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[Kim Seong-kon] Korean education vs. American education

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Published : 2013-06-11 20:24
Updated : 2013-06-11 20:24

South Korean parents are willing to do anything to provide their children with better educational opportunities. Couples do not hesitate to sacrifice even their married lives to provide a better education for their children. Indeed, there are numerous “wild geese fathers” who live in solitude after sending their wives and children to the States for a better education. With prolonged separation, some fathers are even found dead in their empty homes of a heart attack or stroke. Despite protracted separation, however, few wild geese fathers seem to experience broken marriages. Korean husbands and wives trust each other, even though they live apart for years, as long as the separation is for their children’s education. 

As government institutions begin to relocate to Sejong City, thousands of government officials are now living alone in the new city, leaving their family members behind in Seoul. Families are choosing to live separately because they do not want to uproot their children from the excellent education system in Seoul. Some government officials chose to commute from Seoul to their offices in Sejong City, spending about two hours on the road each way.

When U.S. President Barack Obama praised Korea for its excellent education system, therefore, quite a few Koreans were perplexed as many believe the American education system is far superior to Korea’s. Thus, many thought President Obama only saw the lustrous surface of the Korean system, and did not perceive its deeper problems. But President Obama perhaps meant to say that American teachers and parents should learn from Koreans’ extraordinary zeal for education rather than the education system, per se.

In fact, both the Korean and American education systems have merits and flaws. The Korean education system, for example, is based on cramming and memorization. The downside is that as a result, Korean students often lack original ideas and creativity and thus graduates are stamped out like identical products on a factory conveyor belt. There are upsides in the Korean education system nonetheless. For example, Korean students learn to carefully listen to others and accept what they have to say before judging.

On the other hand, the American education system teaches students to raise questions, discuss and argue extensively before accepting any statement, assumption or premise. Lord Cromer of the United Kingdom once proudly stated: “The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature skeptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism.” Judging by Lord Cromer’s standards, the U.S. education system seems to work superbly, fostering impeccable logicians.

It may be this type of education system, however, that poses problems for graduates of the American system. Since American students are trained to challenge and doubt others’ opinions and ideas, they often neither listen to others with a positive mind, nor accept others’ opinions wholeheartedly. When you converse with American students, they invariably respond with “but,” “however,” or “even though.”

One often feels American students seldom agree with you. When writing a research paper, we surely want students to write logically. In ordinary conversation, however, we do not always need a callous reasoner; we need a humane, close listener who accepts and agrees with what you try to convey. Generally speaking, American students seem to lack such a quality.

Perhaps that is why there are reportedly so many people who are easily depressed in today’s American society. American students tend to believe that according to logical reasoning, they should be able to overcome all sorts of problems and succeed in the end. Reality, however, often cannot be explained logically, and is nebulous and unruly. And you cannot always be successful either.

When they fail in something or encounter something they cannot logically comprehend, therefore, young Americans easily seem to be confused and depressed.

Perhaps American students should learn to embrace contradictions, inscrutable events and logical fallacies. As Max Shulman implied in his short story, “Love is a Fallacy,” love is a mystery that cannot be explained logically.

Yet, young Americans seem to try to reason even with love or marriage life, and believe such things can be logical. When they encounter obstacles in their relationships or marriage lives that cannot be explained logically, Americans easily seem to separate or divorce. Perhaps they think that separating or divorcing is the reasonable ending of an unreasonable relationship.

The Korean and American education systems are not perfect wholes, but can compliment and supplement each other. For example, Korean students should learn from the American education system about how to be creative and original. On the contrary, American students should learn from the Korean education system about how to listen to and accept others’ opinions without underlying suspicions and reservations. The answer to our education problems lies somewhere between the two systems. We should learn from each other. 

By Kim Seong-kon 

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at sukim@snu.ac.kr. ― Ed.