I am working on my precalculus homework with my friends. They have questions about problems that they’re having trouble with, so I answer each one with clear explanations. We successfully finish our homework and one of my friends praises me for my math skills. To this, my other friend replies instead of me, as if he is stating an obvious fact, “Because he is Korean.”
I hear a lot of “because you are Korean”, and “because you are Asian” from people around campus. It is like an absolute answer to anything I do. Likewise, many people seem to stereotypically consider the intelligence of Asians, especially Koreans, as something we obtain by nature genetically, or as characteristic of the ethnicity. However, these consideration are wrong. In fact, it is the stressful academic environment for schoolchildren in Korea that develops Koreans’ academic skills.
Korea is a country where education is heavily emphasized and academic competition take place every single moment between students. Any person from any ethnicity would naturally become academically successful relative to others, if he or she were to receive a Korean education for even five years. Consider the life of an ordinary Korean student. They go to school at 8:30 and attend normal classes until 3:00 in the afternoon. After about an hour of rest, they go to an after-school academy and take various academic lessons. At the academy, they either review the materials they covered at school or learn materials that are ahead of their classes. It is common for a 7th grade middle school student to be learning material, especially in mathematics, at the 11th level. They stay at after-school academies, or hakwon, until 10:00 at night and return back home. (They would stay even later if the government hadn’t recently established a law that forbids any extra academic lessons after 10:00pm) During the final exam period, they usually stay at the hakwon solving test-prep questions past midnight, flouting this law. This schedule represents a schedule of an ordinary student from elementary school up to high school. Imagine a life consisting of endless after-school academies and tutoring for 12 years. It would be weird to not succeed at school with this much extra education.
The sacrifice of leisure time and fun to after-school academies for outstanding grades might seem reasonable and acceptable. On the other hand, there are numerous drawbacks to the Korean style of education.
First, Korea has the highest suicide rate out of all OECD countries. Students make up a significant part of this sad statistic. For past five years, an elementary, middle school or high school student committed suicide every three days, on average. This fact clearly represents the enormous amounts of stress and pressure Korean students are bearing from their education. Second, academic success does not necessarily entail intelligence. Schools and hakwons in Korea tend to favor the cramming method of teaching and focus mainly on test prep. The cramming and emphasis on tests do help the students to cover materials quicker and achieve higher grades, but when it comes to discussion or applying the concept to another problem, the lack of understanding about the topic is evident. For this reason, Koreans are especially weak when it comes to discussions and creativity in applying what they have learned in different ways. This shows in a recent interview between President Barack Obama and Korean journalists when he visited Korea for a G20 conference. During the interview, Barack Obama told the Korean journalists to ask him any question about anything. No one asked him anything—it was a Chinese reporter who asked him a question at the end. This situation took place because it is difficult for people who were educated only by cramming for tests to think freely without any given prompt or problem.
Overall, Koreans are not smart by nature—actually, they are not even smart. They are just academically well-trained and specialized in receiving high grades at school from twelve years of Korean style of education. I guess you can say, “Because you were educated from Korea” instead of “Because you are Korean” as an answer to the academic success of Korean students. However, do not cite this as a reason for the intelligence of some Koreans, because their intelligence did not come from Korean education for sure.