Archive for April, 2008

Studying & Sleep-walking: Life in South Korea’s Prep Schools

the school from the inside. mokpo, south korea. by 摩根.

TWENTY-HOUR DAYS AND ENDLESS pressure for better test performance; it sounds closer to a description of a robot’s regimented existence than to a definition of quality education. Yet this is the grueling reality for students inside South Korea’s top notch prep schools. And while this rigorous instruction may be helping young Koreans achieve their Ivy League dreams, it raises some serious red flags about quality of life.

So you have to wonder: why did the New York Times leave that angle out?

In a recent story, the Times’ Sam Dillon featured two of South Korea’s premier preps, and seemed to praise Daewon Foreign Language High School and the Minjok Leadership Academy for their ability to churn out roof-shattering SAT scores and undergrads at Harvard, Yale, et al. Never mind the fact that the students hardly have time to sleep, let alone engage in a little frivolous young romance.

But as he was collecting quotes from teachers applauding their students’ superhuman concentration abilities, what Dillon forgot to do was take a step back and evaluate what all this rigor might mean for the development of young minds. To that idea, he dedicates hardly more than a sentence:

Both schools seem to be rethinking their grueling regimen, at least a bit. Minjok, a boarding school, has turned off dormitory surveillance cameras previously used to ensure that students did not doze in late-night study sessions. Daewon is ending its school day earlier for freshmen. Its founder, Lee Won-hee, worried in an interview that while Daewon was turning out high-scoring students, it might be falling short in educating them as responsible citizens.

“American schools may do a better job at that,” Dr. Lee said.

And then it’s straight back to the “Many American educators would kill to have such disciplined pupils” line that Dillon adheres to throughout most of the piece.

A better critique is over at the Metropolitician, aka Michael Hurt, who used to teach at Daewon and quit in the middle of his contract because he was so upset by what he experienced. Hurt faults these schools for over-valuing standardized tests, leaving students academically one-dimensional and “woefully ill-prepared”.

Basically, your life sucks at these schools for 3 years, but the kids and parents swallow their pride and ire, since it is the fast-track to America’s best schools. Period. That’s the exchange. But it absolutely brings out the worst of the Korean school system in a soul-crushing nightmare of pain that many students realize only gets them to the door of the institution they wanted, but has woefully under-prepared them to make it through.

Beyond arguments of educational policy there’s also a simple question of time. If these teens are locked up in their rooms with a stack of books until 2 a.m. every day, when do they get to meet friends? When do they go to concerts? When do they play outside? When do they get to simply act their age? Passing all of these things off as trivia that won’t matter ten years down the road is missing the point. We all need time to grow up.

Perspective: The Food Crisis, from Wisconsin to Cambodia

bags of rice, thailand. photo by IRRI images.

I WISH I’D HAD A TAPE RECORDER. One day the manager at the cafe where I work was lamenting the climbing cost of her weekly groceries, the next she was attempting to justify the higher prices on our soup.

“[Another cafe] is charging five dollars for a cup that’s the same size!” she said, explaining why it was now costing our customers a dollar more for a product that we dump out of a bag. The economic reasoning seemed rather dubious to me, especially juxtaposed against her earlier complaints.

“This is how food prices go up,” I said to her dryly. She shot me a look that seemed to say, Whatever.

It was an illustrative moment. While I can’t pretend to fully understand the complexities of the looming food crisis, amid all the factors that lay out of human control — floods, poor crops, shortages, etc. — the common denominator appears to be human greed. This has manifested itself on a range of levels, from questionable price gouging to grain hoarding.

With recent riots over food prices in Haiti and the IHT reporting that elementary schools in rural Cambodia are being forced to suspend free breakfast programs, it’s obvious that — as ever — the world’s poorest are the first to feel the pinch of this greed. But in some backwards way it’s hopeful that Americans are too; proof that the distance of oceans doesn’t insulate us from everything.

The worrisome aspect of that equation is this: Americans have agency and buying power, whereas citizens of third world nations have little to none. Bloomberg says that hoarding by eager Wall Streeters is already adding to the pain of farmers and consumers.

And so we’re left with a reality that has always existed in some form but has rarely been so plainly presented — unless we check greed and panic in this situation, people will starve and die.

Looking at soaring food costs as an opportunity for capital gains is one-dimensional and shortsighted. Those inching up their prices hoping to make an extra buck are only going to turn around to find their dollars don’t go as far in the aisles of the grocery store. But Statesiders ought to reflect on the fact that on the other side of the world, the consequences are more real; kids going to school with empty bellies, families grinding by on rations bought with $2 a day.

Hiatus (Updated)

TDT won’t be posting over the next several days — some things have popped up that take priority and, well, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

Please check back soon for updates.

UPDATE 4/24: Obviously this little break has stretched a bit longer than intended, but I’m still sorting out a few details in my personal life. I hope for posts to resume this weekend or early next week. To those dedicated readers out there, thanks for stickin’ around. Happy travels ~ TDT.

Don’t Be Caught Guilty in Japan

photo by tizzie.

LAST WEEK JAPAN’S JUSTICE ministry announced that it hanged three people in February, according to the BBC. The late disclosure highlighted the shroud of secrecy that accompanies death sentences in the country, and added momentum to the argument that Japan is ramping up its system of capital punishment.

And while that was bad news for human rights activists in the region (not to mention the families of those killed, who were notified only after the fact), a recent Economist article points out how it was worse news for innocent people unlucky enough to have caught the ire of the law — or who just happened to be the easiest scapegoat:

The notion of being innocent until proven guilty is not strong in Japan. Mr Hatoyama [the Justice Minister] calls it “an idea which I want to constrain”. But confessions are important and the courts rely heavily upon them. Apart from helping secure convictions, they are widely interpreted as expressions of remorse. A defendant not only risks a longer sentence if he insists he is innocent, he is also much less likely to be granted bail before trial—often remaining isolated in police custody, without access to counsel, for long enough to confess.

[…] Perversely, where little supporting evidence exists, the system helps hardened criminals, who know that if they do not confess they are unlikely to be indicted. Innocents, on the other hand, may crack—as in the Kagoshima case, or in a notorious 2002 rape case when the accused confessed under pressure but was released last October after the real culprit came forward.

In a nation that proves itself to be advanced in most other ways, Japan’s backwards system of criminal law is baffling. Juxtaposed against the current background of nations taking other allied countries to task for their human rights abuses — eh em, China — one has to wonder why there isn’t more international pressure for openness in a supposedly democratic state.

This Week’s Wandering News

  • Ex-presidents often retain their fame after leaving office, but few ascend to the status of tourist destination. Choe Sang-hun reports on how South Korea’s Roh Moo Hyun has become a popular sensation after returning to his hometown — never mind his poor ratings while he was commander-in-chief.
  • I might have to eat my words about the likelihood of Bush’s skipping the opening ceremonies; CNN says the White House has left the door open for a symbolic protest of China’s recent crackdown.
  • This is a few weeks old, but if you missed the NYT article about how Japanese Haiku is still being written in South Korea despite the taboo, it’s worth a read.
  • The IHT’s Roger Cohen explains why Europe wants a democrat in the US, while Asia is pulling for a republican.
  • And this just in from CNN, a former Lonely Planet writer brags to an Australian paper about how he plagiarized material, accepted free travel and sold drugs to supplement his income. Laziness, questionable ethics — does this guy think he’s cool?

Freewheel Friday: 1991

photo by redskynight / poem by TDT

dewy spats of warm
spring breath
curled around my naked ankles
under my jeans
and I was
pulled pulled pulled
home
where curbside I would wait
for school
as buds of leaves
unfolded into the flesh of summer
dropping hints of pollen
and sap
and bits of years past

and at the schoolyard me and James
would just
play on the monkey bars
realizing we didn’t need our sweaters
the glowing season
folding into one washed photo
part of the collage

a vague place
where plane tickets
couldn’t carry me

I woke up looking
through a grey window
the morning fog turned to
spitting rain

***
TDT is still experimenting with a regular format. ‘Freewheel Friday’ is a mix of fiction, poetry, literature and photography that either focuses on travel or conveys perspectives from other parts of the world. Both original work and the work of others will appear. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Off the Deep End

photo by a lui.

AMID THE BLOWN BICYCLE innertubes, piles of bedsheets and stacks of books was a precarious plan for my life. The apartment was a mess; my head was tangled up in excitement and uncertainty.

As I cleared out the accumulated dust from the last two years, I wondered whether I would be able to pare down to bare bones. Moving in with my fiancee was just the practice run; I would stuff everything into her studio apartment, then gradually sift my possessions until they fit into a backpack. This was the easy part.

Ahead of me was locking down a job, securing work visas and finding an apartment for my move to Seoul. The back and forth emails with editors had yielded nothing certain — there might be a position open in a few months, they wrote. I was beginning to fully realize what I’d already known. This wouldn’t be like the first time, with the safety net of university-sponsored study abroad programs and all the friendships they afforded. This time it would be just me and my fiancee, carving out a life in the neon mess of a churning city.

Read more at Vagabondish.


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