The rule of four versus five

Asian students are among the most diligent, hardest-working students in the world.  They are generally driven to excel academically.  Those who go to the U.S. for education typically do very well because are disciplined and conditioned to excel.  In fact, a large portion of math and science students in U.S. universities migrated from Asia, particularly from China, India, and Korea.  In Korea, the drive for primary and secondary students to excel academically is especially acute.  Korean public education students work extremely hard.  Their primary goal is to perform well on college entrance exams in the hope of getting into their college of choice.  The chosen few who do particularly well are able to get into the elite Korean universities, including Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Ehwa Women’s University, and Korea University.  The Korean educational system is competitive to such an extent that Korean students often study up to 20 hours per day in order to stay ahead.  There’s an infamous saying in Korea known as "the rule of four versus five."  It states that students who sleep four hours per day will get into the college of their choice, while those who sleep five hours per day will not.  In addition to attending public schools, Korean students spend endless hours studying at private academies with professional tutors who grill them in a variety of subjects, particularly English.  Korean parents will spend thousands and thousands of dollars (millions of Korean won) to put their children through extracurricular training so that they can have an advantage when it comes to taking the college placement exam.

As an American, I find the Korean educational system both admirable and unsettling.  I really admire Korean students who work so hard to get ahead.  I also admire their parents’ dedication to putting their children through school, no matter how high the cost.  Korean parents are immensely supportive when it comes to making sure their children have the best educational and career opportunities.  At the same time, I am concerned about the unforgiving nature of the Korean educational system.  Articles like the one I recently read in the International Herald Tribune about student protests over the Korean educational system highlight just how unforgiving the Korean system can be.  Those who do not perform well face a far less certain future than those who do.  Their status in life, their career, the person they marry, and where they live are often determined by the outcome of a single exam.  Students can take the annual placement exam up to three times.  However, it is still very difficult for some students to succeed, even after testing multiple tries. 

Although the U.S. educational system is far from perfect, I believe it is preeminent in one critical aspect–it is much more inclusive, and it offers far more opportunities for academic and career success than does the Korean system.  Even some Koreans agree with me.  Those I have talked to acknowledge that the Korean system can be very harsh, and I meet many students who would prefer to pursue their education in the U.S.  This is only partly due to American academic curricula.  It is also because competitive pressure is much less intense in the U.S., and Korean students can take advantage of a wide range of academic and career opportunities in the U.S.  For example, they do not need to change schools in the U.S. if they change majors (they do in Korea).  They can attend school as non-traditional students if they are older or want to pursue unique educational interests.  There are far fewer non-traditional students in Korea.  A 55-year-old Korean grandmother would be hard-pressed to obtain her doctorate degree in Korea, whereas in the U.S. she can pursue her degree from any institution at any age, so long as she meets the entrance requirements.  The occasional story of the American octogenarian who earns his bachelor’s degree at a U.S. school is unheard of in Korea.

An American friend of mine is currently attending a master’s program at one of Korea’s top universities.  He sat in on a few courses before choosing his course schedule.  Two of his professors bluntly told him that he did not belong in their classes.  He did not conform to the norm, perhaps because he has a tenuous grasp of Korean.  He was finally able to find a niche for himself at that school and found a way to fit in.  He is one of the lucky ones, perhaps because he is a foreigner.  He would have been readily accepted by his teachers and peers if he had enrolled in a Korean language course.  However, because he chose to enroll in mainstream science courses, he met with resistance.  It’s an unfortunate reality of life in the Korean educational system.

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