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Education Fever

Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea

Michael J. Seth
Copyright Date: 2002
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  • Book Info
    Education Fever
    Book Description:

    In the half century after 1945, South Korea went from an impoverished, largely rural nation ruled by a succession of authoritarian regimes to a prosperous, democratic industrial society. No less impressive was the country's transformation from a nation where a majority of the population had no formal education to one with some of the world's highest rates of literacy, high school graduates, and university students. Drawing on their premodern and colonial heritages as well as American education concepts, South Koreans have been largely successful in creating a schooling system that is comprehensive, uniform in standard, and universal. The key to understanding this educational transformation is South Korean society's striking, nearly universal preoccupation with schooling-what Korean's themselves call their "education fever."

    This volume explains how Koreans' concern for achieving as much formal education as possible appeared immediately before 1945 and quickly embraced every sector of society. Through interviews with teachers, officials, parents, and students and an examination of a wide range of written materials in both Korean and English, Michael Seth explores the reasons for this social demand for education and how it has shaped nearly every aspect of South Korean society. He also looks at the many problems of the Korean educational system: the focus on entrance examinations, which has tended to reduce education to test preparation; the overheated competition to enter prestige schools; the enormous financial burden placed on families for costly private tutoring; the inflexibility created by an emphasis on uniformity of standards; and the misuse of education by successive governments for political purposes.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6230-5
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    A great air of tension hovered throughout South Korea on 17 November 1999. A special task force had spent months planning for that day. The night before, President Kim Dae Jung had appeared on television to announce that the nation was prepared for the event. All nonessential governmental workers would report to work only later in the morning, as would employees of major firms. Thousands of special duty police were on hand in many cities; thirteen thousand police had been mobilized in Seoul alone. Flights at all the nation’s airports had been restricted, and special efforts had been made to...

  5. 1 Korean Education until 1945
    (pp. 9-33)

    What are the origins of the national obsession with education? Koreans, both experts and laymen, most often attribute their “education fever” and the educational transformation of their society to their cultural heritage. Indeed, Korea entered the twentieth century with a centuries-old tradition in which formal learning and scholarship played a central role in society. This tradition, usually associated with Confucianism, entered Korea from China more than fifteen centuries ago. After the unification of the peninsula in the seventh century, Confucianism emerged as the central ideology of the state. A major theme of Confucianism is governance by men of merit—that...

  6. 2 Establishing the Educational System, 1945–1951
    (pp. 34-73)

    The intense drive for educational attainment that has characterized South Korean society burst forth in the years immediately after the collapse of the Japanese colonial empire. The colonial restraints on access were removed, new ideas on education were introduced by Americans and American-educated Koreans, and the basic framework of the educational system was debated. The educational “reforms” carried out under the three-year American military occupation, 1945–1948, and the new school system created by the South Korean government in 1949–1951 would help set in motion and shape the course of South Korea’s mass drive for educational attainment.

    The 1945...

  7. 3 Expanding the Educational System
    (pp. 74-109)

    The restructuring of education that took place in the years immediately after the end of colonial rule facilitated and shaped an explosive growth of schooling. No feature of South Korea in the decades after 1945 is more striking than the rapid expansion of education at all levels. Hundreds of elementary and secondary schools and scores of colleges and universities were established within a decade, and schooling continued to grow impressively thereafter. A country in which fewer than one in twenty adults had a secondary education, the majority had no formal schooling at all, and relatively few trained teachers and virtually...

  8. 4 Coordinating Education with Economic Planning
    (pp. 110-139)

    The aspirations of millions of rich and poor families for social advancement drove South Korea’s remarkable educational expansion, but it did not always drive it in the directions sought by the state. South Korean schools provided an increasingly literate workforce that was of enormous value in the nation’s economic development. The state, however, had difficulty harnassing the demand for education toward the needs of an industrializing economy This accounts for one of the paradoxes of South Korean educational development: in a nation noted for its successful, state-directed economic development policies, there appeared to be a lack of emphasis on vocational...

  9. 5 The Entrance Examination System
    (pp. 140-171)

    Perhaps the most vivid illustration of South Korea’s obsession with education has been what the Koreans term “examination hell”(sihŏm chiok)or “examination mania.” Soon after 1945, an intense competition emerged for advancement into prestigious, upper-level institutions by obtaining high scores on secondary school and university entrance examinations. Since entrance to any university has been largely determined by the scores on these annual entrance examinations, students have spent most of their waking time preparing for them. This preparation has included evenings and weekends at cram schools and costly private tutoring, which have greatly added to the financial burden for many...

  10. 6 The Costs of Educational Zeal
    (pp. 172-191)

    The South Korean drive to get ahead made education not only intensely competitive, but also extremely costly. As noted, education was largely paid for by students and their parents, for one of the most pronounced features of the Korean educational system was the weak fiscal support given to it by the state. And education was not cheap. Some analysts have commented on the cost-effectiveness of South Korean education during its years of most rapid expansion, impressed that a comprehensive national educational system was built with only modest expenditure.¹ This, however, is misleading. If the hidden costs of informal fees, tutoring,...

  11. 7 Education and State Control
    (pp. 192-223)

    South Korea’s education was not only extraordinarily competitive and expensive, but it also was highly political. Educational systems are integral parts of modern states and play a crucial role in influencing political behavior and maintaining political systems. The Rhee, Park, and Chun administrations used the educational system to enhance their control over the state apparatus and strengthen the power of the South Korean state over society. In pursuit of such objectives, the state made full use of the nation’s rapidly growing student population: it organized and mobilized students to demonstrate and display public support for government policies, promote loyalty to...

  12. 8 Democratization, Prosperity, and Educational Change
    (pp. 224-256)

    The fever-pitch obsession with education has been a fixed feature of South Korean society. Most of the striking products of this obsession—the enormous costs of education, the sacrifices families were prepared to make to meet them, “examination mania,” and the nearly universal drive for high-status degrees—remained unaltered at the end of the twentieth century. But in other ways the nation went through profound changes. In the late 1980s and 1990s South Korea entered an era of democratization and economic prosperity, both of which can at least partly be attributed to the “education fever” that drove educational development. From...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 257-286)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-298)
  15. Index
    (pp. 299-306)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-309)