Korea’s Murderous Education Culture

I read this post on The Marmot’s Hole today. It comes from this story from the Korea Times (I’m not really pleased about using this as a source on this blog, but at the moment I don’t have time to search for a better Korean source). Please read both.

Essentially the story is about a high school student who killed his mother because he felt he couldn’t get the high grades she expected from him. The story outlines ways she would punish him for – as she saw it – underachieving.

“According to police, Park kept telling her son that he must enter a top-class university and should rank first in nationwide exams. When he obtained lower scores than her expectations, she didn’t give him food or forced him to stay awake at night to study.”

There are a couple of things to take form this. One, the pressure on some Korean kids is immense to perform exceptionally in exams. But moreover, that some parents really don’t understand what they’re talking about. Not eating or sleeping is not a good way to improve intelligence or performance in anything, exams, sports, whatever.

Unfortunately, with the way the education system in Korea is set up, cramming and rote learning can often be good methods to get high marks in Korean exams. These methods don’t often allow for good long-term retention or varied application, so we could make the claim that the very nature of the exams and the learning process within the education system are as much a aprt of the problem as parents like this one.

There were also some interesting comments on the post at the Marmot’s Hole. Notably, these from The Korean:

“4000th in the country is hardly “quite good”. Three digits and we will talk.”

This is referring to the fact that student in question was actually ranked 4000th in the country on a test – putting him in the top 1% of all students. This wouldn’t have been good enough for his mother, so he changed his grade to 62nd to avoid corporal punishment. The Korean’s comment is, in my opinion, typical of one of the major issues. However one looks at it, top 1% is good. It’s better than that, it’s outstanding, it’s better than virtually everyone else he will ever meet in his life in Korea.

Basic child psychology states that demeaning this achievement is the last thing that should be done. Sure, anyone, at any time, can always do better. But good achievements deserve praise. Something more along the lines of, “wow, that’s fantastic. Just imagine what you’ll be able to do next time.”

Besides, if someone does their best, works as hard as they can, but still falls short of what some people would hope for them, their attitude and dedication deserves praise. If someone is slacking off, not putting their all into something, then their attitude deserves criticism.

Another:

“I have many criticisms of Korean education system, but its drive toward achievement is not one. Koreans constantly drive their children to be better than they are now, and that’s a good thing.”

Heartfelt and admirable sentiments. A drive towards achievement is indeed a good thing. But how should we measure achievement? In Korea, and in this case, it’s test scores. And almost to the complete exclusion of everything else. As we’ve seen, this kid was in the top 1%, and that must have taken a lot of hard work and dedication, not to mention sacrifice. And yet none of that is taken into account. Someone with that sense of hard work and focus could surely also succeed in many other fields, such as sports or music. But they’ll be judged on test results.

Which leads me on to the next, related, point; how do we judge “better” when it comes to people? Is my parents view of what would make me “better” the same as my own? Am I a better person, a better son, a better whatever if I get a higher grade on an exam? How else should I be judged?

Again, unfotunately, I feel that far too often in Korea, young kids are judged not simply on their own performance in exams, but even more they are judged against others. This is a country that actually has a rank of every student in the country. As another commenter, Yangachi Bastardo, said, “how can they differentiate between say the 935th best student and the 936th?” How can they, indeed? But to my mind more crucially, why do they? When the culture demands an absolute ranking of every student, of course things like dedication, other passions and achievements, personality and so on do not get considered. Not when a number can be put next to your name to show how good you are. And so this is what it comes down to here all too often – not even the subjective “how good are you” but the even more ridiculous “how good do you appear to be compared to everyone else?”

That’s why we have the 엄친아 phenomenon. For those who don’t know, it’s a contraction of 엄마 친구의 아들 – mum’s friend’s son. It’s used to represent a phenomena so widespread that all Koreans recognise this term and its menaing. That is, one’s mum constantly comparing her own children negatively against those of a friend. It often goes something along the lines of “Did you know my friend’s son Minsu got into Seoul University? You didn’t, though, did you?” But these comparisons can be made about anything.

Sometimes I think Korea can be so caught up in comparing things that it misses the true value in them.

And so, what of this so-called “education fever?” Clearly, it can be destructive, harmful and dangerous. Pressure to do better than everyone else on exams leads to suicides of schoolchildren, incredible levels of stress and anxiety, and a warped childhood spent in hagwons, pouring over books or staring at a computer screen. All in the name of being better than the next guy on some exam. And this is how the vast majority of Korean children’s accomplishments from birth to 18 are measured – comparing exam results with 엄친아’s.

There’s so much more to life, especially during childhood, so much mkkore to succeed in, and so many more barometers of this success, that personally I can’t help feeling that the majority of Korean schoolchildren are missing out. And The Korean may well disagree with me, he may well dislike me saying this, but I know I wouldn’t want my own children going through this system with this education culture.

Sure, encouraging oneself and also one’s children to strive for success is a very good thing. But I won’t be measuring my children’s success against that of the kid next door. I’ll want them to do the best they can for themself. I won’t want them to feel like their life isn’t worth living if they can’t be the best out of veryone in the country on any given test.

And so I say Korea needs to take a look at how it measures success, and what people want from their life and from their children. I think it will take people saying “actually, I don’t really want to go to Seoul University. I don’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. What I want to do is … and this is they way I want to do it.” It will take people turning down the high-status jobs in favour of the ones that will make them happier, more fulfilled and give them a better quality of life. It will take a removal of these sorts of national systems of ranking everybody based on such narrow criteria and then saying “this is you, you are number 4,362.” It will take a widespread change of attitude to say tests aren’t what make the person.

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Circumcision in Korea

I recently read this post by msleetobe regarding circumcision in Korea. This got me thinking of an article I’d seen years ago that I’d found fascinating. Truth be told the general contents of the article has stuck with me ever since because it explains something that is just so… Korean – but more on that later. I originally found the article linked to by the Grand Narrative, although I don’t know if his blog still has that link.

I’ve now discovered that there are two related articles.

The first, from 1999: Male circumcision: a South Korean perspective by DS Kim, JY Lee and MG Pang.

The second, from 2002: Extraordinarily high rates of male circumcision in South Korea by DS Kim and MG Pang.

So we have 2 articles from around a decade ago by essentially the same people. Having read the articles, it seems to me that the worrying findings found in the first led the researchers to delve even deeper, culminating in the huge body of research undertaken to write the second article. Read them both, they’re fascinating, and the findings are intriguing, perhaps shocking, and somewhat disconcerting.

I wouldn’t usually do this, but for this post I’m going to copy tables used in the articles as well as replicating chunks of the text as I think it makes it easier to discuss.

The first article begins by stating that “About 80% of the world’s male population remains uncircumcised: most male circumcision is now practised for religious reasons, largely in Moslem and Jewish communties.” The following image comes from the WHO via Wikipedia, and what percentage of males are circumcised in individual countries around the world.

Global Map of Male Circumcision Prevalence at Country Level
 As you can see, South Korea is the only one of its neighbours that has such a high rate of circumcision, even higher than that of North America, which is in itself unusually high. Aside from South Korea, the vast majority of countries with such high circumcision rates are Jewish or Muslim countries where it is practiced for religious reasons.
So why does South Korea have such high circumcision rates? Why does it practice it at all aside from genuine medical necessity (less than 2% in developed countries)?

This chart, from the second article, reveals that circumcision in South Korea was virtually unheard of before 1950, and never practiced before 1945, when the country was first occupied by US forces after the Second World War. Circumcision was a practice inherited from America  through the period of occupation.

The article goes on to reveal how this lead to even Korean doctors coming under the impression that circumcision was a sign of economic and medical advancement. Unfortunately many of the beliefs of American physicians at the time regarding circumcision, that have since been proved wrong, harmful or at least unfounded, passed over to Korean doctors who still hold them today – but more on that later.

This table is for me the most revealing. Bear in mind that these interviews were conducted in the 21st century. For the first question, over half of the Korean doctors interviewed believed that Scandinavian countries (these are countries that to Korea represent all that is advancement and modernity) circumcise over 50% of their boys. Of course the reality is that it’s under 2% – basically accounting for those medically adviseable cases for the treatment of phimosis (the link contains pictures of a penis). Next, essentially the same number of doctors thought that in East Asia only South Korea and Japan circumcise widely. That none chose South and North Korea as the answer shows that these doctors are aware that it is not a traditional Korean custom and probably also means that they know exactly when circumcision began to be practiced in Korea. Therefore, their choice of answers on these two questions seems to prove that Korean medical professionals tend to associate high rates of circumcision with economic and medical advancement.

More shockingly, perhaps, less than 30% knew what phimosis actually is – an unretractable foreskin. Medically speaking, a male who is phimotic at around age 20 should be advised to have a circumcision. Korean doctors, as explained in the article, know that circumcision is an operation to solve phimosis, yet virtually all of them didn’t actually know what this is. Phimosis is a medical condition, and yet over half of the interviewees responded that it means that the foreskin covers the glans (head). This is precisely what the foreskin is for! I think I found this most astounding.

The fact that the Korean doctors misunderstand phimosis to mean that the head of the penis is covered by the forskin – the “normal” and default state of the penis, is therefore the reason they recommend universal circumcision.

Before giving my thoughts in a bit more detail, I’ll leave you with the conclusion of the second study:

In conclusion, male circumcision started 50 years ago in South Korea but now the country has one of the highest circumcision rates in the world. The mistaken and outdated notions of South Korean doctors about circumcision, and their lack of knowledge about phimosis, seem to be a leading contributory factor to the extraordinarily high rate of circumcision.

So, ignorance among the very doctors performing circumcisions in Korea of the basic facts has lead to more than 90% of men between the ages of about 12 and 40 currently being circumcised in South Korea. What I find truly incredible is that the same misconceptions and outright false beliefs that were held about circumcision in the 50s – effects on sexual performance, prevention of STIs, cleanliness etc – are still so prevalent in Korea today, regardless of the fact that the rest of the developed world has moved on in its attitudes and knowledge, making such beliefs redundant.

The articles also show how modern medical research, particulaly from the US, has been misinterpreted in Korea and the findings therefore misconstrued in the South Korean media to encourage universal circumcision.

This commenter on msleetobe’s blog even says that her doctor tried to correct her by saying that all Americans are circumcised. All that doctor would have needed to do is look at the map I provided at the start of this post to see that that blatently isn’t true. I’ve heard numerous stories, however, and have even witnessed it myself, of Koreans “correcting” foreigners’ views about their own countries. I myself have been told that in the UK we don’t eat rice, but we always eat bread. Unrelated, I know, but both instances demonstrate how a little knowledge is often a dangerous thing in Korea.

Another major factor that is discussed in the articles, and that I’ve also seen myself, is peer pressure. As a speaker of Korean, I’ve been told outright what some people think of me being uncircumcised here. Generally this happens at jjimjilbangs, for obvious reasons. I’ve had a Korean friend joke by telling me that I’m still a baby because I’m not circumcised, but more often it’s just – “why?”

All these men and boys getting circumcised and they don’t even really seem to know why. The reasons they do think of are outdated and have been proved to be false long ago. Discounting peer pressure I find it hard to see why circumcision is still so widely practiced. There’s no reason for this level of ignorance about it. Especially not considering that it’s not babies getting circumcised in Korea, it’s pubescent boys mostly. At that age they’re old enough to actually be thinking about these things. If my parents told me when I was twelve that I was getting circumcised I’d be pretty damned sure to find out a bit about it. So I can only assume that the knowledge really doesn’t exist in Korea. Although knowing how conformist Korea can be in terms of appearance I wouldn’t be surprised if all the knowledge in the world wasn’t enough to compete with the shame of being the only one in the jjimjilbang with a foreskin.

What a shame.

I find it frustrating that the modern knowledge regarding this has not permeated the Korean medical community. I can only guess that the doctors just aren’t seeking the information; that they’re happy to live within their insulated bubble, “knowing” that what they’re doing is what any advanced country should do, and in fact what they all do do. Except they don’t.

I love Korea and I’m glad it’s my home, but I do feel from time to time that things get done here for the sake of advancement without any serious consideration of any other relevant factors. What’s more, it’s so often for the appearance of advancement. Where the superficial is confused with the… ficial. Having white English teachers must be good, because English is a white foreigner’s language, the clearly heavily photoshopped photo on this job application looks good, let’s give them an interview, he went to Seoul National University, therefore he must be a genious and given an easy ride for the rest of his life.

At times and to a certain extent, South Korea has appeared to be ammassing the trappings of an “advanced” nation, of modernity and development, while at the same time missing something fundamental. It’s similar to the way KPop stars have ammassed the trappings of western popular music, while the outcome would be recognised almost universally as something a bit wide of the mark by most westerners, if they assume that the aim was to replicate.

The situation with circumcision in South Korea could be likened to the blind leading the blind, although the one in front largely regained their sight, but not before the one being lead decided that they were a big boy now, all grown up and could manage by themself from now on.

But those are sweeping generalisations and nothing to do with what this post is actually about – although perhaps to some extent a different side of the same coin.

So, did you read the articles? What did you think?

UPDATE: Another interesting article that seems to imply that even the vast majority of cases of phimosis don’t necessarily require circumcision to correct.