Education, the Stairway of the Profane

  • onApril 5, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byKang Yu-jung

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 Koreans who speak English at a native level, and teacher’s aides who are non-English speakers who basically clean up after the children. What’s interesting is that the teacher’s aides must stand outside of the classroom and not in it, intervening only when the student is desperate for help. Such measures perhaps make sense considering that speaking Korean three times in class is an infraction worthy of expulsion.

Korean society as portrayed in “Anna” describes an early and private education system where English must be learned before the children can even speak their own mother tongue. Such early private tutoring is expensive, which naturally connects tutoring to economic class. The parent ends up becoming the real consumer of such services, and the hagwon and other forms of private tutorship are producers tasked with providing them with a particular product. Perhaps what is really being provided in the private tuition market is a sense of superiority rooted in exclusion and scarcity.

Such exclusion and scarcity causes anxiety and status envy. In today’s capitalist society, happiness is relative to how well we’re doing compared to those around us. This is why Koreans use “my next door neighbor” or “my mother’s friend’s perfect child” as idioms for privilege envy. We have more perspective regarding people living far away from us, but it’s difficult to desensitize ourselves from any economic inequalities with our neighbors.

In other words, education in Korea is more than academic passion or desire for knowledge; it is perhaps a metaphor for the way modern capitalist Koreans think. In the late Park Wansuh’s novella Mother’s Stake she describes a mother who keeps moving homes in order to put her children into incrementally better school districts while repeatedly emphasizing how difficult it was to justify doing so for a daughter. Moving house itself acts as a device for such emphasis, for the difference between moving over a small hill or not means the difference of twice the rent, of being inside or outside the castle walls.

Seo Hajin’s A Good Family shows us a darker side of the good family that education is supposed to make us into. The heroine is a textbook middle-class woman, with a husband, a son, and a daughter. Her textbook life, however, begins to fall apart when the son commits a violent act and her husband loses his job because of something he didn’t do. All the protagonist wants is for her family to stay together, for their ordinariness to remain intact. That’s the extent of her moral ideals.

Perhaps our desire to live within such an idea of morality makes us cling to education. But such morality is simply too relative. If education is about becoming less different or less unequal with the people around us, education itself means no more than a path to conformity. And while we can all agree a quality education system means adequately preparing our youth for the future, there’s a certain amount of status anxiety motivating that agreement. A profane motivation towards a life as good as others—isn’t that what’s underneath our nation’s so-called passion for education? As our children spend more time in hagwon than at home or school, the true meaning of education seems more distant by the day. 





by Kang Yu-jung
Literary and film critic
Kangnam University