Archive | November, 2011

Do-or-Die Exams in South Korea

14 Nov

Two weeks ago, we discussed depression and suicide around the world. While researching the topic, I learned about the jarring tie between academics and suicide in South Korea, a country where academic achievement measures self-worth and social status. I always knew that many Asian cultures value a more rigorous academic program than here in the U.S., but what goes on in South Korea is a whole other story.

Last week, about 700,000 students took South Korea’s college entrance exam, the CSAT. The country seems to shut down for this day- the stock market opens an hour later, buses and subway services are increased, police cars offer rides to students – all to make sure students make it to the most important test of their lives, according to CNN. Flights were also postponed, rush hour was rescheduled and other students lined the schools’ entrances to cheer on the seniors on the day of the exam.

The reward for a top score is entrance into a competitive university, one that will bring the family honor, land a student a better job, better connections with prominent alumni and better marriage prospects.

Of course, this means students are under extreme pressure and preparation for the exam begins as early as preschool. Every hour is micro-managed for the most amount of studying. The average Korean senior will study for 7 hours at school, attend after-school and weekend “cram” classes and then study on their own late into the night, usually getting about 5 hours of sleep. Winter and summer vacations are dedicated to intensive study programs.

With all this stress, one could see why the depression rate of teenagers in South Korea is substantially higher than other countries. More than 200 students committed suicide in 2009, according to Ahn’s Presidential Advisory Council on Education, Science and Technology. “Students are acutely aware that their parents are spending huge amounts of money for them to succeed and the pressure is enormous. Without hobbies or accessible sports teams, the stress of constant studying takes on twisted forms,” according to an Asia Times article.

This year, an 18-year-old boy committed suicide just hours before the 8-hour exam started, leaving a letter to his parents apologizing for his shortcomings. Students are not the only ones, though. According to the same article, a father in Gongju drove to his son’s high school and torched his wife, daughter and himself with gasoline because his honor roll son disgraced the family with bad grades. All three died.

The whole system baffles me. As an American college-student, I can tell the difference in effectiveness between learning something to learn and apply it, and memorizing under performance pressure. The latter defeats the purpose of the entire learning process. Similar events are happening in India, where student suicides have increased by 26 percent because of an inadequate education system that forces students to learn what they may never need to know in life, the accumulation of which leads to a do-or-die exam. On top of that, because these students dedicate the first 18 years of their life to one exam, without sports or extracurricular activities, it becomes their one identifying factor. Once it’s all over, they must feel spent, lost and  a little like they missed out on their young adult life.


Why Should We Pay Attention to Girls?

7 Nov

Poverty is a big problem. Huge, insurmountable, complex, overwhelming. There seems to be no clear-cut solution. More water? Less war? Better education? Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about a more unexpected solution. On the surface, it seems too simple to work, but its implications can significantly affect the future of humanity. And it all starts with a girl. Take a look at this video from The Girl Effect to understand:

I saw this campaign last year and still really believe in its cause. It’s a pretty powerful idea : “When a girl benefits, so does everyone in society, including business. Girls as economic actors can bring about change for themselves, their families, and their countries. Conversely, ignoring the girl effect can cost societies billions in lost potential.” The New York Times states that the reason foreign aid is increasingly directed to women is because “the world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”

And the The Girl Effect has the facts to back up their cause. I went to its website and found some pretty interesting statistics.The following really stuck with me:

  • When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
  • When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent
    of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40
    percent for a man.
  • Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth,
    70 percent are girls.
  • Pregnancy is the leading cause of death in girls 15-19
  • 96 million girls in developing countries are illiterate
  • 1% of the world’s landowners are women

The same NYT article describes the experience of one woman in Pakistan, Saima Muhammad, who faced beatings and resentment from her unemployed husband, who was $3,000 in debt. She was forced to send her daughter to live with an aunt because she could not afford to feed her. That all changed after Muhammad took a small loan from a microfinance organization,which had her meet every two weeks to discuss repayment and learn about social issues, like family planning or schooling for girls. With the loan, she worked her way up and now has her own embroidery business, with 30 of her neighbors working for her.  She was able to pay off her husband’s debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.

Basically, it’s a ripple effect. More educated women lead healthier, better lives and reinvest those lifestyles into their children and communities. Of course, there are critiques to campaigns like The Girl Effect. The solution is too vague and, like I’ve said, poverty is complex. Teaching a girl how to read is not going to necessarily end global poverty. There are deep-rooted social customs that just can’t be squashed, especially in patriarchal societies, ones that will never put a woman’s advancements first. Additionally, some countries, in parts of Somalia for example, need to tackle much more pressing issues, such as a seemingly never-ending drought and the terror of warfare. You cannot put issues like that aside to start a school for young girls.

Regardless, I think this organization is doing a good job of getting a conversation going. It relies heavily on social media for some two-way communication and makes multilingual efforts to expand its reach. It has people talking about how we can take care of women who  one day want to be able to take care of themselves.


One in a Million

2 Nov

As we discussed in class, televised game shows are popular all over the world. People love to see someone completely change their lives overnight, winning against all odds. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is arguably one of the most popular game shows in the world, playing in more than 70 countries.  In the U.S., there have been 11 winners of the show . India’s version,” “Kaun Banega Crorepati” has never had a winner.

Up until last week.

Last Thursday, Sushil Kumar, a poor Indian government clerk , became the first contestant to win the equivalent of $1 million dollars on the show.

Kumar is a 27-year-old computer operator who made about $120 dollars a month and relied on his neighbor’s television to watch the show he would eventually win the grand prize for. He is the son of farmer in a country with a per capita income of $1,265, according to a Reuters article. He and his wife of four months lived in a broken-down house with unpaid loans hovering over them. To help make ends meet, Kumar was working as a private tutor.”If it hadn’t been for this money, I would have gotten old before I sorted out my life,” the article quotes him saying.

According to The Guardian:

“Bihar is one of the poorest states of India and its remoter areas, such as Motihari [where Kumar is from], have been largely untouched by India’s phenomenal recent economic growth. Social indicators in much of Bihar are on a par with sub-Saharan Africa or worse.”

It was his neighbors who finally convinced him to try out for the show after Kumar kept getting the right answers. He said the trip to the Mumbai studio was his first ride in a plane and his first visit to a big city, according to a Newsday article.

He wants to use some of his winnings to pay for a preparatory course so he can take India’s difficult civil service exam, which could lead to a stable an esteemed job.

Kumar wants to buy a new home for himself and his wife, pay his parents debts and give his four brothers some money so they can set up their own small businesses. He also plans to to build a library in his village so that children can have access to “the books and knowledge he so desperately craved”.

Kumar’s experience is a genuine agains-all-odds story. His win transformed him into a role model for millions of young Indians looking to escape lives of poverty. His story has close resemblances to the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” in which a poor boy from Mumbai, India overcomes his poverty and wins the grand prize on the game show. My favorite part is that even though he has enough money to never have to work again, Kumar wants to use his winnings to work hard and earn a respectable job. I’d be really interested in finding out how Kumar was able to answer all the questions. He graduated from a local college with a degree in psychology, but other than that I found nothing that explained how Kumar had such extensive knowledge of all the trivia.

The question that won him the million dollars?

“Which colonial power ended its involvement in India by selling the rights to the Nicobar Islands to the British on Oct. 16, 1868?”

The answer: Denmark.