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.

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2 Responses to “Studying & Sleep-walking: Life in South Korea’s Prep Schools”


  1. 1 jackvalentine.net May 2, 2008 at 3:53 am

    Wow, yeah. My Singaporean friends had similar tales of their JC years (“Junior College” as they call it over there). Do you know if Korea has a tracking system? Singapore does. That stuff gets messy.

    This all ties into the theme of product versus process in contemporary society. We value product, not process. That’s why we don’t care who picked our coffee beans, who sewed our jeans, who cleaned our sidewalk, or how politics actually works. The problem with this way of thinking is that life occurs inside the process, and the product is just a dead shell.

    Or so says Jack.


  1. 1 Sleeping Beauty « a moment of clarity Trackback on March 22, 2009 at 10:47 pm
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