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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  1. Expat Jane another brilliant post and I must agree with you. South Korea is on the cutting edge of change and no one can refute that but what good is it to be technologically advanced yet still be culturally stagnant?
    In addition, people definitely need to stop looking at Africa as some impoverished country with no hope and that includes some Americans. I am like first of all dummy Africa is not a country but a continent and one of the seven continents in the world.
    Next, Nigeria is the fifth largest oil producing country in the world,even CHina is beginning to recognize that and is making serious inroads into not only Nigeria but Africa as a whole.
    Also Kwame Nkrumah was the first African leader to liberate Ghana from colonialistic rule,can South Korea make the same claim? Ghana is also booming and Botswana is a country with A++ credit not even some advanced countries can make that claim including America as she has some serious foreign debt.
    I was reading Metropolitican's website and he was blogging about some Korea-English Dictionary that was riddled with stereotypes. Africa was the first on the list and guess what the definition was."Where Lions Live." gee Africans will be happy to hear that LOL. Yeah South Korea definitely has a long way to go and hopefully it wont be another 20 years. Thanks for all of your hard work.

  2. Thanks for the compliment.

    Honestly, it's things like this and, yes, Mike's post on the dictionary that reveals things Koreans don't want people to see but that's revealed in just about everything they do.

    Stuff like this reveals the true lack of sophistication still evident here. I mean it's a fun place to be but never would I mistake even the most ritzy spot in Seoul as truly sophisticated.

    It always feels like they're not quite sure what to do or how to do it. My opinion is the whole country needs finishing school ASAP. It's the nation-state version of a country trying on its mom's high heels or trying to tie its father's necktie. There is an awkwardness that's obvious and, I believe, they think we don't notice it. Now there are exceptions as a lot of Koreans who go abroad do come back. It seems that at least some of those people bring a worldliness back that this country really needs. There are people being trained in the service industries and many who handle it well, but the significant majority of Koreans I've dealt with in those industries act like they've just gotten off the bus from the farm.

    Also, stuff like this reveals a need for Koreans to empathize and put themselves in the shoes of others much more than they do. I just finished watching a commerical for TNGT, a men's suit company. The scene starts with Sir Issac Newton walking to "the" apple en route to his theory of gravity. However, he's cut off by a Korean man in a TNGT suit. The Korean man takes a bite out of the apple, says something I didn't catch and the commerical ends.

    Well, I guess that's funny to Koreans, but to a foreigner who observes daily that Koreans intentionally push and shove just to get a standing spot on the subway and bus or where they'll blantantly cut in front of you for the most minor of tasks like getting a subway ticket, the message it sends isn't humor but it's just a further reflection of a culture that only cares about impressing foreigners when they think they can get some sort of profit or benefit out of it.

    The lack of empathy leads to Koreans simply having a horrible habit of not listening. I don't know how many times I've had to deal with a Koreans who you know is running on some bullshit stereotype about who or what you are only to have me set them straight. It's usually explained away by a generalization about foreigners to which I ask some very pointed questions to point out not all wageuks are the same.

    It also reveals a short-sighted approach to education. It's all about what you can get out of it and the status that goes with it. It's one reason I think people are inclined to lie so much about their education here. It's also the reason that a Korean with a PhD from America can be revealed as knowing virtually nothing about the world outside of her own coutry and the United States.

    That's a fucking shame.

  3. yawn.... the same uninspiring worn-out observations of the "problems" Korea has...

    I wonder how you fared in your hometown LA... a huge dung hole.... sorry excuse for a city with some of the rudest and tasteless people I had the misfortune to meet.

  4. What's funny to me is if my observations are "uninspiring worn-out observations" then why not take yourself to a blog you prefer?

    What's more worn out, me having my say or you slogging through an opinion you don't like. Clearly, by what you've written, you've been here before. But you don't like it, yet you come back? What the fuck is wrong with you? Millions upon millions of blogs out there and this is how you entertain yourself? It must be dumb and dumber day in Seattle.

    You know what I do, smart guy? I don't go back to blogs I don't like. However, I also don't troll around the net "anonymous" leaving rude comments either.

    BTW, I fared well in L.A. but this blog is about where I am right now.

    So what you don't like L.A., join the crowd, stay out and it will be a better place for me to come home to if that's what I choose to do.

    Clearly there isn't much to do today in Seattle. Head over to Technorati and find something better suited to your tastes.

  5. Expat Jane keep on blogging and ignore the critics as they always attack the messenger and never pay attention to the message.

    I was reading on Korea Beat, a native speaking ESL teacher berate his/her students saying Japanese and Chinese students were more disciplined and respectful. I didnt think that was a fair statement and in addition he/she had the audacity to say the students were like black people. I am like what the hell does rowdy kids have to do with black people.Maybe its not the kids but your blatant stupidty and that contributes to the problem.

    Of course he isnt the only one that feels that way and that's the sad part. I mean how can you claim to like black culture yet have such a sense of arrogance, ignorance and stupidty when dealing with black people? not understanding that stuggle for people of color around the world is a universal language. Koreans were colonolized just like some African countries were and yet one has the craziness to think Jamaica is in Africa. Hilarious

  6. Hmmmf. Well, you saw what I had to say to said "Anonymous" critic. People loose their manners online. Of course, I'm assuming they had some to loose in the first place.

    Speaking of manners, that ESL teacher is one that I'd probably loose my manners with. There are quite a few people like that here which bothers me because just like other aspects of Western culture, racism is a major export.

  7. i really like your blog. i have been visiting for about a week. i find the lack of anger here to be refreshing; no blog-long attacks on korea and koreans. why is it that expat women seem so much more reasonable?


    and just in case: no, i ain't 'anon' :-)

  8. Hey thanks for the compliment.

    It's odd actually. Sometimes I get the commentor that hates Korea and hates that I'm not as angry so they're upset that I'm not writing post after post on how bad Korea is, I guess.

    Then sometimes I get the commentor, like one above, who is mad that I dare to say anything negative about Korea at all as if it's some hallowed place where people do no wrong.

    It a desire for people to not listen but to silence. If you're not saying what they think you should be saying they want to attack you. Maybe it's the result of talk show culture but probably it's something that humans have always had. Attacking is made easy on the net since you don't have to look the person in the eye. The first thing I noticed with my first AOL account years ago was how with anonymity people just loose their manners and show their true colors.

    As to the anger laden blogs or forums that hate Korea, I also think that there is a cult of mentality with expats here because most expats are single, white males. I think it might be hard living here they're used to being the majority in countries where people who look just like them hold the majority of the power. Here they're merely a means to an end and that's made pretty clear.

    I know you're not "rude anonymous commenter X".

    My point with that person because he didn't just comment on one post, he had to go to another and keep it up, is folks aren't as anonymous as they think.

    I can tell just by what you wrote, but I could also go and look at the traffic to my blog and I could find out certain infomation.

  9. Hey, Expatjane!
    I absoutely LOVED your entry. I'm actually researching Korean and American education.
    Do you think the Korean education system is wrong, or do you think it's becoming a model for the western society? I mean, Korean Americans are really topping the charts for their educational achievements, but why is this, you know? I'm a Korean American myself, but because I was born and raised here in Chicago, I am as lost as any other AMerican in this matter.
    What difficulties do you think the Koreans have to face? Do you feel like there is maybe some hostility from other races (whites, Hispanics, Germans, etc.) for Koreans' achievements?
    Haha sorry to bombard you with all these questions, but whenever you have the time, please feel free to stop by my blog: and give me some feedback! Thanks!

  10. Hey 90345,

    I went to your blog and left a comment. Email me when I get back from vacation and we'll exchange opinions.

  11. Hmmm. It's funny, you wrote that "leaders had the good sense to invest into creating a broad education system" but my reading (for example in Michael J. Seth's Education Fever) suggests that they had no choice, and indeed they didn't really want that at all. The public insistence on broad education and "equal competition" for entry into universities -- especially humanities-styled degree-programs -- was the biggest factor, along with Universities resisting especially Park and Chun Administrations' attempts to direct education in a direction where most would get technical training and a smaller elite would get "university" education.

    The government saw that at least in the past, saw that as a waste of money, energy, and workforce, while the public saw it as a way for their kids to get ahead in society. English-study functions very much in this way, after all: most students of English aren't as interested in acquiring the language for actual use as they are in acquiring it for the purposes of their own social/career advancement.

    I'm not sure that the costs are actually paying the kind of dividends now that would make them worthwhile, though.

    By the way, I'm surprised to see one of the biggest K-blogosphere trolls from Marmot's posting nice comments here. That's very... interesting.

  12. By the way, I just discovered this blog, after seeing comments of yours around the Korean blogosphere. I like, I'll be back...

  13. Well, this post is not academic, so why? I'm not sure. I do know that South Korea had wave after wave of economic development plans and I'm sure education figured into that development.

    I'm not talking so much about English education which I do think is a waste in a lot of situations. I'm talking about university or college students I've taught since I've been here. Most of those students have parents who are very much in blue collar careers and most of these students won't be following in their parents footsteps simply because in Korea you can afford to send you kid to school and there are enough schools for them to attend.

    In the States, that story seems to be more of a rarity than the status quo. Here it's the status quo and that's the distinction.

    But what got this post going was when I heard that one of my professors at Ewha GSIS didn't know that Jamaica was in the Carribean. In spite of all her education, she'd never taken a damn geography course or took the time to just explore an atlas on her own. Since I used to flip through the atlas my mom bought me with wonder, I was truly shocked to hear that she didn't know this.

    Korea's education system does what it's supposed to do in the sense that it creates a lot of skilled workers who do what they're told (for the most part.) It hasn't, however, created a system where basic world facts like geography are valued (but similar critiques could be leveled at the US system too.)

    As for the troll, I avoid comments on the Marmot (a mosh pit of mostly irritating white males not all that different from the ESL Cafe to be honest), so who is the troll?


Hey there! Thanks for visiting my blog. It's my first blog, and I'm glad folks are still stopping by even though I'm no longer living in South Korea. Feel free to comment. If you want a personal answer, leave your email, and I won't publish the comment. Nasty comments and spam links will not be tolerated.