ZHENG: Despite our best intentions

It’s 9:02 a.m. Thirteen pairs of bright brown eyes stare at me from inside a sparsely furnished, too-cold classroom: A few reflect eager attentiveness, a few curiosity, but the eyes of a group of four or so boys clustered together in the corner show nothing but wariness, boredom and a hint of animosity.

It was going to be a long first day.

This past winter break, I spent two and a half weeks living at the Yonsei University dorms in Seoul, South Korea, with a group of 10 other young adults teaching various groups of Korean elementary school, middle school and high school students the mechanisms of debate. As a preface, it is important to note that the kids we taught were not your typical Korean students: Most of them spoke broken but comprehensible, if not semifluent English. Their parents were mostly businessmen or involved in international diplomatic affairs. Almost all of them had visited or lived in the United States, and they were privy to all the benefits and privileges that going to an international school in South Korea had to offer. In other words, these were the kids that had it easy. But they were still being forced to spend their winter vacations in and out of various math, English and science camps, all of which ran for over eight hours a day.

In the process of teaching them about debate, I also received some unexpected anecdotes about their lives and experiences. One especially memorable moment came when a shy, timid 9-year-old girl who had the unfortunate luck of being placed into a classroom with only six other boys, stood up to give an oratory about why schools shouldn’t ban junk food: “Sometimes, when it’s 3 a.m. and you are tired, you can use chips and cookies to wake yourself up so you can keep studying!”

Even as I stared at her in horrified surprise, no one else seemed to be surprised. In fact, many of her peers were nodding along in agreement. Unsure how to respond, I shelved the curriculum for a while in order to have an honest conversation with my students: “How many of you sleep less than eight hours a night?” Nearly every hand in the classroom went up. “Six hours?” A couple dropped. “Five?” Only one student, a lanky high schooler swaddled in a black hoodie and baggy jeans, kept his hand in the air.

The Korean school system is emblematic of the kind of mindset that is pervasive throughout many of the education systems in Asia. Education felt like only a buzzword given in short, pithy sound bites to appease overzealous parents. The awards ceremonies at the end of each camp were always too long, too ostentatious and too lavish; each child was presented with a velvet completion certificate and forced to take a picture with the American directors. They seemed to genuinely believe that there was a magic formula for success (success narrowly defined as admission into a top-tier American university). Any deviation from this well-beaten path was more than just an unacceptable aberration: It was a guaranteed first step towards failure in life.

My brief exposure to the South Korean school system, with all of its uncompromising views on education, was a stark glimpse into the realities that hundreds of thousands of children have to live with every day. It was a reminder of how lucky I am to go to a liberal institution like Yale and to have had open-minded support systems of teachers, counselors and parents in my high school. Despite good motives and sincere goals, the droves of Yalies who traverse the sea to teach in Asia are unintentionally furthering a system that is not only predicated on, but sustained by, unhealthy superficiality. This is not to say there are no good teaching programs for the internationally minded, but merely to suggest that a closer consideration of the social structures furthered by these programs might be a good idea for burgeoning philanthropists and teachers. Should we really be encouraging a system that often feels like slave-driving rather than educating? One Yalie may not be able to make a difference, but collectively, the informal condemnation of an international group may cause officials at the top of a flawed educational system to reconsider their methods.

As I hugged my kids goodbye on the last day, I couldn’t help but put myself in their shoes. But for a strange twist of fate, I might easily have grown up in the shoes of those I was teaching, staring at a foreign lecturer through suspicious, desensitized eyes.

Joanna Zheng is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at joanna.zheng@yale.edu .

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