Ask any American kid in high school if he or she is studying too much or has too much homework and 80% will answer yes. Ask any Korean kid the same question and they will answer quite differently. A recent article from Time magazine says: “South Korean kids study day and night, which helps explain their world-beating scores. Now the government wants them to go to bed early.” South Korean students not only want more academic work, they register in record numbers with private, expensive tutors to study after school, often until after 10:00 pm. As a result, many pupils fall asleep in morning classes, apparently without penalty or concern from teachers.
Young Korean student with calculator
The essential motivation behind this studying fervor in South Korea has two vectors; one, the extreme competition for good paying jobs in the famed Korean industry, and second, the high values passed from generation to generation in that Asian country’s families. Children want to honor their parents and parents want to give their progeny the best possible future. One can visit Korean immigrants in the U.S. and witness their extraordinary energy and ambition. They excel in whatever field they choose and show this discipline from the moment they start going to school. They have no problems learning English and opening businesses; they help each other and sacrifice their free time to better themselves academically and culturally. The only possible criticism would be that they don’t easily blend in with other ethnic groups, but that changes after a couple of generations when American born Korean children really feel at home.
Now back to our American schools: Rarely do I see a student fall asleep in my classrooms because of late studying; the main cause is either texting till the wee hours of the morning or an evening job flipping burgers or selling cell phones. Yes, many teens have to work to help their family, especially in the less fortunate urban areas. Parents are guilty in the first case of letting their teen children play video games, watch TV, or use their expensive smart phones until late at night. That would be inconceivable in a South Korean family. In the second case, some school districts are offering flexible hours to accommodate those who work. It is not easy to do both: Graduate from high school and hold a job. I had to do it while in college after getting married; a tough proposition but it teaches you that nothing is impossible. One also gets to appreciate future challenges as quite feasible.
There is no way I would recommend the Korean example for our students; I don’t believe for a moment that just because they get better results in those “world” tests, they know more than our American kids. Memorizing facts is easy; applying that information to make a difference in your world is an entirely different proposition. But I get really upset when I see families where discipline is so loose that the children pretty much have the run of the house and waste their time watching TV instead of improving their mind. And make no mistake: there are many cases in middle-class families. They belong to what I call the “careless generation”. Once these kids hit the job market, they are in for a rude awakening. And I blame the parents 100%.
As usual, the solution lies in the middle, that is a mixture of the good of both cultures. Let’s teach their discipline of success to our American kids, while giving our Korean immigrant friends a hearty welcome, knowing that they will eventually become true Americans.