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Education Fever

Michael J. Seth

Publication Year: 2002

In the half century after 1945, South Korea went from an impoverished, largely rural nation ruled by a succession of authoritarian regimes to a prosperous, democratic industrial society. No less impressive was the country's transformation from a nation where a majority of the population had no formal education to one with some of the world's highest rates of literacy, high school graduates, and university students. Drawing on their premodern and colonial heritages as well as American education concepts, South Koreans have been largely successful in creating a schooling system that is comprehensive, uniform in standard, and universal. The key to understanding this educational transformation is South Korean society's striking, nearly universal preoccupation with schooling-what Korean's themselves call their "education fever."

This volume explains how Koreans' concern for achieving as much formal education as possible appeared immediately before 1945 and quickly embraced every sector of society. Through interviews with teachers, officials, parents, and students and an examination of a wide range of written materials in both Korean and English, Michael Seth explores the reasons for this social demand for education and how it has shaped nearly every aspect of South Korean society. He also looks at the many problems of the Korean educational system: the focus on entrance examinations, which has tended to reduce education to test preparation; the overheated competition to enter prestige schools; the enormous financial burden placed on families for costly private tutoring; the inflexibility created by an emphasis on uniformity of standards; and the misuse of education by successive governments for political purposes.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. v


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p. vii

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pp. 1-8

A great air of tension hovered throughout South Korea on 17 November 1999. A special task force had spent months planning for that day. The night before, President Kim Dae Jung had appeared on television to announce that the nation was prepared for the event. ...

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1. Korean Education until 1945

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pp. 9-33

What are the origins of the national obsession with education? Koreans, both experts and laymen, most often attribute their “education fever” and the educational transformation of their society to their cultural heritage. Indeed, Korea entered the twentieth century with a centuries-old tradition in which formal learning and scholarship played...

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2. Establishing the Educational System, 1945–1951

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pp. 34-73

The intense drive for educational attainment that has characterized South Korean society burst forth in the years immediately after the collapse of the Japanese colonial empire. The colonial restraints on access were removed, new ideas on education were introduced by Americans and American-educated Koreans, and the basic framework of the educational...

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3. Expanding the Educational System

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pp. 74-109

The restructuring of education that took place in the years immediately after the end of colonial rule facilitated and shaped an explosive growth of schooling. No feature of South Korea in the decades after 1945 is more striking than the rapid expansion of education at all levels. ...

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4. Coordinating Education with Economic Planning

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pp. 110-139

The aspirations of millions of rich and poor families for social advancement drove South Korea’s remarkable educational expansion, but it did not always drive it in the directions sought by the state. South Korean schools provided an increasingly literate workforce that was of enormous value in the nation’s economic development. ...

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5. The Entrance Examination System

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pp. 140-171

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of South Korea’s obsession with education has been what the Koreans term “examination hell” (sihôm chiok) or “examination mania.” Soon after 1945, an intense competition emerged for advancement into prestigious, upper-level institutions by obtaining high scores on secondary school and university entrance examinations. ...

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6. The Costs of Educational Zeal

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pp. 172-191

The South Korean drive to get ahead made education not only intensely competitive, but also extremely costly. As noted, education was largely paid for by students and their parents, for one of the most pronounced features of the Korean educational system was the weak fiscal support given to...

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7. Education and State Control

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pp. 192-223

South Korea’s education was not only extraordinarily competitive and expensive, but it also was highly political. Educational systems are integral parts of modern states and play a crucial role in influencing political behavior and maintaining political systems. ...

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8. Democratization, Prosperity, and Educational Change

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pp. 224-256

The fever-pitch obsession with education has been a fixed feature of South Korean society. Most of the striking products of this obsession—the enormous costs of education, the sacrifices families were prepared to make to meet them, “examination mania,” and the nearly universal drive for high-status degrees—remained unaltered at the end of the twentieth century. ...


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pp. 257-286


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pp. 287-298


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pp. 299-305

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862305
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824825348

Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 613277381
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Education Fever

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Subject Headings

  • Education and state -- Korea (South).
  • Educational change -- Korea (South).
  • Education -- Korea (South).
  • Education -- Social aspects -- Korea (South).
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