Ferry tragedy exposes pitfalls of South Korea’s education

Here in London, everyone’s been asking me about the ferry disaster. What plagues me the most is that in the two and a half hours it took the ship to tip over and sink, people didn’t manage to escape. Six hundred divers are working round-the-clock pulling out bodies. A girl, recovered Thursday morning, was clutching a mobile phone in hand. About 130 remain missing.

The surviving crew members said they believed if the passengers tried to evacuate in a mad rush, it would make things worse. There wasn’t time to consult the manual, one said. Having told everyone to sit tight, they fled the ship.

My guts are in a wrench when I think about the hundreds of school children in their bright orange life vests, clasping one another and waiting for help because the loudspeaker announcement instructed them to stay inside.

Having spent formative years in the trenches of the Korean education system, where you do as told, these 16-year-olds would have been good soldiers; they would have followed orders.

What if there hadn’t been any instructions? I wager that every single one of them would have made their way for the exit. It would have been pandemonium, sure; crashing and trampling would have ensued. But they would have had a shot at clambering out of that doomed ferry.

Some kids, acting on personal initiative, scrambled to the upper deck or jumped into the frigid water where rescue boats later plucked them. In tears, one survivor blamed the high number of missing students on the intercom instructions.

The cultural legacy of Korean obedience is world famous. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell went as far as to raise the notion that cultural hierarchy was a culprit of frequent Korean Air crashes in the 1990s, as co-pilots didn’t challenge pilots’ erroneous decisions out of deference.

I grew up in Seoul and can attest to the national DNA that cultivates discipline, obedience and respect. Most of these are invaluable qualities for societies everywhere. We have seen too often what happens when humility retreats and hubris takes over: global financial markets crash and countries invade neighbors.

Running under these Confucius virtues is a fiercely competitive spirit goaded by a nation of tiger moms. South Korea invests eight percent of GDP on education, substantially more than other industrialized countries. Seventy-five percent of its students attend after-school tutoring academies, a staggering $17 billion industry. Twelve percent of the country’s consumer spending goes to schooling.

As a result, Korean teenagers rack up spectacular test scores. They are the envy of education ministers worldwide. Gearing up for the ferociously competitive university entrance exam, they keep schedules that would put partner-track lawyers to shame.

The kids on the ferry, who could easily perform differential and integral calculus, reportedly followed the order to stay under decks, even as the ship was tilting. In all the text messages they sent before silence fell, none of them seem to have questioned the sit-tight order.

One teenager texted her dad and said not to worry, she was wearing a life vest and holding on with her girlfriends. When he suggested she get out, she said she couldn’t because the ship had tilted too much and the corridors were packed with people. She was among the missing.

Despite the massive financial and emotional investments into children’s educational success, we have failed to teach these young people that at a moment of crisis, they need to call the shots relying on common sense and confidence that they are doing the right thing.

In the chaos of a sinking ship, many factors would have contributed to passengers not being able to escape, not least the crew’s flawed judgments and the apparent breakdown of the intercom system later on. The facts are still murky like the waters.

“If I’d just told her to jump out, she would have survived,” another father blamed himself for telling his child to stay calm. “She is out there,” he said, “because of her stupid father.”

We all failed them.

As a nation, Korea must stop obsessing over rote learning and start nurturing critical thinking and open-mindedness. Veneration of education is a defining characteristic of “Koreanness.” Use it to help young people learn to think for themselves – not just to pass tests with flying colors, but to live their calling as rational and caring human beings.

In coming weeks, blame will shift like the sands in the southwest coast of Korea where the disaster struck.

I so wish the kids had said, “Screw this, I’m getting off the ship.”

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2014. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

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