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(Yonhap Feature) Young activists risk future in breaking from ‘oppressive’ school system

All Headlines 08:00 December 05, 2008

By Ben Hancock

SEOUL, Dec. 5 (Yonhap) -- As hundreds of thousands of her peers huddled over their desks at testing centers around the country, she stood in front of a government building in downtown Seoul, denouncing South Korea's education system.

"I didn't want to live like a machine anymore," the 18-year-old high school senior said about her decision to boycott the college entrance exam in mid-November, asking that she be identified only by her surname Kim.

In the eyes of many South Koreans, she was throwing her life away. But Kim’s action highlights the opinions of some who believe the nation’s schools focus too much on rote learning rather than creativity.

The annual college entrance exam is not something this society takes lightly. It is the only way a student can enter a traditional university -- an institution that cements their place in the social ladder, and even affects who they marry.

On test day, public employees are told to come to work an hour late to ease traffic. The military is ordered to halt noisy exercises. Churches and temples nationwide fill up with parents praying their child comes out on top.

This year, only 4.95 percent of South Korea’s 588,040 eligible high school seniors did not take the college entrance test. And up until several years ago, Kim could hardly have imagined she would be among them.

In middle school, Kim was, as she tells it, a "model student." She studied hard before exams and cared about her grades. She recalls being under the impression school was preparing her for life.

But in her first year of high school, Kim came across John Taylor Gatto's "Dumbing Us Down," a burning critique of the education system in the United States. A former teacher in New York’s public schools, Gatto argues that traditional education produces individuals who are uniform in their way of thinking.

The idea radically changed Kim’s attitudes, and afterwards she says she felt something like betrayal. Her confidence in the Korean school system was broken, she recalls.

Kim stopped studying for tests; when it came time to take exams, she filled in answers randomly. She didn’t skip classes until her senior year -- and even then it wasn’t often. But she did only enough to skate by, dealing quietly with her frustration as she sat at her desk.

While such apathy towards school would have horrified most parents here, Kim says hers grudgingly accepted it.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that she became interested in the kind of activism that led her to demonstrate in front of the Integrated Government Building. She joined an on-line forum for a youth human rights group called “Asunaro,” and began to attend meetings and rallies.

Sitting at a coffee shop in an artsy Seoul neighborhood, Kim speaks confidently about her views. She argues that being made to sit in a chair all day and perform rote memorization is oppression, not education, and that students and teachers should be put on more equal footing -- a bold argument in a country where Confucian hierarchy still dictates the flow of society.

“If you sideline students as too immature, the top-down culture won’t change,” she says.

Pak Soon-yong, a professor of anthropology and education at Yonsei University -- one of the nation’s top three colleges -- gives some credence to Kim’s perceptions of education in this country.

“The inflexible and college entrance exam-oriented procedures in schools do get in the way of student creativity,” Pak says. “For instance, multiple choice exams, lack of discussion sessions, very little time allotted for arts, music, and sports, etc. all do not help the student in becoming a ‘whole’ person.”

Still, many here see her decision to skip the college entrance test as too bold a move for someone with their whole life ahead of them.

That’s something Heo Geu-ru, who boycotted the exam in 2007, has had a lot of time to think about.

Heo’s high school experience was decidedly different from Kim’s -- he attended an alternative school that gave students evaluations instead of grades -- but his reasons for rejecting the test are similar.

There are fundamental problems in the way the education system is structured, he says. “It makes people step over each other.”

Heo has kept himself busy over the past year by working at restaurants and involving himself in activist circles, mainly with an organization called “Youth, All Together” that is affiliated with the left-leaning Democratic Labor Party.

He says his future plan is to become more involved with civic groups to work for reforms in education and other areas. Heo has his share of doubts over his decision. He occasionally wonders whether he might have been better off going to school first and then working to change the system, or whether he’ll get tired of this lifestyle altogether.

But for now, Heo says he’s happy, and believes he’s fighting for a legitimate cause.

South Korea’s suicide rate is higher than that of any other member nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among adolescents, it is the biggest cause of death after traffic accidents, a fact many experts attribute to the country’s highly competitive schooling environment.

Amid these concerns, President Lee Myung-bak has called for the creation of special schools for gifted children and early English education. Organizations like those Heo and Kim belong to have railed against those reforms, saying they will only increase pressure on students.

All doors are not closed to students who choose not to take the college entrance test. Some pursue higher education at alternative schools, or find meaning in non-conventional jobs such as charity organizations, according to Pak, the Yonsei professor.

Now that she won’t be going to college, Kim isn’t under any illusions that her parents will keep her afloat financially. The eldest daughter of six children, Kim cut off her cell phone recently because she couldn’t pay her bills, and says she’ll start looking for a part-time job as soon as the semester ends.

When asked how she plans to provide for herself as she gets older, Kim answers, “I’m determined to live a simple life.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s without ambitions. Kim says she has been inspired by many of her friends, and wants to interview them to use as material in writing a play. She’s also planning to record a song about her views on education, titled “Let’s Go Slowly,” sometime in the near future.

“I have a lot of things I want to do,” she says, “A lot of things I want to learn.”

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