The recent local elections gave both parties a mixed result, which has become the norm in Korean politics. The ruling Saenuri Party avoided expected heavy losses, and the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy held onto a number of important positions and expanded its share of the vote in ruling party strongholds. The most interesting story, however, was the election of 13 progressive heads of local boards of education. Conservatives won only four of the races, thus shifting leadership of boards of education decidedly to the left.
Education has long been an important issue in Korea. More than anything, access to good schools, which ultimately leads to access to good universities, has been a prime mover in Korean life for decades. During the big boom years from the 1960s to the 1980s, people poured into Seoul because it offered access to better jobs and, equally important for young families, better educational opportunities.
To increase educational opportunity, competitive high school entrance exams were abolished in cities, starting in 1974. Instead, students were assigned to a school in one of eight school districts. As elite schools in Seoul moved from Jongno-gu to the Gangnam area in the mid-1970s, the wealthier families moved with them, turning Gangnam into the new home of the elite.
University entrance exams have long been the ultimate arbitrator of opportunity in Korea. The current entrance exam system was adopted in the mid-1990s in an attempt to shift the emphasis of tests away from mastery of knowledge to aptitude for university study. The entrance exam industry composed of private institutes and publishing companies quickly adapted to the new system, and continued to expand as Korea became more prosperous.
The long, enduring theme in Korean education reform is about efforts to create more equal competition to get into the elite track. The newly elected progressive heads of boards of education will no doubt focus on this issue first. This is laudable, but it does not address the core issue: the appeal of the elite track.
The elite track is about social status and job security. Those who complete the elite track usually end up with secure jobs in government and larger companies. Those who do not end in positions that pay less and are less secure. This is no different from other advanced countries, but the problem in Korea is the degree of the divide and the weakness of the middle. Koreans perceive the cost of not getting into the elite track as high and make great sacrifices to avoid this pitfall.
Focusing educational reform on the elite track only perpetuates inequality because only a relatively small minority of students end up on it. Truly progressive educational reform, then, should focus on the needs of all students while they are in school rather than on the question of future entrance to university.
What are those needs? Education in an advanced and democratic society has two main purposes. One is to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to function in a complex economy, and the other is to help students develop a sense of responsibility as citizens of a democracy. By most international benchmarks, Korea has done an excellent job in imparting knowledge and skills, and pressure to join the elite track has contributed to this.
The democracy question is more problematic. The word “democracy” appears frequently in the national curriculum, but it appears less in practice in classrooms, where teacher-centered approaches are the norm. Pressure to join the elite track has deprived public education of much of its energy as private institutes that emphasize rote learning have become the places where “real learning” takes place.
The problem here is that teaching democracy goes beyond rote-learning of knowledge. It is, rather, a set of values and practices that are cultivated over time and that are critical to a functioning democracy. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.” Strengthening democracy education is thus critical to the health of democracy in Korea.
Progressive education is also about the individual, as Jefferson noted: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Lofty ideals indeed, but they offer guidance as Korean society tries to mitigate the distortions of the elite track.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.