Schooling and a Theory

by alexlucascion

There is something about the Korean educational system that seems to evoke well-meaning condescension in every westerner that comes across it. The issue—for the 99% of you who are unfamiliar with the Korean schooling ethos—basically comes down to memorization. Korean students memorize a lot, as in almost exclusively. They don’t so much teach to the test—a term that implies that there is some idea beyond the test that it is intended to measure—as they teach the test itself. The test doesn’t measure knowledge; it defines it.

There is a great enthusiasm and reverence for tests here. A lot of career paths are guarded by infamously difficult exams, like so many trolls patrolling so many bridges. If you manage to pass one of these exams, for instance the foreign service exam, your life can more or less be considered successful. If you pass two of them, you are obviously destined for greatness. Three, and you’re a legend.

Backtracking a bit, all the memorization and test prep tends to crowd out the things that are near and dear to my liberal-arts-majoring-heart: critical thinking, analysis, understanding concepts, and so on. Believe me when I say I’m not trying to fight the system. I have yet to walk into class and set the textbook on fire.  This is not the story of a dedicated teacher risking his career to inspire his students—white saviors are a bit old fashioned anyway. Theirs not to reason why, right? I do what I’m told.

Besides, who says they have it wrong? Koreans do tend to kick our American asses on standardized tests, and they more than hold their own when they go to American colleges. This is the part when someone says, “yes, but did you know that there are, like, zero Korean Nobel prize winners! Their approach fails to promote creativity!” Because creativity is generally considered something that can be taught in schools, and most (if not all) great artists credit their primary school educations with providing the impetus for their later work. In all fairness though, the above straw-man has a point. Creativity and innovations are somewhat lacking in the country. Samsung copies Apple. Much of Korean cuisine is highly derivative of Japanese/Chinese dishes. Fine. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame the schools, and luckily for the people who are still reading (hi mom! How are the pups?), I am prepared to put forth an alternative theory.

By the way, this is my own particular brand of well-meaning condescension. I never said I was immune.

Korea is a country that values conformity. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Korea is not a country that values nonconformity, but either way you get the idea. Individualism and nonconformity are so ingrained in the American psyche that we just assume they must be universally considered positive qualities. Not so in Korea. Maybe it’s the Confucianism history, or maybe it’s the ethnic, racial and cultural homogeneity,  or maybe it’s something else, but it’s definitely there. Just to give an example, I saw a commercial the other day that featured an entire city, dressed in the same clothes, singing and holding hands. I kept waiting for the twist, like when that blonde girl in the orange shorts broke the screen in that apple commercial from the 80s, but it didn’t come. It was an ad for a bank.

SIDE NOTE: Before I go on, yes I realize that there is a lot of conformity in America. Yes, the ideals of nonconformity, individuality and “being yourself” are often used to sell people the same clothes and music that everyone else wears and listens to, but the important part is that they are selling points, so shut up. You never read a children’s book or watch a movie (or even see a commercial) where the moral of the story is to do your best to fit in.  Sensibilities would be offended.

Innovation, meanwhile, is a fundamentally rebellious act, rugged individualism taken to its practical extreme. Before you reinvent the wheel or discover a new way to measure the age of ink, you have to start with the assumption that not only is the old, accepted way of doing things wrong, but that you can do better. For all our other faults, this is a notion that comes easily to Americans, who are taught to sneer at tradition, but not Koreans, who learn to revere both their elders and the way things have always been done.

OK, the sermon is over. Most of that is probably wrong, or worse, unoriginal, but there it is. I hope everyone understands I’m not trying to say “hey Korea, your doing it wrong.” I’m just processing my experiences the only way I know how, by comparing them to what know.  If anyone wants to talk about it, or maybe just compliment me, email me @

Anyway, hope the think piece wasn’t too boring, and I promise next time I’ll just tell a funny story about going out and drinking with the locals. Until then, bye, and  have a great new years for me. I will be working 9 AM on January 1st