought and behaviour, and encourages dependency on authority figures to keep order.
As is commonly known among Seoulites, the average family spends between 40% - 50% of their monthly income on childhood education. Koreans seem to be both ashamed and proud of this fact. They tell me that "Korea is too competitive," yet send their child to several 'after-school' academies to study, for example, piano, art, or English.[ii] The more academies their child goes to, the more "advanced" their child is.[i]
By contrast, my after-school hours as a child in Canada were spent playing street hockey. As we kids were under no adult supervision, order was not always kept. However, invaluable life lessons came out of the chaos. For example, we learned that a punch in the face often resulted in a black eye or bleeding nose, i.e. visible evidence of wrong-doing; we learned that there would later be consequences from authority for such behaviour. Also, we learned a lot about social status and peer pressure when the time came for someone to chase an inaccurately shot hockey ball hundreds of meters down the street. Korean children are not free to explore how, in the absence of an authority figure who could steer them in the direction preferred by the older generation, their actions have certain results.[iii]
Though I admit that Korean children are perhaps more respectful of their teachers and elders,[iv] I have concerns about the Korean childhood experience. Whereas I was taught to learn from failures, in Korean culture there seems to be a 'No Failure' attitude. For example, though cheating is universally seen as wrong, it is not disciplined as severely as in Canada. Consequently, many of my colleagues expect their students to cheat because of the pressure placed on them by their parents. 'Do anything to pass or succeed' seems to be the motto of many children. Children do not seem to ask themselves when deciding to cheat whether it is a good thing to do, but act based on the imperative to succeed.[v]
One Korean girl I interviewed about the effects of the Korean childhood experience said that, "Korean young people are more dependent on their parents and teachers as a result." It is notable that most Koreans live at home until they are married (26-30 years old), whereas most Canadians leave home at a much younger age. Most Korean university students have their education paid for by their parents, whereas in Canada, many university students depend on part-time jobs or student loans.
Finally, many Canadians get their first part-time job when they are teenagers. Parents in Canada usually encourage their children to get a part-time job because they believe it instills responsibility and independence. In Korea, however, it is against the law to work until you have finished high school. And even if it were not against the law, a recent school policy[vi] keeps high school students in school until 10:00pm, Monday to Friday. I was told that the reason for this was to lessen the financial burden on families that normally send these children to after-school academies on weekdays.
- [i] From informal polls I have conducted with my students, I would estimate that the average child attends four after-school academies.
- [ii] I admit I often feel sorry for Korean children who, from my perspective, miss out on some of the freedom I associate with childhood. And I struggle too with guilt about earning pay from what I see as excessive demands made by parents.
- [iii] A disclaimer: I do not recommend the children of Korea to play street hockey on the freeways or tiny alleys. Scooters, driven by reckless Korean delivery men, would surely injure them.
- [iv] When I was a young boy I would get annoyed with adults who were simply driving home because it interrupted our hockey game. "How dare he!" I thought, "He's driving slow to ruin our game." (That way of thinking changed the day a wreckless driver did not slow down and hit my net - another lesson learned: SAFETY FIRST).
- [v] This can affect relations between children: a child thinks, "If I don't show my answer to my friend, I'll get a higher grade." The 'No Failure' attitude, incidentally, is also evident in regular schools where passing is not determined by academic success, but solely on age. It is difficult to fail a grade in Canada, but 10% of the students in grade twelve with me were held back for a fourth year. The same percentage of girls in the grade ahead of me became pregnant before finishing high school.
- [vi] The policy, which came into effect this year, does not offer students further instruction, but simply keeps them in school and under supervision during 'study time'.