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  National
College Entry Exams and Inconsolable Desire
By Benson Kamary
Associate Editor & Writer
S. Korean students sit an exam at College Entrance Exams.

Last week, over 600,000 Korean students sat for an exam that seemingly determines their destiny in life. To most of them, the college entry exam is also a postern to their critical goal of entering either Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University, a triumvirate commonly christened as SKY. And they know quite well, credentials from the “sky” comfortably land graduates plum jobs with big companies or the government. The three institutions are considered the academic cream of the crop in Korea.

There is nothing wrong with education that assures one a stable, happy future; after all, it is every parent’s dream to see their children prosper in all aspects. However, observers have termed the College Scholastic Ability Test or CSAT in Korea as either a national obsession or radically esteemed.

On the day of the nine hour exam, the country literally changes. All flight landings and take-offs at the airports are put on hold while the arriving international aircrafts are be ordered to circle at altitudes above 10,000 feet for some while. Motorists are also asked to lower their speed and to avoid honking near the test locations during the listening comprehension assessment. In fact, traffic is usually banned from within 200 meters of the test centers until the exam is over.

At the periphery, parents, friends and school juniors of test-takers gather to wish their loved ones success. Some parents pray outside the exam centers. In the recent past a mother reportedly vowed to bow 3,000 times, kneeling down with her forehead touching a red cushion perhaps to invoke luck to her beloved son. Most schools will also give a day off to students who are not sitting the exam.

But beyond the façade lies fundamental question that many parents and educationists raise regarding the education system in Korea. Those who are loud enough like one civic group that showed up last week at Seoul Finance Center, have displayed their dissatisfaction of the college admission exams by calling for its immediate ban. The activists argue that a competition-oriented education system denies children suitable livelihoods and dignity.

Early this week, in a discussion with a group of doctorate students from department of education, the Korean parents among us were concerned, and seriously so. At the end of the weighty discourse there was a supposition that the problem with education in Korea could be what the society perceives as the goal of schooling. That unless the culture fundamentally defines from whom, through whom, and to whom educational activities are carried out, there will always be unmet desires.

If the beginning point is in the goal of education, then the fascination over the college entrance exam and its preferred goal could be guesstimated. There being no neutrality in education, the society has a way it perceives education and a graduate for that matter. If for instance, to the society or to the government, a university graduate is perceived as a cog in an economic structure, and that SKY institutions produces the best of cogs, then therein lays the misfortune. The sad reality is that to an individual, a family or to the nation, economic success has become the deity of the day.

Though there is nothing wrong with economic growth, commodification of students' desires, future and dreams is tantamount to a radical economic rationalism whose result is pressure, suicides, and an elongated dissatisfaction. On Friday last week, a local newspaper carried three articles regarding the college admission exam. Among the three, one was about a young student who took away his life just before the exam begun. Of course there are many other factors that make the Korean education system supremely stressful to students and addressing them is of paramount urgency.

To see the purpose of education solely as informing rather than forming, is a misplaced view as far as education continue to shape people’s desires and worldviews. This is why Korean society needs to rethink its educational structure and see education as a process of nurturing a holistic being that celebrates whole of life and human relationships with honor.

And long as education remains deeply revered in Korean ethos, only an authentic definition of educational goal is perhaps what will quench what C.S. Lewis called the inconsolable longing in human beings.



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Benson Kamary, professor of Tongmyong University in Pusan, serves as an Associate Editor & Writer for The Seoul Times. Based in Busan, South Korea, the Kenyan professor also serves as chairman of Kenya Community in Korea (KCK). He can be reached at bkamary@yahoo.com

 

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