The Year of Hell

Imagine a nation coming at a standstill one morning. The roads are clear and almost devoid of cars save for a few that are seemingly headed to one particular destination. Employees likewise keep off the roads as banks, offices and stock markets open shop an hour later than usual. Even flights are grounded as the whole nation is kept in nervous anticipation of the results of a national obsession. The nation could do nothing but wait, pray and hold their breaths.

No, it’s not the much-coveted Pacquiao-Mayweather rematch. Though it is held that a Pacquiao fight does halt everyone from activity and is a sacred repast for the tiny nation that is the Philippines, the same could be said about the 2nd Thursday of every November when high school students in their 3rd grade (or what is equivalent to the last year of high school to the rest of the world) take the CSAT (College Scholastic Aptitude Test). On this day, even the Army halts its aviation exercises, police units would go out of their way to marshall students to the testing centers and the electric company is on standby to ensure that there is no power shortage on this day lest they get blamed by students for failing their tests. This is the day when all students are put to the ultimate test.

I must admit that it does seem a bit too drastic, but the students’ fate is contingent on this one-day test. This exam, after all, shapes a person’s life forever. And the whole nation basically gears itself and mobilizes itself for this event. Considering the fact that student prepare a significant portion of their life ( a good 12 years, to be exact) for this day, it’s no wonder that a patriotic nation such as South Korea and its whole population, even those who do  not have any personal or vested interest in the said assessment would go to extreme measures to show support for the students. Preparing the student for this test may be considered a family affair, but this event is a national affair almost synonymous to a holiday.

Competition for a spot at Korea’s top universities SKY  (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University) is tough. It has to be because it almost guarantees a prestigious job in the civil service or in one of South Korea’s conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics Co and Hyundai Motor Co.

This test system and the immense value that South Korea and other East Asian nations place on education are vestiges of Confucianism. This passion, energy, dedication and sacrifice of families towards education is unprecedented and unparalleled. And a student’s failure can never be attributed  to a lack of effort or support.

But what are the trade-offs of this high-stake assessment and uncanny obsession over top scores? What is the purpose of education? Is performing well on a standardized test and getting to a prestigious university the main goal of education? Does this not promote rote learning while discarding critical thinking and intellectual creativity? Does this over-emphasis on getting straight A’s lead to excess and unnecessary stress while stripping our students and teachers of their humanity? Does this not also place teachers under such unfair scrutiny due to the misguided use of standardized test-based value added evaluation?

My mind is torn as it tries to process all this. Imagine how onerous it is for one’s path and future to be hinged in those nine hours. It does sound a bit excessive. To many South Koreans, it is a fact of life however harsh it may be. And a good number of them are averse to the idea of adopting a more Western and holistic approach. It is a fortress they desperately hold on to in order to maintain equality and fairness in the educational system. It does make sense in a way because this levels the playing field and provides everyone, regardless of current status, with the chance to ascend to a higher social status. It is a materialistic and meritocratic  perspective but wouldn’t the Philippines benefit from  this system? Oppressive as it is, it worked for South Korea. South Korean students have consistently performed well on global standardized tests,  even besting the US and other European countries. The excessive studying does not appear to be for naught. Such stellar performance from students leave every other country looking on with envy as they scramble to pattern their curriculum to that of South Korea’s and emulate that stoic resolve. Such huge investment in education has likewise catapulted South Korea from its third world condition 50 years ago to economic powerhouse status. The country has built itself from the ashes through sheer diligence and hard work.

Yet it’s come at a big cost. Everything does have a price. Reaching that pinnacle of success has exacted a heavy price along its people, particularly the learners. It has produced robots and machines that can scarcely feel save for the masochistic experiences one willingly subjects him/herself to.

It is a grueling schedule these students take upon themselves at such an early age. It’s a bleak existence that doesn’t  seem to have an end in sight as they transition from  high school to university and eventually that much-coveted job at Samsung and gradually realize that they’d have to repeat the cycle all over again to prove their worth in the company.

It does sound awfully like living your life on heavy cycle in the washing machine. Anyone up for a tumble in the wash?,

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