Friday, November 8, 2013

College Entrance Exam Day – Korea’s Holiest?

Praying to the Academic Gods

Thousands of families go into prayer. Airplane flight schedules are curtailed. Trading is delayed on the stock exchange. Military exercises are suspended, police security is tightened. In short, Korea holds its breath and goes into a hush. It’s college entrance exam day. It is perhaps the single most important day in a Korean’s life, since it can determine university options and therefore career and marriage prospects. Korea families are rabid about ensuring that students do as well as they can on this test. They spend almost $18 billion each year on private tutorial courses (called hagwon), by far the most education spending per capita of any country. School kids routinely stay up studying until 1 am only to wake up again at 6 am for years on end as they prepare for this fateful day. For those families who have to endure this pressure cooker existence, life can alternatingly feel like necessary ordeal or social insanity.
For decades, Koreans have complained bitterly about the rigidity of its education system. It seems absurd that so much of a person’s future should rest on the results of one arbitrary day. God forbid that a student should catch a cold or otherwise feel slightly off-kilter. It is a leading reason for the soaring teenage suicide rates in the country as well as the main motivation for families to want to emigrate to other, more flexible countries such as the US, Canada or Australia. However, old social structures die hard. Exams such as this are deeply imbedded in Korea’s Confucian past. Change is especially difficult when entrenched interests point to such hard work and discipline as key ingredients to Korea’s success over the years. 
Looking at the country from the outside, there is much that looks good about Korean society. It appears to be prosperous and family oriented, with a big middle class. However, from the inside, it can seem like a hyper-competitive, dogmatic existence. It’s a shame that so much of the burden of such a life should fall on emotionally fragile teenagers. The costs, though not always immediately apparent, are no doubt high.

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