In my last post I made the point that South Korean education officials were mistaken in their attempts to curb high achievement. My assertion was based on the principle that a better educated work force would be both more innovative and more productive and this, in turn, would drive economic growth. Actions to curb achievement, I argued, proved shortsighted; Any loss to South Korea’s economy due to a transitory slackening of consumption would be offset by a long-term trend of growth. I would like to qualify this position on the following basis:
In the New York Times article “An Assault Upon Our Children: South Korea’s Education System Hurts Students ”, former South Korean student Se-Woong Koo exposes what might be considered the underbelly of South Korea’s academic success. As suggested by the title of his article, Se-Woong describes the backdrop of South Korea’s school system as a scene of suffering: one in which parents are strict, teachers are overbearing, and the costs to the health of South Korean children (physical, psychological, and emotional) are appreciably high.
He offers an account of his older brother’s former stress and subsequent chest pains as the toll of an educational system ripe for both censure and overhaul. His mother became convinced of this, and moved Se-Woong and his brother out of Seoul South Korea to Vancouver where they could finish out their high school years in a less stressful environment.
Following Se-Woong’s insight, it is important to conceptualize students’ wellbeing in a more nuanced way than can be done by simply ranking the international test scores of one country over another. By extension, overall wellbeing (read utility?) and improvements thereof are not captured entirely by expected jumps in growth rate, or in cold, hard figures like gdp per capita. For one, these are averages, but more importantly neither of these takes into account less commonly measured aspects of wellbeing or equally important developmental objectives such as increased personal agency.
South Korea was ranked the world’s best educated country in NGO NJ Med’s global rankings. This, however, may not correspond with a desirable trajectory of development for the country if it comes at the expense of freedom of choice, freedom from excessive stress, and freedom from sickness for South Korea’s high achieving students.
Considered in this context, a country’s development is a function of its citizens’ overall wellbeing just as much as it is a function of the average citizens’ access to education, employment opportunities, and consumer goods.
All else being equal, a country that prioritizes educational achievement is one that drives the rate of economic growth higher than one that affords its citizenry fewer opportunities for self-improvement and skill development. My initial argument still stands as to why this is this is a favorable outcome even in the face of drooping short-run consumption and higher rates of household debt. However, all else is not equal. If the cost of South Korea’s high achievement is its children’s wellbeing, perhaps South Korea should think twice for reasons other than current consumption patterns.