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A Response to Wangjangnim's Rebuttal on Hagwons in Korea

Posted on the 06 April 2013 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
The debate I am currently having with a hagwon (private academy) owner at is proving more topical than I realised because of the reaction to some adverts aimed at students in Korea involving getting down to study in Korea.  Have a look at this post from Koreabang.
A Response to Wangjangnim's Rebuttal on Hagwons in Korea
Translated from the left ad: Now that the new term has begun you will start spending more time with you friends, saying it is for your friendship.  Every time you do that the study you planned to do will be postponed little by little.  But what to do.... you can't postpone college entrance exams.  Don't start wavering now, your friends will not study for you.
Upper right: Let's make them study to death!
Lower right: Only send them home to sleep.
Last week I posted about an ethical dilemma posed by being a hagwon boss in Korea.  I highlighted a couple of articles I read from a website called  The writer of these posts was a hagwon owner himself and I thought he posed some interesting issues on a very thoughtful blog.
He posted a rebuttal to my article which can be viewed here.  I actually think on reading this last post that we agree far more than maybe we both realised to begin with, but we still do have some differences.  What is interesting is that we do come at the problem from two different perspectives, me as a teacher and someone who has close connections with Koreans through my wife's family, and he as an actual owner of a hagwon.  Here is my response to his points.
Point 1 - Excess Study

I entirely agree with everything he wrote on this point, and yes it is easy to condemn, but I do not think that it is therefore wrong to condemn excess study.  I was trying to be objective.  Without voicing disapproval of such things, nothing changes.
Point 2 - Feeling Sorry and Western Arrogance

I do feel sorry for the kids, I can't help it.  I think they are being let down by the Korean mindset with regard to progressing in life.  If this is arrogant to say, then I admit to being an arrogant Westerner.  My wife is a hagwon teacher too and she feels desperately sorry for not just hagwon students but most students in Korea, she lived through it and rebelled against it in her youth and I think it is fair to say she hates the system far more than me.  She learned far more English when she left full-time education and persued an interest in it by traveling to other countries.  She was motivated and this is the key.  Is she arrogant as well for having the same opinion as me?
Point 3 - Ignorance of Hagwon Regulations

I will freely admit that this was a little bit of a woolly assertion on my part as I don't know about regulations.  Wangjangnim is in a better position to know about it than me, but I do know of Koreans who have started study rooms (a bit like small Hagwons) that are not subject to any regulations if they don't have a foreign teacher.  My other question that I raised on the asiapundits website still stands and this is about the regulations regarding Korean owners of Hagwons - not foreigners like wangjangnim - and are there any regulations regarding the quality of the books and materials they use to teach and assessments of the quality of the teaching?
Point 4 - Value over Content?

Not 100% clear on this point but my point of view is that parents are making sacrifices in an ever increasing arms race to better equip their children.  Whether they need to make such sacrifices is debatable, but even if they did have to, I think the system is broken and it shouldn't have to be that way.  I accept that with the way the system currently operates, it is difficult as a parent to break free of this way of educating children.  I also acknowledge that many parents work and that hagwons are serving as a babysitter for them.
Point 5 - I Don't Hear you Complaining About Fast Food Businesses

This is because I am writing a blog about South Korea and issues that effect Korean students.  If I was writing about an obesity problem I might well have a problem with fast food restaurants but even then the comparison is not entirely fair.  I would hope that most people know the ramifications of eating too much fast food and know that it is unhealthy.  They are therefore making and informed free choice to be unhealthy when they go, fair enough.  The lack of understanding of English in Korea makes knowledge of progress rather unclear I think, both for the student (because they maybe too young to understand) and the parent (who often has no knowledge of English).  The industry is also almost solely focused on giving a service to children and it is their time and effort they are taking.  Parents are responsible for what children eat to a large extent and their money buys fast food.  They know it is unhealthy yet they still buy it or give them the money for it, therefore I believe the moral responsibility lies more towards them than the business.  I am only saying there is a more equal balance in the case of hagwons.  I do think fast-food restaurants have moral responsibility for the effects of their food when they market so heavily to young people, though.
Point 6 - Teachers are not the Miracle Solution

I fully concede your point.  The wider point I was making, however, is that the strategies many hagwons use for their foreign teachers are poorly thought out and in many cases counter-productive and the teacher would be better off doing their own thing.  I never meant to imply they were a solution to anything.
Point 7 and 8 - A Dog Calling a Cat Stupid

There is of course no abuse in teaching children when they want to learn or even when they don't but it is in their best interests.  My worry, however, was that there are too many students being taught when they don't want to learn and it is not in their best interests or they are too exhausted to learn, having studied excessively already.  I actually didn't use the term abuse, but I do think it is wrong to inflict forced study on students to the excesses I mentioned in my article.  Students studying all day until 11pm and having homework, come on, these kids do not want to learn, they have had quite enough and it is not in their best interests to study anymore.  Maybe not all students have had enough by the evening but my long experience in Korea, and the testimony of many a Korean, says that most of them want to have a rest and have some fun.  I am not basing this on my own experiences of childhood but on Koreans themselves.
Point 9 - Western Education Better?

I never claimed the above point.  I actually think that a combination of both cultures attitudes to education would do the world of good on both sides.  There are things I like about Korean education and things I dislike, just the same as my views on Western (or should I say British education).  I taught in England too and had many a grumble about the way we do things as well, like the way we wrap students in cotton wool and give way to their every need for an easy life.  Korean education goes in the other direction.  In the East, the child is seen as strong, flexible, and adaptable, they can take a lot of hardship.  In the West, we see children from the opposite point of view; children are weak, vulnerable and need to be protected at all costs.  I believe there is some room for a good deal of middle-ground between the two ways of viewing children.
Point 10 - Understanding Koreans

I think I understand why Koreans do as they do, but that really was not the point of my original article, which was aimed at showing the point of view of a student.  I did, however, through in the odd claim which you quite rightly corrected or at least pointed out needed greater explanation.  I know Koreans have a deep love for their children (I don't think this is greater than in the West, just equally great).  They want what is best for them, of course, and they feel guilt and pressure from society to make them successful.  They are also more reliant on their children when they are older, this is obvious as a group culture will rely on a family group more than an individualistic culture.  I do think this is a factor in wanting to make their children successful and they do - not so gently - push their children into professions they might not otherwise want to do.
I believe the well-being of students in Korea is pretty low and I think there is a better way forward, so therefore I think the current way is wrong.  I was not saying that the current way in the West was right.  The Western education system does not adequately prepare students for life and is increasingly not delving into subjects with enough detail and pandering to students too much, lowering standards (this is a very brief summary of what is wrong) I think this is wrong too.  Our expectations of students is simply lower in the West and this is why test scores are lower, we need to expect more from our students.  Also, is life and education really all about passing tests?
Regarding Criticism of Last Weeks Post

I have no idea of the situation and the student you describe so I can't really comment on you specifically, but again my wider point is that I suspect anyone with any work experience in a hagwon will know of the quiet, tired students who never speak and never improve and who have stayed at the hagwon, wasting their evenings for years.  That was the moral dilemma I was talking of; should hagwon owners keep taking their parents' money and wasting the children's time?  Even the best of intentioned hagwon owners do, I believe, or their businesses would fail, and I don't really blame them as the students they refuse would surely end up in another hagwon anyway.  That is why it is a dilemma and the system needs sorting out.  I never meant to tar all hagwon owners with the same brush of being bad people, I know they are not.
I simply don't believe that parental love is greater or more committed than in the West, it is surely the same.  It is just that love is shown in different ways.  Too much love can also be a bad thing and parents do need to step back and give their children breathing space sometimes.  They can't teach their children everything and realising this is a big step in helping them lead happy, successful, and fulfilling lives.  I worry that the culture as a whole is not getting to grips with this fact at the moment and that many young people in Korea are suffering because of it.
Confronting Criticisms I Hear a lot

I get slightly tired of defending myself against three points you raised here; arrogance, looking at things with Western blinkers on, and comparing Korean culture with my own. 
Regardless of where I am from, I think there is an objective position between other cultures where truth and the best way forward lie.  Sometimes, however, it just maybe that an aspect of one culture is right and the other culture is just wrong.  I am guarded against being too Western in my opinions and my wife usually helps me gauge when I have stepped over the line and entered into a Western-centric argument.  As a Korean, if she supports a Western aspect of culture over her own, does that mean she is only seeing things from a Western point of view?  I don't think so.  The fact is she and I weigh both sides and form an opinion.  Forming an opinion in disagreement with others is what many people do and calling it arrogant is a bizarre argument and in danger of being emotive rather than a logical.  I am being called arrogant for having an opinion, nothing more.  My opinion should be shot down with a logical argument nothing more, and the color of my skin or where I was born should be irrelevant.

Finally, when it comes to the last point, I am damned if I do and damned if I don't.  I get heavily criticised for posts when I compare aspects of my own and Korean culture.  When I do it in favour of Korean culture I hear nothing, but when I do it in favour of my own I have calls of arrogance, ignorance, and even sometimes racism and only from Westerners.  I think this because of a kind of liberal-minded taboo that has been created in Western culture and a feeling that we should shut up and be sorry for our past prejudices and crimes.  When I don't compare mine and Korean culture (in my origin post on asiapundits and last week on this blog I did not do this other than the example of my summer holidays) I am assumed to be trumping my own cultures whole way of doing things, I can't win.  This is why I am seriously thinking of publishing another blog about the UK.  Writing a criticism on this blog of Korean culture and having to explain everything about my own in relation to it in one post is almost impossible.  I find it highly frustrating to have to defend myself against things I did not write, but are assumed of me, because I did not include it in an already long blog post.
Anyway, this one is becoming overly long so I'll wrap it up.  Many thanks to for replying so thoughtfully and I hope this post has cleared up my position.  I really don't think we disagree too much and I am sure we both have Korean student's happiness, futures, and well-being very much in mind, because if there is one thing I (and I suspect wangjangnim too) really love about Korea it is the young people and this is the sole reason I am so concerned about this subject.

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