Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The American Envy of the Korean Education System (Part 4): Why Do Koreans Stop Studying?

Note:  This is Part 4 of a series.  Parts 1-3 can be found here.

Why Do Koreans Stop Studying When Entering University?

There are many, many possible explanations.  If you go to Seoul National University or nearby Yonsei University in Seoul, as well as the subway stations that surround the various universities in Korea, you will find the identical scene everywhere you go.  Lights, lights, and more lights which are illuminating shopping, restaurants, and PC rooms.  What do you not see?  Tired students carrying books.  If you go to the top universities in the U.S. (except Stanford which The Lost Seoul still contends is like fantasy-land), you cannot find those scenes.  That is quite remarkable:  even New York University, right in the middle of Manhattan, is strikingly quiet except on one street (8th Street).  In England, Oxford is deadly silent.  Why the striking difference?  In Korea, the students are PLAYING, not studying.  This part of The American Envy of the Korean Education System looks for a partial explanation.

Possibility 1.  Korean students are burned out.  It is true that the average student that has entered a college in Korea has studied much more than a student that has entered the same-caliber college in the U.S.  An American student has endured 3-4 years of high pressure, high-intensity preparation.  In Korea, that student has been doing this since the 6th grade, at the minimum.  That means 2-3 extra years of high-intensity studying.  

Possibility 2.  No Hagwons Means No Need to Study.  Korean students have been used to the hagwon system for more than 10 years each.  All of a sudden, there is no hagwon drill master wtching the performance of a Korean student.  There are no drills which supplement classroom lessons. 
It is a fact that many top hagwons are more difficult than the school a student attends.  It is no wonder that a Korean student may feel liberated when entering college, and uses that freedom to...do anything else except study.

Possibility 3.  There is no "next step" in Korea. For American students, the path to a top graduate school, like Harvard Law, or the University of Chicago MBA program, will require very good grades while in college.  If you want to become a medical doctor in the U.S., not only do you need good grades, but you need to be involved in extra-curricular activities like laboratory work or volunteer work.  Importantly, there are separate, high-competitive entrance exams such as the GMAT and LSAT to enter graduate programs in the U.S.
In Korea, you apply to a college which may automatically qualify a student to the graduate school.  For example, a student can apply to Catholic Medical School in Korea at the age of 19 before entering university.  That means that there is no additional pressure to perform in college for Korean students.  Now, this system is currently under review.  For example, entry into law school in Korea is being transitioned to a system similar to the U.S., which means that a person needs to graduate from college first, and then apply to law school separately.  Whether this system becomes universally accepted in Korea is yet to be determined.  In short, the lack of a "next step" with a new application process in Korea may lessen the need for Korean students to perform at the undergraduate level.

Possibility 4.  Males are "Preparing" for Military Service.  The Lost Seoul believes that the mandatory military service, while it may be necessary, services as a barrier to progress in other areas for certain males.  That is not to say that the military is not valuable.  Korean men form unbreakable bonds with one another by collectively going through the difficult times during their military service.  Certain men, who lacked personal responsibility traits, can mature and gain those traits during military service.  Nevertheless, other males, who already possess these qualities, could use their time more productively by pursuing their personal and professional goals, at the very time in life when both physical and mental capacities are at their height.  Knowing that military service awaits, one reason that Korean men don't study during college is because they all know that their freedom will soon be suspended for 2 1/2 years.

Possibility 5.  The "Mrs." Degree.  There is no doubt that this is fading away in Korea, and quickly.  Given the fact that there is no mandatory military service, the fact is that the women of Korea can use this time to develop themselves personally and professionally.  However, certain schools such as Ewha Women's University (이대) still have that lingering reputation as being a wife-preparation college.  In the past, perhaps this was true, but now, The Lost Seoul doubts that this is a serious reason for the lack of studying by college-age students in Korea.

Final Answer?  The Lost Seoul's best guess is that it is Possibility #1 and Possibility #2 explain most of the reason.  Korean students have already studied for 3 extra years when compared to American students in order to enter into a highly competitive university.  No hagwons are available to apply additional pressure upon students.  Some of this is changing now, as hagwons also exist at universities.  Nevertheless, these hagwons are not nearly as prevalent at college as they are during a Korean students' high school years.  These two possibilities also explain Korean students' relative failure at Ivy League schools, after graduating from Korean high schools.  Perhaps some of this is due to English, but there are other foreign students from other countries that do not have the same failure rate at American universities. 

Conclusions.  Korea caters to the mean, while the U.S. caters to the extremes.  While the average student in Korea may test better, the top students in the U.S. have almost unlimited resources at their disposal.  This is largely explained by the need for Korea to elevate an entire nation since it has many limitations:  lack of geographical size, lack of energy/natural resources, history of subjugation.  The U.S. knows none of these limitations.  The U.S. has the resources to attempt the extreme, and champions individual rights.  In general, Korea does not know these concepts.  This may change as Korea has risen from one of the world's poorest nations to one of the richest.  We cannot know this.  We also cannot suggest changing Korea to mimic the U.S. would be a positive for Korea as a whole.  It would be convenient to pick and choose the best aspects of each system, but each system, its strengths and its weaknesses, reflect the nation's history and political influences.  In short, there are small aspects in which the Korean system can and should be emulated, but the entire system cannot be duplicated.
However, there is no doubt that students in the U.S. would perform better if not ingrained with attitudes such as "I am no good at math" as if that was a blessing or gift:  Korean students know and have proven that just practicing more diligently will largely compensate for any slight differences in natural ability.  American students give up well before they will ever know if they could have attained any goals. 
On the other hand, Korean students need to learn the American saying "It is not how you begin, but how you finish."  Those Korean natives who know this are currently trailblazers in their fields.  Hopefully, Korean students will learn from their example in the future.


Josh said...

Great article - makes me wonder if professors are handing out grades or if students are doing just enough to pass and graduate.

It is the complete opposite in the US - one can coast through high school, but the jets have to be on in college if an MBA or JD is your endeavor.

I guess students from Korea studying undergrad in the US at top schools are A type personalities. Although I see the prestige and personal fulfillment aspect of studying abroad, I personally would save the expense and party it up at Seoul U or Yonsei!

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