by | Sep 13, 2010 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEOUL, South Korea -“If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.”

President Barack Obama said that last year. He was talking about school. He was talking about hours. He was talking about how hard South Korean kids work, how long they study, how much time they put in – more than a month longer per school year than their American counterparts.

I am writing this from South Korea, where I have spent a week, much of it speaking to high school kids. And I can tell President Obama pretty confidently that we can’t do what they’re doing here.

Because we don’t believe in it.

South Koreans treat school like a full-time job plus a full-time marriage. They put in day hours and night hours, followed by weekend hours. It is not uncommon to see children in school uniforms walking home late at night. It is not uncommon to see them studying through weekends. There is private English education on top of the public education. Families split apart to improve a child’s training. You hear stories about schooling that runs from sunrise past sunset, with breakfast, lunch and dinner being served in the building.

What you don’t hear is cheerleading squads. What you don’t hear is spring break trips to Cancún. What you don’t hear is classes to boost self-esteem, to celebrate an ethnic group, to explore the arts. What you don’t hear is “Glee” or “High School Musical” or other coolness-driven entertainment fantasies about high school fashion, sex, talent or jockdom.

How are our kids supposed to mimic these kids when this place doesn’t look anything like the American school system?

It’s funny, because most of the kids here want to be American. Battling to get ahead in life

Not in the citizenship sense. They don’t want to join our army. They want to be American in speaking English, in gaining wealth and status, in rising to the top. One of the questions I was asked by media here was, “What do our children have to do to become global leaders?” That’s not a common question in the U.S. – not to a visiting writer, anyhow.

There is an obsession with getting ahead here that begins with the classroom and permeates the adult workplace, where rigid hours and meager vacation days are the norm. The attitude mimics one you heard among American immigrants in the early 20th Century: “If you don’t do well in school, you won’t get to college, if you don’t get to college you won’t get a god job, and if you don’t get a good job, you’ll be a loser.”

There is no shame in that lecture here. It is not viewed as corny or clichéd. It is part of the national pride, if not the national obsession.

How are American kids going to copy that? We’re not disciplined enough, we’re not hungry enough, and, most importantly, either parents don’t say it enough, or if they do, kids ignore them.

That also doesn’t happen in Korea. Respect for elders is paramount in Korean society. There are actually different words used to reflect deference to age – a much older person is addressed one way, a slightly older person another.

They don’t make comedies here where the 10-year-old is the brilliant family member and Mom and Dad are bumbling knuckleheads – and divorced. The family dynamic is different. And as most educators will tell you, family is where future school performance begins. Struggling to find meaning

Which, by the way, doesn’t mean Korean kids are happier. It may be quite the opposite. Everywhere I went, I encountered teenagers in love with my book “Tuesdays With Morrie,” because the teacher in it showed compassion and encouraged humanity, not just grades. Many kids told me, “I wish in my life I would meet a Morrie.”

Many older kids wondered how you find meaning in your life if you are studying and working almost every spare hour.

And studies show that while Korean kids do amazingly well on certain standardized tests, those who come to America for college often drop out, unaccustomed the approach we take.

All of which suggests that Obama was a bit naïve to think an extra month in school is going to put our kids on par with the high-scoring South Koreans. Their success runs much deeper than that. Their issues do, too.

Our kids laugh more, play more sports, express themselves more openly. The kids here are serious beyond compare, and they are driven to succeed. I’m not sure which system I’d prefer, but I know they are apples and oranges, and the length of a school year is only a tiny difference. It may take a village to raise a child. But it takes a country to educate one.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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