Can you imagine going to school for eight hours a day, finally getting out at 4 pm, only to head to a cram school where you continue studying until 11 pm that night? Then you go straight home, go to bed, and do the same thing the next day? That’s becoming the norm in South Korea.
What a miserable existence. No going out on dates, no school dances, no reading books, no video games, no movies, just school lectures, lots and lots of working practice exercises, drilling, drilling, and more drilling, practice exams, mock exams, and more exams, all day long, all day, everyday. And there’s no room for mistakes! All of the students are pitted against each other to get good grades, and those who fail to live up to these insane standards (basically study all day and have no life), they end up with very little opportunity in their lives.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be admired about working hard and studying hard. In the modern world, to some extent that’s required. We all have to work hard so that we can do the complicated things we all need to be doing in the modern world. For example, the human body is a complex thing, and doctors have to spend a lot of time learning all about it. The same applies to scientists, engineers, lawyers, and many other professions. But there has to be a balance. In South Korea, and I would argue in many aspects of our own education system, we take things too far and demand too much of young students.
South Koreans are now suffering from a massive suicide rate. Many of us look on our childhood as some of the best moments of our lives, back to a time where life was more carefree and innocent. Not them. They study/work 18 hours a day, starting as early as ten year old kids, basically every waking moment; eat, sleep, study, and work. That’s all there is to their lives.
I think Gabor Mate really nails these sorts of issues in this next video.
Why do systems like this make people miserable? It’s because we human beings are wired for contact, for interaction, for love, for generosity, for connection with the larger whole, for universality, and many other things.
Do school systems inculcate these human attributes? Is there real love when missing a single test question means losing your spot in a good university, and basically being relegated to the a life without opportunity? Does that sound very generous? Actually, you know what, let’s just stop for a moment and remind ourselves what the word generous means. Look in the dictionary. You’ll find three definitions: 1) that you’re “more than adequate” as you are, right here, right now, 2) that those around you are “willing to give and share unstintingly”, and 3) it means that those around you are “not petty in character and mind.” Is that the sort of world these systems are creating? It’s the complete opposite.
Or let’s go back to love. Love’s a complicated word to define, but if we look it up we find all kinds of good attempts. Using the dictionary we find things like, hmm, a loving environment would 1) treat people with a “strong positive emotion of regard and affection”, 2) treat the student with “a warm affection or devotion”, and 3) the people around them would “get pleasure” from them being there. From my experience teaching, there is some love in places of learning, but there’s not enough.
Do you think there’s going to be real connection to those around you when you’re pitted against every other student for grades, trying to beat them out for the opportunities that do exist? As Gabor Mate mentions, we’re tribal beings. We want to be around people who are loyal and look after us. Did any of you guys see the new trailer for the Mr. Rogers movie that’s coming out? He always stressed this concept of building a “neighborhood”. He’d say, “Won’t you be my neighbor”. I love that saying, but what did that mean? A neighborhood is a place where where you feel worried, scared, unsafe, or alone, the people there will take care of you. It’s the opposite of isolation and selfishness. It’s about being good to one another and looking out for each other.
Where’s the neighborhood? The second these students screw up on an exam, they’re booted to the curb. The system breeds worry and fear, and isolates them in that desk; it even steals the time they have to connect with others. How are you supposed to have contact and build real connection when the only chance you get to interact with others is when you’re eating lunch in a big noisy cafeteria? And connection to the larger whole? What time is there to think about God, the nature of the universe, or your place in this cosmos? Those who do try to have any sort of happy, meaningful life are punished. They score lower on standardized exams than other hungrier students, and get left out of society.
So I guess the assumption is that life will happen later, after they finish their schooling and get into the workforce. But will it? Well, not really; the same sort of environment awaits them in corporate world. It’s sad watching this next video. A woman talks about loving her husband, and how their relationship was great in the past, but now the bank where he works demands he work more and more hours, and they never see each other.
This all reminds me of one of my favorite videos featuring Alan Watts. He points out that our society lures us on, “Here kitty kitty”, holding out some promise, “this great thing is coming, it’s coming”, always in the future, “it’s coming”, so keep working hard. Work hard in school, study hard, memorize it all, even if you don’t care about any of it, regurgitate, regurgitate, so that you can move onto graduate school, do the same thing some more, then get out into the work force, work 12 hour days, and work work work, hoping to move up the corporate ladder, and then by jove, when you’re 40 or 50 years old you realize, “I’ve made it”, and you don’t feel any different than you did way back when and it finally dawns on you, “My gosh, it’s all a big hoax.”
No wonder so many students are miserable. Our lives should not be measured in terms of what we produce, and especially not how well we regurgitate information onto an exam page. Exams are not an evaluation of worth, they are a tool for the student’s personal benefit, to help them notice what they need to work on, or may not understand fully. And as to the things the student needs help on, that’s what the neighborhood is all about — people should be there to help inspire, guide, and educate those who are lost, lonely, or just need guidance.
These sorts of institutions may produce a lot of economic output, but they are unnatural to anything that produces human happiness, and isn’t that what we’re wanting? This is all warped. It tramples on what it means to be a human being.