uri nara


Math final exam last Friday.

Two boys have their heads down and are sleeping five minutes into the exam.  I go to wake one up and he’s pissed.  He looks over the test for a few minutes and lays his head back down.  I point out the other boy and the teacher (I can’t remember his given name, only that he is yet another Kim) does nothing.  And so begins a long discussion (on the back of an extra exam) about education in Korea.

“Isn’t that boy also worried about entrance into college?” I ask.

I learn that some students give up on college in high school, and some as early as middle school. I tell him about the GRE in the US and that some students who hate high school choose to quit early yet are still able to go to college if they pass.  I tell him that even some smart kids take the GRE because they are bored and want to go to college early.  They must start out at a lower level college, but that it is easy to transfer.

He tells me that there is also a high school equivalency test in Korea, but that it is shameful to take it so most suffer through high school.  Others give up on better colleges and, knowing math won’t be a factor in the second or third tier type of college they’ll be going to, probably in the countryside, that they don’t even bother to study math.  They think they can also transfer once they complete some of their college courses, but transferring to an upper level school is very hard to do in Korea.  He tells me that even though 80% of the students go to college, that it doesn’t mean much since most of the colleges are no better than high school.  He chuckles, “there are more colleges than there are students, you know!”

I forget to ask, but later remember that nobody can ever tell me why Korea doesn’t improve its college accreditation?  So that an entire nation isn’t competing to get into three schools…

I tell him about the running start program and how some students can get credit for college AND high school at the same time.  Turns out Korea has this too, but only for specific subjects from specific top tier schools.

We have the same discussion I always have with Korean teachers, about the hagwon system and how it undermines public school education.  I tell him that it’s elitist.  I tell him that it exploits common people with false promises of class climbing.  I tell him that it exacerbates the divisive class structure of Korean society because the super rich can always have exclusive education and dominate the competition while draining the common people of all their resources. “Why,” I ask him, “Why don’t Korean parents spend their money more wisely and efficiently?  The few gains from all this extra instruction are marginal and meanwhile their children spend 16 hours a day in school and are robbed of childhood and a balanced life.  It’s not sustainable and doesn’t make economic sense – financially or personally.”

“You’re right,” he says, “but Korean parents don’t trust the government with their money.  We could never be like Northern Europe and their welfare state.”

I explain how very different American taxes are compared to Northern Europeans who pay 50% of their income.   I explain how American parents feel too poor to pay for private institutional cram courses, and how they demand a decent public education from their government.  I explain about school funding in America, and how it is never fully funded, but how each city and each school and each community must work together to overcome the shortfall in Federal funding.  I explain how Americans typically pay 15 to 30% in taxes and how when the burden is great quality domestic programs must match that burden.

He tells me Korean parents would never participate in fund raising for their communities, because they already feel they pay too much taxes. (I later hear it is about 20% on average)  He goes on to tell me that is why they have such good health care.  He goes on to tell me how even Obama praised Korean health care.  “Obama,” I tell him, “even though I love the man and voted for him, is still a politician.  Obama also praised the Korean educational testing system.”  Point taken.  He nods.

“The thing is,” he explains, “that Korea has been conquered and occupied by other countries most of its history.  So many feel we must compete and be the best we can be so we are never in that position again.”

“I know about that history,”  I say, “but you’re not competing with other countries.  You’re only competing with each other and killing yourselves doing it.”

“That’s what I don’t understand about uri nara. (which means, our country, the Korean way of always referring collectively to themselves as one people)  Where is the uri? It seems to me that everyone in Korea is only thinking about lifting themselves and nobody cares about what’s best for society.”

After which follows a long pause.

“You’re ABSOLUTELY RIGHT,” he says.

“That makes me so sad,” I say.

“Me too.  Me too.”

Test finished, I leave.

He folds up our conversation and puts it in his pocket.

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