Why is a country with the most PhDs per capita so worried about changing its schools?
Just look at the faces of South Korea's high school seniors tomorrow, when they receive the make-or-break results of their university entrance exams. With future career paths on the line, the pressure - from both family and society - to get high scores is enormous. Students devote every waking hour, and thousands of dollars, learning the right-and-wrong answers for a multiple-choice world of testing.
But some of the country's world-class corporations who hire these graduates say such uncreative thinkers are ill-suited for today's fast-paced economy. Innovation, not conformity, is required.
"If Korean education doesn't foster creative and critical thinking, the future of Korea may not be a bright one," says Chung Bom-mo, a former president of Hallym University.
Realizing this, the government of President Kim Young Sam has ordered a commission to come up with a slew of education reforms that would change the way young Koreans learn.
But as the details are being worked out, parents and students are leaving little to chance under the old system. According to the Ministry of Education, 20 to 30 percent of private income - around $1,200 a month per child - is spent on private tutoring.
In the months leading up to the test, families with high school seniors walk lightly around the apartment and don't flush the toilet too much. Students avoid breaking eggs (an omen of failure) or eating slippery foods like seaweed, lest their grades slip.
Tutors and cram schools make an already grueling day longer. High school begins around 7:30 a.m., and after eight hours of classes, mandatory "free study" sessions can last until midnight. "For four months I studied until 2 a.m. and woke up at 6 a.m.," says Bang Joon, a senior who took the test Nov. 13. "It's very hard, but at university we [will] only study 10 hours a week. My parents said, 'When you get to university, you can play.' "
Currently, students take 23 subjects in high school, and many complain, like Shin Dong-il, now safely at Yonsei University, that "in high school they want us to be a superman in every field."
Lost in the stress of these endless exam preparations is education itself, critics say. While the exam that students spend years preparing for has only right and wrong answers, life is more complex. Mr. Chung, the former university president, says the system is ineffective because it doesn't create well-rounded people. Endless study sessions "lead to the negligence of all other aspects of education," like civic, moral, and emotional facets, he says.
The government hopes reforms will allow students to focus on their personal talents rather than just cramming facts. After 1997, students will be free to submit grades from only the areas they are interested in, plus a "comprehensive personal record" that includes character and leadership achievements along with scholastic aptitude.
BY encouraging specialization, perhaps not everyone will be so fixated by the big standardized exam - and the question of its fairness. To ensure the most pristine test-taking conditions on the hallowed day last month, business hours were delayed an hour to clear roads for students, buses and trains moved slowly near testing areas, and during the listening comprehension section, airplanes didn't take off or land.
To ensure secrecy of what was in the test, the 175 teachers commissioned to write it were confined to a hotel for a month with the first-floor windows papered over and barbed wire strung around the base.
South Korea's education system hasn't always been like this. When it was first designed in the 1960s - a period when the country was beginning to industrialize - the government needed to educate and train as many people as quickly as possible to "staff the rapidly expanding needs of government agencies and private firms," say Lho Kyung-soo, a professor at Seoul National University.
"It wasn't a system designed to conduct deep philosophical inquiries or cutting-edge research, or for that matter produce Nobel prizewinners," says Mr. Lho.
Although South Korea now has more than 160 universities and plans to boost education spending to 5 percent of GNP by 1998, a presidential commission report on education acknowledges, "It is a mere fantasy to expect Korean society to produce a prodigious scientist like Newton, a gifted artist like Picasso, a prominent inventor like Edison ... under the present system."
The biggest challenge to reform may be convincing parents that a variety of career paths can lead to a good life. Today's fixation with entering a few top schools is partly rooted in the tradition of state civil service exams administered for centuries here and in China as the only way to climb to a higher social class.
Korean parents are interested in "the name value of the universities, not the quality of the education, and just regard education as a path to social success and status," says Sung Bin-ko, a research fellow.
Park Jeong-min, a young mother who lives in one of Seoul's many high-rise apartment complexes, echoes more liberal views.
"Most people want their kids to go to Seoul National or Ewha University, but if they have some talent to pursue, I want my children to go where they want," she says.