Education in South Korea is a paradox, where two big truths clash. Koreans are incredibly keen, and on many measures do very well. Yet nobody – students, parents, teachers or the authorities – is happy. And now battles are raging, on everything from testing and elitism to teachers’ politics, free school meals and corporal punishment.
Let’s start with the positive. I’m a bit skeptical when Koreans tell you how their Confucian heritage values learning. In theory yes, yet for centuries hardly anyone got to study except a tiny male scholar elite. Modern education – girls not excluded – only arrived with Christian missionaries in the late 19th century. Mass schooling for all is newer still. As recently as 1945, when Japan’s harsh 40-year rule ended, less than a quarter of Korean adults (22%) were literate.
They’ve certainly made up for lost time since. South Korea’s first rulers were no democrats, but they knew that so resource-poor a country needed human capital to develop. Hence even after a terrible war in 1950-53 and despite being poorer than much of Africa – yes, really – at that stage, under Syngman Rhee (1948-1960) primary education was vastly expanded. General Park Chung-hee (1961-1979) extended this to secondary and vocational schooling. By 1987, when South Koreans wrested back democracy from another general (Chun Doo-hwan), one third of high school-leavers went on to higher education: more than in the UK at that time.