Crystal Kim ’15 Examines Korean Fever for Education

Crystal Kim ’15 grew up in America with South Korean parents, and she was often struck by the difference between her American education and her Korean upbringing. Upon realizing that education is a central part of Korean culture, she decided that she needed to gain a better understanding of Korea and of her own heritage. She is taking advantage of the summer to do just that with an Emerson Foundation grant, “The Korean Fever for Education: An Examination of Historical Foundations, Cultural Transmittance, Educational Inequalities, and Social Issues,” working with Director of the Education Studies Program Susan Mason as her advisor.

Last summer, as an intern with KoreAm Journal, a monthly Korean-American culture and news magazine, she read multiple articles about education, which sparked her interest in the topic. Her goal this summer is to gain a broad understanding of Korean education. In order to do so, Kim is reading many books and articles that discuss modern Korea and the history that led to the current educational system. In particular, she is researching “Education Fever,” a cultural obsession with education and educational credentials as a primary means of societal success and recognition. Kim described it as “almost a religious fervor.”

Kim explained that students and their families will do whatever it takes to improve their education. Parents will make sacrifices or take on additional jobs to send their children to the best possible schools and pay for additional tutoring. Students often spent eight hours a day in classes then spend an additional five or six hours attending a hagwon, or private tutoring academy. Their studies are largely focused on preparation for examinations, culminating in college entrance exams. Kim described how students become obsessed with doing well on tests, attaching their self-worth to grades and acceptance letters.

On one hand, Korea’s focus on excellence in education has helped the country. Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and it has received exceptionally high scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PIFA) rankings. However, Kim fears that the singular focus on education leads to neglect of other issues and that education fever creates its own problems. She states, “Even though Korea’s education system has helped the country rise from a shattered economy, there are so many problems that I think it could be the country’s downfall.” For instance, the immense amount of pressure to succeed in school has contributed to very high suicide rates.

Kim has also observed that there is a large gender gap in Korean education and in income levels. While women also study at elite schools, they are not working toward the same outcomes as their male classmates. Kim commented, “Women are expected to go to top universities in order to raise their value on the marriage market.” She continued, “I think the education system enforces a patriarchal system where women don’t have the same chances.” Although legislators have attempted to reform some aspects of Korea’s education system, few changes have made lasting effects. Kim predicted that the system is so imbedded in Korean culture that it will be very difficult to change.

Kim will be spending all of next year abroad in South Korea, where she hopes to continue studying education and the role it plays in society. She is hoping to conduct her own observation-based research and is particularly interested in what students and teachers have to say. Beyond her time at Hamilton, she is thinking pursuing a career in education, perhaps even education reform. She asserted, “I feel like I have a civic obligation because I’ve been so lucky. I want to use my education to help others obtain it or improve an existing experience.”As she continues to build on her knowledge of education and the social issues surrounding it, Kim is a likely candidate to be involved in the future of education.

Kim is a graduate of Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas.

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