Off the College Track
September 1, 2021
Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Sejin Ahn offers a glimpse of the South Korean high school system, and argues for a more flexible approach in our attempts to maximize the potential of young minds.
As a Korean who spent 18 years in South Korea, I often saw students having hard times in high school. Being unable to adapt to life in high school often leads many young, beautiful souls to the edge of a cliff. Why does this happen? How can we solve this problem?
Every country across the world has its own educational system, and they all place value in different areas. South Korea’s educational system tends to focus too much on academic performance, leaving anything else they should learn at that age behind.
A high school is a place that is supposed to provide students with various opportunities to explore themselves. They deserve to learn how to socialize with others and experience many things. But unfortunately, in South Korea, the percentage of students who are admitted to colleges is considered the highest priority. Going to a university is treated as the first gate to winning at life. Otherwise, you will be a loser who failed to pass this basic level of achievement. Due to this social atmosphere, most Korean students feel enormous pressure, increasing undesirable and unhealthy competition between them. This increased competition fails to support students in widening their horizons and gaining new perspectives.
I remember when I was a high school student, I got career counseling with teachers. Most high schools in South Korea do this in the name of helping students find out what they are interested in and support their careers. However, all they talked about during the counseling was going to a university. If students said they wanted to have other experiences instead of going to a university, teachers kept pressuring them until they changed their minds.
I was no exception. I was a student who had interests in various fields, including photography, writing, composition, etc. The common ground among them was that they were not profitable fields. So when I talked about my dreams and asked teachers for their advice on what I should do, what they said was, “Okay, you can take a photo, write a novel and compose a song, but leave them just as your hobby.”
This harsh reality led to some hard times for me. I was confused due to conflicts between what I was interested in and what high school taught. One question came up in my head was, “What should I live for?”
Even students who wish to go to college to study a specific field are often not taught by high schools how to shape their future and avoid losing interest and passion. One of my high school friends wanted to declare a major in history at a college, but she was treated like a student who was ignorant of reality by teachers because, compared to other fields, what she wanted to pursue was an area that was not widely recognized by the public and not an easy one in which to make money. Individuals’ strengths, desires, dreams and aspirations always come second.
Time spent at high school is critical because it is often when people start forming their self-identities and preparing to step forward to the broader world as a grown member of society. In this sense, the absence of diverse options makes many people confused about who they really are and the direction they should be heading.
Not every student can be treated the same way. Not having excellent academic performance does not mean you are a problematic person. Not going to college does not mean you are a loser. Choosing your passion and interests does not mean your life is going to be miserable. High school is just the beginning of your life, which consists of thousands of chapters you can fill in by yourself. As institutions that take care of teens standing just right in front of the door to the world, high schools need to let students know that there are various ways of living a life, rather than showing only limited options.
If you’re in high school, what are your hopes and dreams? And if you’re not, what kind of advice would you give your high school self? Let us know in the comments below, or on any of our social media channels!
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