When my mom was a middle school student, she spent a lot of her time at the playground. As soon as the school bell rang, she and her friends raced to a garden, hoping to find a sunflower with the tastiest seeds in it. They munched on the seeds, spat out the bitter ones, and slurped on the nectar of Azalea flowers to counterbalance the bitterness in their mouths. “Old, fun days,” my mom says. Rain or shine, she spent all her after-school hours with her friends, saying goodbye only at sunset. Muddy yard, rocky road, caterpillar-falling trees — the location didn’t matter. Her after-school days were filled with excitement, making her look forward to the next day.
Today, the playgrounds are renovated and upgraded. With rubber-cushioned flooring, curvy slides, colorful seesaws, and intricate jungle gym, the playgrounds are fancier than those of my mom’s generation. They are perfect for children to get together and have fun, except for one fact: they are empty.
Where are all the kids?
In South Korea today, time spent in playgrounds is perceived as a waste. Instead of playing hide-and-seek in a playground after school, most Korean students trudge to academies, carrying backpacks that are as big as themselves. They sit at their desks for numerous hours, trying to memorize every word written on the blackboards.
They take high grades in exchange for their health as they study all day long and engage in as few physical activities as possible. High school students, for example, go to school usually by 8.a.m. and study till it “ends” at 4:30 p.m. As soon as their school day ends, they either attend after-school self-studying programs or go to academies. In both cases, they return home no earlier than 10 p.m., often after midnight, implying that students have limited time for self-care and sports activities.
The Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) reported in 2015 that Korean students study an average of 50 hours a week, 15 hours more than the average of OECD countries. But even with these numerous study hours, Korean students still had lower performance in science literacy and reading than Finland, which barely had half the study hours of Korea.
Why is it that Korea’s education system is so inefficient? It’s because, throughout students’ school days, the foremost purpose of their education is getting admission into brand-name universities, not learning. Since the day they enter primary school, they struggle under a substantial amount of stress, doing everything they can do to make their transcripts appear attractive to universities.
High GPA and scores on the College Scholastic Ability Test (South Korea’s national exam for seniors) are necessary elements of their “perfect” transcripts. And in order to do so, they are required to regurgitate a lot of information in a short period of time. So instead of enquiring about concepts or processes, students memorize formulas and answers. They put more significance on the soon-forgotten answers on their OMR sheets than their actual journey of learning and acquiring knowledge.
Try walking on a street of Daechi-dong, a neighborhood in Seoul renowned for its fanatical attention to education. You’ll see lifeless students cramming into tall grey buildings to receive a private education. Students’ eyes no longer sparkle with excitement or joy. Just like zombies, they march towards academies as if they are pulled by an overpowering force.
Every year, there is news about students who are found dead after hanging themselves, jumping off a high building, or causing self-harm. No one knows the exact reason for their extreme decision, but it can be inferred that they weren’t happy with their lives when they decided to leave this world at a very young age.
According to the report published by National Youth Policy Institue in 2016, South Korean students have the lowest life satisfaction rate among all OECD countries. Given the statistic that one out of every five students feels an urge to commit suicide, it is heartbreaking but unsurprising that the first leading cause of death of South Korean teenagers is suicide.
Not just students, but parents, too, are dissatisfied with the current system of education in Korea. No parents on the earth would want their children to suffer under extreme stress or — in extreme cases — commit suicide. Nevertheless, they continue to send their children to academies and make them study beyond midnight because they, too, are stressed about their children’s futures. They are stressed, or even scared, that if they don’t send their children to academies, their children will be the only ones who don’t get into universities and live “unsuccessful” lives. From parents’ perspectives, who want to do everything they can do for their children’s success, supporting their children means sending them to academies and making them study beyond their limits.
To students who are screaming with exhaustion and suffocation, academies and schools add another weight of new problem books to their backs. They whisper into their ears that sleep is a luxury, and time spent with friends is a waste. And blinded from the desperate appeal in students’ eyes, teachers and parents chant, “Wait till you get into college, just till college.”
But how about now? How about life students are living today?
“Carpe Diem.” It’a famous quote by Mr. Keating delivered to his students in the movie Dead Poets Society. Meaning “seize the day,” this Latin aphorism is what we desperately need in Korean education today. Students no longer sacrifice their current happiness for their future, but instead, focus on the moment they are living today — something way more important than getting into brand-name universities or being “successful” in their lives.
My life is quite different from the life of Korean students mentioned above. Studying in a boarding school located in Mussoorie, I walk up a mountain every morning to go to school and regularly engage in sports activities regardless of the number of tests I have on that day. Instead of sitting at a desk all day long, students here learn to hike, cook, and do laundry — in fact, we get prepared for lives beyond high school and college.
By being part of the Woodstock community, I experience joy similar to the one my mother experienced when she was a teenager. Here on this mountain, I am engaging with the local community and relishing in the joy brought by different seasons, building memories that will undoubtedly last life-long in my heart. And it really isn’t something I should take for granted.