With the notoriously ruthless South Korean education system under increasing scrutiny, contemporary writers are examining how this backbone of social mobility is faltering amidst intense competition and capitalist conformity. Told through the anxious eyes of parents, teachers, and the students themselves, these stories illuminate the complicated path that young Koreans must traverse on the journey to adulthood.
In Gong Ji-Young’s “History of Insanity,” the author describes in lurid detail what Korean schools were like in her day. The novel features a main character innocent of what her experiences of that time would mean to her. As an elementary school student, craving the praise of her teachers, she espoused the need for the Yushin Constitution to her fellow students and recited the Charter of National Education. Parents never forgot to slip white envelopes to teachers, and every child knew there was money in those envelopes. It was a time when such things were taken for granted.
“Unintentional” by Gu Byeong-mo is set in the heretofore unexplored space of pre-school, with “preschool” referring to an educational institution for children up to five years of age. It is the first place where a child, weaned or not, is separated from their parents and put into an educational institution. “Unintentional” is narrated from the viewpoint of a pre-school teacher, a perspective notable for the fact that once a child enters a teacher’s care, the teacher gains the upper hand. We see that to a teacher, the parents’ attitude, as much as the child’s, determines how the child will be judged.
Education is not merely the cultivation of a healthy member of society. While social mobility is in decline and education is no longer a golden ticket out of poverty, education is still regarded as a key to a better tomorrow, especially regarding the college-entrance system. In Korea, colleges are stratified much like Korea’s recent socioeconomic classification of golden spoons, silver spoons, and clay spoons. Perhaps an analogy to online games is also apt, where various shiny items and abilities are obtained stage by stage on the way to the top. A good university’s brand is still seen as a key to a higher level.
Korea’s education system consequently builds itself into a pyramid shape. Such education takes place not in schools but in private tutoring, in other words the hagwon crammers. Private tutoring is a huge industry, and not only is it expanding, the age of entry into its system is getting younger. Jeong Yi Hyun’s short story “Anna” illustrates an example of early-age private tutoring in Korea through its narrator Kyung, the mother of a child attending an English kindergarten in Gangnam, Seoul. Kyung was in a Latin dancing club before her marriage. There she had met a beautifully named Cho Anna, a svelte young woman whose sheer youth is magnetic in of itself. Kyung, who had lost contact with Anna, bumps into her at the English kindergarten, where Anna works as a teacher’s aide.
The narrator goes into great detail describing what an English kindergarten is and what a teacher’s aide does, which is probably because there are no pre-schools or kindergartens quite like those in Korea anywhere else. Kyung explains that these so-called “English kindergartens” are really a form of English-language crammers. They almost exclusively hire white North Americans as teachers, have co-teachers who are usually Korean...