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.

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