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Monday, January 27, 2014

The Next Most Challenging Assignment

For many expats in the Daegu area, a fresh school year lies just around the corner. Expectations run high for both teachers and students. There are new schools, new relationships, new textbooks--new beginnings.

These days in Korea the competition is keen. Most students navigate their studies under the intense gaze of their parents. For better or worse, the sacred destination is the infamous national college entrance exam that seems to be in everyone’s crosshairs.

Just a snap of the fingers brings one back in time to the 1970’s when, if you were a Korean college student, odds were, you were amongst the first in your family to be attending a university.  Classrooms were often dark, dreary and cold places in winter. Lucky you were, if your classroom had some sort of heat—at best a single kerosene heater in the middle of the room.  Lighting too was rudimentary; often one or two light fixtures for an entire classroom.
Keimyung University students, then Keimyung Christian College, circa 1974
Even in Daegu, many students commuted to school, at least partially, along dirt roads--make that mud roads--during rainy weather. Today, those same roads are now paved and neatly lined with curbs and sidewalks. The university students of the 1970’s are themselves now grandparents of students embarking on Korea’s 3rd generation of college students. These young students have inherited Korea’s educational legacy: harsh competition, long days of unrelenting study and near universal aspirations to work in one of Korea’s huge chaebols: Samsung, LG or Hyundai Motors.

Daegu high school students practice their English with KU student (1974)

In just several decades Korea has catapulted itself to the highest levels of educational attainment in the world. But the accomplishments have created dilemmas. There are 500,000 university graduates a year for only 100,000 of those highly coveted job openings. The incessant competition, for the best schools and the best jobs, has had its social costs. Korea now leads the world in categories it cannot possibly be proud of: suicides, unhappiness and alcohol consumption.

Today’s generation of Korean students have thus been given their most challenging assignment: finding solutions to these tough societal problems. Will the attainment of satisfaction and contentment be worthy goals for this next generation? And will the remarkable educational and industrial progress of the past be matched by equally impressive social accomplishments? Hopefully, these too, will be new beginnings for Korea.

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