Sunday, January 04, 2009

From Their Mouth: The Mother of Education

Education in Korea is nutty. Families spend thousands of dollars a month on additional tutoring in just about every subject imaginable. The streets are lined with academies ranging from math and science to piano and, my personal favorite, paper folding. Discussing the problems with Korean education is not the aim here --that would take too long and be way too nuanced. Here, I want to discuss the role of Korean mothers in the education system. But not from the viewpoint of a teacher as you might think, but from that of a Korean mother.

The day simply isn’t long enough for the average Korean student and it’s even shorter for the Korean mother. A normal day for a student consists of waking up, eating, going to school, going to after-school academies (hagwons), going to the library, going home, and finally sleeping. From where I’m standing, I’d guess that most “good” students get an average of 4.5 to 5 hours of sleep a night. The better you are, the less sleep you get. Same goes for the Korean mother.

From the moment her son or daughter is born, the Korean mother makes a promise to herself that she will not rest until her child is a success. The definition of success is another topic all together. They waste no time in starting their child’s education. When I taught young children, I was taken aback several times by the age and size of some of the children being brought into school. I remember in early 2007, fresh batches of new wide-eyed English students were sitting with their parents in the assembly room simply stunned by what was happening in front of them. They were all under five years old, never had been separated from their mothers and yet there they were, about to be taken into a classroom by a group of foreigners while their mothers waited with camera’s hoping to catch the perfect shot of their children starting their education. This day marked the beginning of a long and grueling process not only for the young learners, but for the mothers also.

They do everything they can to ensure their children will do well in school because a student who succeeds in the classroom serves as a marker for what type of mother he or she has. While getting perms, mothers proudly jaw to each other about their child’s grades and academic prowess. Every day until their child has entered a top university, the Korean mother will be up early in the morning preparing meals and staying up late into the night helping her child with homework and forcing encouraging them to study harder. I have graded countless homework assignments where the mother’s presence was easily detected. They try all sorts of methods of foolery from writing the answers lightly so the child can simply trace the text while I’ve even seen some attempting to write like a child in hopes of squeezing one by. They do this out of love for their child, but there’s another reason: other mothers.

From their mouth:

“Does your daughter (9) go to any hagwons?”I asked.
“Yes. She goes to four: math, science, art and English.”
“That’s a lot. Why so many?
“She used to attend just an English hagwon, but my friends made me feel bad.”
“Because one wasn’t enough?”
“Yeah, they said that I was a lazy mother.”
“I don’t understand really. What’s the connection?”
“They think I’m a bad mother because my daughter won’t be as smart as the other children.”


Fierce competition in this country as bled into every facet of the culture, and it has absolutely saturated education. Lee Ji-eun, 38, was pressured to send her nine year old daughter to more academies. Her friends and other mothers in her neighborhood thought she was not being a good mother and Ji-eun felt horrible and started to think that maybe they were right. They made her feel this way because, in their mind, by not providing an excessive good education, her daughter will not be able to be competitive and will run the risk of failure. By this logic, a bad student equates to a bad mother. And in Korea, you can’t hide grades. So, where did this come originate?

From discussions with older Koreans (50+), I’ve learned that it hasn’t always been common for mothers to push their children so hard in school. Of course you have to take the state of Korea at that time into consideration and also that families were much larger decades ago, but there just doesn’t appear to be any historical excuse for Korean mothers to be so whacky. The most common explanation I’ve heard is that South Korea doesn’t have enough natural resources to support the economy, so the structure of the economy (service/exports) has been setup in such a way that gaining a more practical education in business or engineering is the best way to compete. And since everyone is operating under this logic, the competition for the same jobs in the same top companies is stiff.

This is the explanation I usually get and it makes no sense. Competition for top jobs is always stiff no matter where you are, but what does that have to do with obsessive studying as a child? How does having an export-based economy explain why mothers force their young children to study for hours on end? It doesn’t. There are tons of countries with this setup. The first problem is that the Korean education is based on test scores and book levels. Mothers live to brag about what book level their child reached at the hagwon and how many hours they studied. Most tests are multiple choice and very rarely are students required to write essays. A specific test, called 수능 (suneung) is the high school test of all tests. It’s the one that dictates whether or not you go to a good university. If you do well, then you are fed into a system which will pander to you and eventually offer you a “desirable” position in a company or other profession. If you fail then your potential success is severely marginalized. How do you do well on this test? One word: study.

“Hyun-soo is so tired these days. He’s studying very hard.”
“So is Eun-kyung. It’s great.”


This exchange has not been witnessed by me, but I can only imagine. I’ve talked to many mothers who admit that the amount of time their kids spend studying is excessive, but they “can’t” do anything about it. The excuse is eerily close to the one that kid’s use when caught smoking: “All the other mothers are doing it.” They know it’s bad for their kids (see Korean teen suicide rate), yet they can’t stop (see Alabama meth addiction rate). And if no one stands up and stops it, then it will continue to snowball and mothers will continue to devote themselves to destroying their children’s youth preparing their children for success. In the meantime, good mothers like Ji-eun who want to give her child free time to play, get into trouble and be a child, must either endure the criticism from overbearing mothers or give in and essentially steal the innocence of childhood from her daughter.

When you hear a six year old student say they are studying English “to get a good job” then you know there is a problem. And in Korea, it starts and ends with the mothers.

1 comments:

Harriet said...

Okay, so compare this to your own upbringing. What was right in our educational system and what was wrong? Also antyhing from this Korean educational culture that you would try to use or duplicate with your own little ones?