This is from July, of an exhibit downtown by the Cheonggye Stream of high school photographers. I was struck by how many of the images were lonely, melancholy shots of desks, textbooks, pencils, and school materials, with not the slightest hint of romanticism of knowledge and scholarship...
As it happens, today (Thursday) was the day of the suneung--the Korean college entrance exam for high school seniors--a test that carries with it the crushing pressure of being nearly the sole factor in a high schooler's college admission chances in a society in which education and college degrees are seen as nearly the sole factor in one's success (or failure) in life.
From what I know, being a Confucionist society, passing government exams for positions as officials and scholars was traditionally considered the highest possible achievement for any lay person. This has carried over into Korea's modern culture, where the pressure on students to perform academically is often insanely intense, with kids being shuttled from normal classes directly to academies for science, math, and English (like mine) instead of the sports or other extracurriculars that might be expected for a North American student.
It all culminates in the nine hours of the suneung. Stories from NPR and the LA Times have noted the details: the entire country works around the test-takers on this day--workers are encouraged to come in late to minimize traffic jams for students on their way to testing sites, hundreds of airline flights are delayed or canceled to avoid overflying them, police enforce no-honking regulations around them, and students who are running late to the exam are escorted in squad cars to make it on time.
The structure of the current Korean educational system is the subject of criticism both domestic and from international teachers, and, as every English teacher in Korea quickly realizes (if they didn't already before they came), one of the downsides of the job in terms of personal fulfillment is that my place within this system isn't exactly something I can take pride in--my students routinely complain about the amount of studying they do, and you can see the exhaustion setting in with the night classes of the 4th and 5th graders who have come straight from their regular schools to our English academy for lessons that stretch until 8:15. In the debate class that I teach to my 4th graders, one assigned debate resolution from the textbook was that children should be attending academies; every student came down on the con side against them, and the arguments and stories that came from their side in the debate were only slightly more heartbreaking than the looks of disgust and despair on the faces of the students whom I had to force to argue for the pros.
Much has already been written in the K-blogosphere about the suneung, so I'll point you to the perspective of one English teacher and another post he linked too--a great photo essay from a Korean high school senior.
Thursday, November 12, 2009 | Posted by Mark Z at 1:09 PM |