Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The pointlessness of rote memorization

On the day of the university entrance exam, Roboseyo posted about this protest against the suneung. I just found an article from a week and a half ago at Yonhap titled "Young activists risk future in breaking from ‘oppressive’ school system" which looks at two of the students who took part in the protest and how they came to be there. Here's an excerpt:
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 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.
Read the entire, lengthy article here.

Speaking of rote memorization, over at the Joshing Gnome, Joe Mondello is posting his paper on the Ministry of Education. Looking at the historical influence of the civil service exam, he observes that the "necessity of esoteric, impractical knowledge for success in Korea" dates to the Joseon period. Hearing the words "esoteric" and "impractical", I could only think of the high school student who showed me his music homework, which was to memorize the song "Come back to Sorrento" so as to be able to sing it in class. The catch? He had to sing it in Italian, a language he had never been exposed to before.

(crossposted at Hub of Sparkle)


King Baeksu said...

It's not pointless.

The point is clearly social control.

matt said...

Good point. I looked up something in my post on perceptions of teens in the 1990s and found I'd written this at the end: "...their perception of teenagers and youth behavior seems to be as of a cancer affecting the social organism that is the nation, which need[s] to be contained..."

There's no time for them to cause trouble if they're memorizing useless crap.

Unknown said...


My name is Rick.

I've looked around your blog and enjoyed your wonderful articles.
I'm running a website related to Korea and English.
There we have a section named 'English Bloggers'.
This section introduces bloggers' articles with their blogs URLs.
You can post one of your favorite articles along with your blog name and URL, or by asking me.
I bet it'll help promote your blog and be visited by more readers who want to enjoy reading your wonderful writing.
If you are interested, please visit www.KoreanESL.com or email me.
No registration required.


Rick Park