Thursday, October 18, 2007

Holes in Korean Education

This is an interesting topic. I've been watching CNN's Eye on South Korea reports this week. It's the last day and they've topped it off talking by talking about MegaStudy.

I was having dinner with another foreign friend last night who is studying here. And, believe me, foreigners have a ton of opinions on Koreans and their education system. I've got a few choice views on it myself.

However, I did point out that in spite of the fact that Koreans are still very much plugged into route learning, the fact that their leaders had the good sense to invest into creating a broad education system contributes to the successful export economy we see today. There was a lot they could have done with the funds they didn't have to put to national defense and there could have been massive corrpution beyond the cronyism that was seen during the industrial development years because there was a lot of aid coming to Korea. All in all, there wasn't and that money went to creating a society ready to learn and work to a better future. Now they've got it.

There are tons of various types of colleges and universities which train their population to move into the job market. The fact is all of my Korean classmates who wanted to work or to move on to further studies have. Small cities like Yeosu, where I started my adventures in Korea years ago, usually have 4 to 5 nearby colleges and universities. Another town I lived in had nothing more than a train station, a bus station a few blocks down the road, a few shops in between and a lot of gawking Koreans had at least 5 to 6 colleges and universities within a 30 to 45 minute radius. This has been crucial to Korean's amazing development because it's a reality that the child of working class people can get education. I've seen it and that's the background of the majority of the students I've had since I've been here.

Now these institutions are not creating scholars. What they're doing, however, is training people to become skilled workers to do the job. That's crucial for a country that lacks natural resources. You have to create your edge with your other resources. So for all the criticism that's directed in the general direction of the Korean education system it's managed to get the job done.

With that shout out, however, here comes the critique. When it comes to globalizing Koreans still have quite a ways to go. The economy is shifting from a manufacturing base to a service and research base. No education system is perfect; the US education system certainly isn't in the primary and secondary school levels, but somehow is at the top of the game when it comes to universities.

I was regaled with a story that one of my former professors had no clue where Jamaica was and thought it was somewhere in Africa. The class had to do reports on leadership in their respective countries, but the professor had no concept of the Caribbean region. Even after being corrected she continued to clump the African students with the ones from the Caribbean.

Now Koreans bristle when they're mistaken for Japanese or Chinese, so you'd think there would be the same level of sensitivity when they make the same error. However, I've found that empathy is a hard thing to find in Koreans when it comes to this issue. You'd also think that a "scholar" would have a general idea of the world's geography. Meaning you don't have to know exactly where a country is but it would be nice to think most "educated" people know the difference between the regions where Ghana and Guyana are located. If you know the positions this woman has had in the past and her specialty, the depth of her error becomes even more glaring.

That's one huge hole in the Korean system which leads to blundering errors like the one my former professor made. It's a shame because I guess even in the mind of a Korean who holds a Ph.D. from an American university and whose CV lists some interesting work, all black people except black Americans all must still live in Sub-Saharan Africa. And there is nothing wrong with living in Sub-Saharan Africa, so don't mistake my point. However, in modern times boats sail and planes fly and, believe it or not, they let black people on them from time to time.

The black disapora like the Korean one is all over the world. To not know the difference between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean is more that just humiliating for her (the story is spreading fast), but it's a clear commentary on how far the Korean education system still has to go to prepare its citizens to shift from making products shipped to foreign lands to actually dealing with foreigners face-to-face.

Maybe the folks at MegaStudy can offer a freebie class to its Korean subscribers to cover world geography and world culture. While they're at it, maybe they can create an English version for the students in the US too. I know I still have cousins who ask me how my life is in Japan, go figure.

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