BBC had this to say about Korea's big test. The always-worth-reading Tom Coyner wrote this about Korea's hyper-competitive atmosphere.
And on blogs, and around bar tables, the expats who teach love to rip on Korea's test culture. Heard around the echo chamber:
1. All the smart peepuhl isn't good at do the test.
2. Multiple choice questions test memorization, not umberstanding.
3. Teaching toward the test makes a education the one-dimensional.
4. Students focused on test scores and rankings don't develop teh creativitys
blah blah blah.
As for the social implications:
1. Tests make teh suicide because pressure, bad score, and TEST, you know, right?
2. Studying all the tests wastes years of Korea's young people's time, robbing society of other contributions they could be making.
3. It makes Korea at hyper-competitive! Hurr durr.
4. It are make the advantage to the wealthy, who can afford to send their kids to private schools.
5. Its because credential society, man! Eberybody's just want the statuses and the prestiges!
6. They don't want to be happy! Just to make their mom get all teh bragging rights.
7. Korean moms is psycho, man. My kid Jaehee? His mom? Let me tell you...
Yes, I'm making fun of these memes. Not because they aren't partially true, but because they're been bled right to death on the blogosphere (my own blog included), and around every foreigner bar table in Korea.
Koreans know the system isn't perfect: even the President is talking about how we need to stop discriminating against non-college graduates. Success is too narrowly defined here. Everybody agrees that it should become socially acceptable to be a plumber or a welder or a mason or a sushi chef...
And that seems to be where we're stuck right now.
Further reading: (Korea Herald series on "Credential Society") -Education-elitism -Need for equal opportunities. -Privatize universities? -I honestly found these essays dissatisfying, but they'll familiarize you with the "credentialism" territory.
What's the Sunneung's role in this? (Warning: broad brushes ahead. I'm not an idiot, you're not an idiot, your mileage may vary, and all the usual qualifiers here. Reread paragraph five. Duh.)
Well, The Joshing Gnome, one of my favorite no-longer-publishing bloggers, wrote this a while ago about the tests.
Here are the most relevant paragraphs:
The Korean preoccupation with testing to me seems to serve one function first and foremost, before even its stated function of enabling meritocracy. The test serves as a (theoretically) objective measuring stick by which people can gauge one another’s worth. The system must necessarily be open.... Korean students spend the bulk of their educational career through high school studying for the suneung. The test is designed in such a way that its fairness is as unquestionable as possible. Needless to say that expensive private lessons are necessary to make top scores on the exam, although there is the potential for anyone, even the poorest student, to perform as well as their talent and studies permit them. Thus the exam is accepted as ‘fair’ on some level by the bulk of society.Multiple choice exams (though it's not all multiple choice now, is it?) have this going for them: you can run it through a scantron and no human needs to make a judgement call (which is then open to being disputed or questioned) at any point. That makes it "fair" insofar as it can be objectively proven that X correct answers is better than X correct answers minus one. And if everybody takes the test, and if everybody agrees on its importance and fairness, we can use it to rank people from highest to lowest.
(Side note: the multiple choice exam I took this spring for my MacroEconomics course has left me assured that a multiple choice question can be as hard as, even harder than, an essay question. Y'all who think multiple choice is necessarily only memorization have simply never come across a really devious multiple-choice question artist. Some multiple choice exams are purely memorizing... but they certainly don't have to be.)
More Joshing Gnome:
After the suneung is over the grades come out. ...the vast majority of students score what they expected to score. These scores determine what universities the students will be accepted to, which determines much of the rest of their lives. Most of these students, even those who are disappointed with their scores, will admit that they are primarily to blame for their scores. They didn’t study enough, or well enough, or the right things. Maybe they’ll blame their family’s financial circumstances to a certain degree, but there will always be some fishing village boy with a widowed mother who ends up at Seoul National because of his outstanding suneung score to prove that the test is not the problem, you are.For the most part, working harder will result in a better score, and greater raw intelligence, amplified by more hard work, will result in a better score: the students going to Seoul National University are many of the smartest kids in Korea. I used to forget that during my mad rants. Some intelligences are harder to measure with a scantron than others, yes; some kids fall through the cracks (I probably would have)... but the scantron does measure intelligence plus diligence, and those who score well do deserve to go to a good university. Meanwhile, universities are adjusting their admission and recruiting criteria to reflect the fact tests aren't the only way to measure talent.
So why haven't these tests been abolished? Couldn't we just do that?
Korea has a very long tradition of Very Important Tests that might determine your entire future, but I'm not accepting sheer inertia for why they keep them around. Not in a country that has totally, cataclysmically reinvented itself about five times since 1890. Not in the country where people donated ten tons of personal possessions made of gold, in two fucking days, to help pay down its IMF debt. Not in the country that butted its way into the world's top fifteen economies after being a third world shithole as recently as 1960. If this country, with these people, decided they'd had enough of the tests, buddy, they'd be gone. I really believe that. So why are people keeping them around?
They must serve a purpose.
Here's my theory as to that purpose:
The tests are part of the system that enables Korean society to be rigidly hierarchical, yet egalitarian, at the same time. And it's important to be both in South Korea - Korea's hierarchical: from verb endings to drinking culture, from the first five questions people ask when they meet someone, to who pays for lunch, to who lights their cigarette first at the table, to the brands of handbag, shoe, and phone you have, from top to bottom Korean life is cluttered with big and small negotiations for, and deferences to, status.
Yet because (South) Korea's a democracy now, it must have equal opportunities (or at least the appearance of equal opportunities) for people to determine their own place on the ladder of who pulls rank on whom. And if people get locked into an icky rung of society, the fact it's rigid, yet also egalitarian, means that people will allow the system to perpetuate, hoping on the off-chance that their kid will make good, and swing the upward mobility they themselves never managed, and get pegged in a rigid high circle, rather than a rigid low circle (at which point the parents' status improves by association). Without at least the illusion of upward mobility, without that teasing hope that their kid just might do well enough on the sunneung to qualify for SNU's Law School, there'd be another revolution. WITH the hope their kid will be the one who games the system, people are willing to tolerate the system.
The Korean, of Ask A Korean! writes about the sheer viciousness of competitive society in Korea -- the ruthless dogfight for success. But that success becomes harder to measure if there aren't absolute, universally recognized signifiers of success, and the test helps to set those benchmarks of status.
A ferrari is better than a porsche, which is better than a mercedes, which is better than a BMW, which is better than an Equus, which is better than a Chairman, which is better than an Audi, which is better than a KIA. Ask any Korean to name Korea's top three universities. Or top ten. Or seven best jobs. Or seven best restaurant chains. Ask ten Canadians, "What's a better job? Dental hygienist or flight attendant?" and you might get six of one, four of the other. Ask ten Koreans, you'll find a lot less variation. "What's a better job? Electrician or bank teller?"
If there is debate about what comes above and below what else, it becomes harder to flaunt my success. Or to brag about my kid's success, and lord my kids' success over my friends.
How bad is this jockeying for status? Did you know some Korean companies have been asking for applicants parents' jobs, to get a better grip of how to rank the person against other applicants? (Or perhaps to open the door for further nepotism and cronyism?)
Doctor, Lawyer, Professor, Diplomat.
are better than
Civil Servant, Public School Teacher, Chaebol employee, perhaps banker, Business owner
are better than
Medium or small sized company employee, small business owner
are better than
you get the picture...
These tests, and the status conferred by holding elite jobs that can only be procured through these impossibly hard tests, helps strengthen the matrix of status in which everyone fits somewhere.
But the genius of these tests is this:
because they're tests, anybody can take them, and anybody could be the one who passes. We don't talk about that a lot in the expat bars, but that's good.
The wealthy have more opportunity to take a year off and just study, but if you can find me a society where the wealthy don't have an advantage, I'll eat my hat. The test comes as close as you can get to eliminating the advantage the wealthy have in every other area, because even Chaebol Jr. has to take the test, sitting next to a Hayseed... or a Riceseed, I guess, from the rice paddy in Buttfuck Jeollado. And Riceseed might even beat out Chaebol Jr. -- the test is probably the only arena where those two are ever even remotely on a level playing field.
Chaebol Jr. could get streamlined into a sweet Chaebol gig, while young Riceseed's school, family, and connections would find him cut, but there's still prestige and honor to be had, if he can kick ass on a test.
(image source) No space on here for "do you know who my father is?"
If civil servant positions were chosen by interview and reference, I fear hiring practices would start resembling other sectors - 4:1 men to women being hired. But women are passing that test in equal, or higher numbers, than men. By sheer force of numbers, eventually that's going to change things in this country. Same with entry-level positions at law firms, where the bar exam, being gender-blind, gives women a fighting chance, and women are vastly outnumbering men on public school teaching jobs, which are nearly impossible to lose once you have one. Becoming a civil servant or public school teacher is one of the only careers a woman can have, where maternity leave is actually generous in Korea. And those jobs are highly respected in society. So if the Chaebol's still only hiring well-connected, handsome (did I mention the mandatory photo on job applications yet?) men who went to prestigious schools... to the study room!
The test ain't easy... but it creates a meritocracy, or at least the illusion of upward mobility, that there's a corner of Korean society where the rich and privileged can't change the rules to suit themselves and their heirs (at least not completely).
And that matters.
So the hierarchy stays in place, enabled by the supposed egalitarianism of the test system, so that everyone knows the rules to the system, so that Korean moms can compare everybody more easily, and so that even if I didn't achieve that upward mobility myself... I can dream that my kid might, and then I get to lord it over everybody in my sewing/screen golf circle. But I can only use those bragging privileges if the rigid hierarchy is in place, so they can't pull the rug on me by saying, "yeah, it's nice that your kid's an office drone in a world-class company... but have you seen the beautiful cabinets my son builds? I bet your son couldn't do that."
This is my hypothesis for now... it's untested, and in large part anecdotal - armchair anthropology at (its) best... so I'm looking forward to reading what people have to say in response to it. Tell me I'm wrong, but give me reasons I can think about.