Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun

How South Korea Squanders Its Fiber Advantage By Run-Amok Rote Learning

The US must emulate SKR’s Internet speeds and costs — but not its education system

Earlier this month, on the same night, we saw a sad contrast. The last Daily Show with Jon Stewart aired. But by far the largest noise came from Donald Trump in the most-watched non-sports cable show in history.

Yet I remain optimistic. I have faith that the American electorate will tire of the antics of “short-fingered vulgarian” Donald Trump before the primary season begins next year. (Spy Magazine came up with that epithet in January 1988; that magazine, sadly now defunct, was called “a piece of garbage” by Mr. Trump. Glorious.) I have faith that tougher EPA rules for American power plants will survive legal attack and allow us to hold up our end of the global bargain aimed at curbing disastrous climate change. And I have faith that Jon Stewart, who is the same age as I am, is just getting started.

What’s more, I have faith that Americans will be able to come up with many more interesting killer apps using high-capacity networks than South Koreans have. They may have the networks, but we have the freedom to create and fail.

Ironically, our secret lies in not adopting some of the practices of their educational system — even though certain Americans point to those same practices with envy when the conversation turns to how we are falling behind.

In one of my recent columns, I introduced Sun Woo Lee, a teenager from Seoul who goes to high school in New Hampshire and worked with me this summer. I asked her about the vaunted Korean education that pushes kids to take their studies so seriously.

Here is Sun’s perspective: She feels bitter about the robotic, obsessive, physically exhausting practices of Korean schooling, and its quasi-religious insistence on multiple-choice testing based on the memorization of textbooks.

Sun felt the full force of Korean educational aspirations as the only child of two devoted, well-educated, and well-resourced parents. Her parents moved several times within Seoul in order to help Sun’s asthma and get her slightly closer — fifteen minutes closer — to the schools she attended. Sun went to a private kindergarten where the kids were made to speak English at all times, including during recess. “English-only zone! No Korean!” Sun’s teachers said.

That was fine with Sun, who soaked up the language; indeed, kindergarten was a good time for Sun. Not until after she left did her kindergarten decide to require the kids to memorize vocabulary words and give them daily quizzes. Sun avoided kindergarten-age stress.

But elementary and middle school — another story altogether.

In Seoul, private tutoring institutions, called hagwons, focus on standardized test-taking skills in every imaginable area. It’s not uncommon for students to go to multiple hagwons in a single day. In 2011, Time Magazine reported on police enforcement of a South Korean law prohibiting hagwons from operating after 10pm. “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone,” is the title of the piece, which ends: “Then they [police inspectors] head home for the night, having temporarily liberated 40 teenagers out of 4 million.” Middle school classrooms often have standing desks in the back of the room. They’re there to keep sleep-deprived students awake during the day.

All of this is aimed at getting higher scores in multiple choice testing. Yes, just about all the tests are multiple choice, leaving no room for creative thought. Competitive Korean parents can’t deal with subjective grading, Sun says; she does not remember being graded on a paper, lab report, or any other self-produced work.

Because so many students are expert at taking tests, in order to avoid grade inflation the test authors lean heavily on trickery aimed at luring students into choosing the wrong answer. “Koreans lose the ability to think for themselves in this type of education,” Sun says. Questioning or challenging what the textbook or teacher says is considered a waste of time.

Indeed, hierarchical power relationships are so deeply embedded in Korean culture that challenging a teacher or any other older person is extraordinarily difficult.

Dutch soccer coach Guus Hiddink, hired to work with South Korea’s national team in 2002, found that younger players were so respectful of older ones that they wouldn’t make decisions for themselves. They kept passing the ball to the older players. More tragically, the hundreds of students who died in the Sewol Ferry disaster of April 2014 stayed where they were because they were told to by a commanding voice over a loudspeaker.

Quitting a job to try a new career is frowned on. How could a company deal with an older person who is entitled to deference by virtue of his or her age, but is new at his or her job? It’s not just politeness that would make this gravely uncomfortable for the new company. The first question in a Korean conversation is often “How old are you?” and people immediately address one another altogether differently depending on age. Shame is also a major factor in Korean life, and changing jobs would imply failure.

Sun still feels instinctively anxious when she takes a paper from a teacher with one hand — because Korean culture dictates that both hands be used and that the younger person bow. And it’s very difficult for her to know how to address a Korean student in her American high school who is older than she is but in the same grade. (She told me that she and the other student, who is actually a friendly person, had tacitly decided not to talk to one another at all because they couldn’t get over the awkward age-required formality issue.)

But she knew she wanted out, and so Sun came to the U.S. for high school. She feels she can be more creative here. She can try new things. She might even start over some day.

I know this is too simple. But the fact that our system (however flawed) allows for creativity matters. And we’re the place where the first generation of Internet inventiveness happened, sparked in the mid-1980s by the National Science Foundation’s determination to lead the nation in networking technologies.

News this week that NSF is doing it again, expanding its existing high-speed investments by way of a five-year, $5 million grant connecting research universities to multi-gigabit high-capacity fiber links, makes me optimistic. This investment will eventually trickle down, just as the country’s original NSFNet backbone investment did. The existence of much-higher-capacity networks at universities will, in time, lead to more Americans being used to routinely shipping around vast quantities of data.

And American entrepreneurs, raised in schools where learning is more important than memorization, will come up with great things to do with these networks.

Plus, watch Jon Stewart. He’ll surprise us.

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