In the Midnight Hour

It was a couple of Friday nights ago that I found myself alone and broke in Ulsan’s “old” downtown area around midnight. My friends had just left in a cab for the university district, but I didn’t really want to make the trek across town and instead decided to call it an early night (midnight is very early for Korea). It wasn’t until after they got in the cab that I realized I had sent them off with the last of my money, and with buses long since having stopped running, I decided I’d better walk home.

But before I freak out my parents, this story isn’t going where you think. Walking across town at midnight in a city is generally a very bad idea for a woman on her own, especially in another country. But in Korea…things are a bit different. As soon as I turned the corner out of downtown, I found myself surrounded by throngs of high school students, just getting out of hagwons (private school) for the evening. The main road between my neighborhood and downtown is lined with hagwons, building-to-building and stacked 6 floors up. I felt a bit embarrassed to be slightly tipsy and in my evening apparel, suddenly joined by a hundred high school students still in their uniforms toting books and backpacks.

The education system in Korea is always talked about in the local news, and gets quite a bit of recognition worldwide. When I first moved out here 9 months ago, my co-teachers were eager to discuss Obama’s comment that the US should follow the Korean education system because it’s been so successful. They felt it was absurd; in their view, education in Korea is far from a model system. Both of my co-teachers have young kids, and explained how stressed they felt about having to send their children into the school system.

So what’s going on? This is what I’ve observed in my time here:

From the time a child starts to speak, they start studying English. By kindergarten, the child is sent to English hagwons for more study. In elementary school, the student will study in school from 9-3, and then attend hagwons until as late as 8pm (according to my fourth graders). In middle school, school goes until 4:30 and hagwons even later. By high school, most of them start studying early in the morning and go into the wee hours of the night. All of this is building up to the end of their final year of high school, when they’ll take their college entrance exam to determine what kind of university they can attend. If the student does bad on that test, they have to wait another year to re-take it.

Parents feel torn: they don’t want their students to study all of the time, but if they don’t, they won’t have a chance to compete with their peers for a good university or job placement. In the end, everyone feels stressed: the kids, because they spend all of their time studying, and the parents, because they’re sending their kids into a system that makes them unhappy. The public school teachers are stressed because students come to them wanting to play games and relax before their hours of evening study, and how can they assign homework knowing the students’ hectic schedules? Hagwon teachers get students who are tired and unable to focus after a full day of school. Who does the system benefit?

I see it in my fourth and fifth grade students, who regularly say they feel sad, terrible, and “depressed” even about how much they have to study. And they don’t get any breaks, either. School let out for summer earlier this week, but many students are still coming to school to study. Next week I start an overnight English camp for fifth graders where students will study at least 10 hours a day, every day, for three weeks.

All of this stress must be unhealthy. According to this recent article in the NY Times, it very sadly all too often drives them over the edge.

Beyond the stress, or perhaps adding to it, is the cost of all this extra education. Hagwons aren’t free, so only those who can afford so many years of so many private school classes are able to get the edge on their peers. It certainly doesn’t provide a very equal opportunity.

Sure, the Korean system is successful in that it’s boosted the economy from third world to one of the strongest in the world in 50 years…but at what cost to the people?

Anyways, this news broadcast from January has some more insight from local students and educators, who can say it much better than I can:


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