Another high school student has committed suicide in Daegu, the 14th one since December 2011.
Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education superintendent Woo Dong-gi, has borne the brunt of criticisms since the first suicide in December 2011. In the past, he declared that he would focus his energies on making “safe and happy schools.” But he has failed to stop one student after another from leaping from high-rise apartment roofs, and he is doing nothing to address the many more suicide risks out there. Early this year, the city’s 350,000 students from first to twelfth grade were given emotional and behavioral development evaluations. The results were sobering: seventy thousand, or 20.2%, were found to be in need of “attention” from teachers and their parents, with a subgroup of 15,832 of them classified as high-risk for depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies. The lack of action from adults is what has led to us to this state of affairs.
Woo has actually spent large amounts of money on various suicide prevention programs, most of which have targeted bullying. There has been prevention education, and a “zero tolerance” approach has been adopted to punish violence in schools. Efforts have also been made to improve communication between students, teachers, and parents, and to emphasize the importance of “character-building education.” This may account for the fact that just 4.73% of respondents in an August to October 2011 by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology reported having experienced bullying, the lowest rate in the country. But a girls’ high school student leapt to her death from a high-rise apartment building that same month, and another three students have followed this year. The solution is failing to get at the root of the real problem.
The illness that is afflicting these students is the university entrance exam and stress over grades. While bullying is a terrible problem, only around 20% to 30% of student suicides are purely the result of it. Some of the rest stem from problems at home, but the majority are the result of stress, anxiety, and despair over academic performance. Daegu is not unique in this regard, but it is a special case. Woo’s policies to promote performance and competition have turned the schools into what students are calling a “prison.” They can’t even open the windows if they want to. Students there have had to give up on their relationships with friends, teachers, and family.
Instead, in the past, Woo has blamed, to be charitable, “…the social environment and cultural factors that are at work.” In other words, according to Woo, South Korea’s former president, Roh Moo-hyun, and other adults who commit suicide give students the wrong idea, and the media sensationalizes the tragedies.
What I’ve realized is, that support for “education” is a slippery tradition. In South Korea, that tradition comes with a hierarchical social structure, a desk with a stiff-backed chair, a ton of writing utensils, and all the scrutiny of generations of family members concentrated on one aspect of education: a test. There’s hardly any discussion of self-realization, skill, pride, talent, etc. South Korean corporations have effectively farmed out their training divisions to cram schools and private universities, which charge families for the privilege. It’s more suitable to call what South Koreans receive, “vocational” than anything resembling preparing for life. Teachers are hacks who only care about test scores, often not even looking at students during class sessions, to which students respond by not raising their eyes from the notes on their antiquated wooden desks. Corporal punishment might be discouraged, but South Korean education is good for manufacturing slaves, not humans.
Read The Korean on suicide and South Korea, too.