Mom, Why Do I Have to Go to School?


This paper examines the role universal access to primary education in South Korea in the late 1950s played in providing a country with almost no natural resources with a sustainable, long-term strategy to rebuild its war-torn economy. The Korean War left the country in ruins, making South Korea one of the poorest economies in the world. Although Koreans struggled daily to survive, they did not neglect the importance of education. In 1959, the Korean government made primary education free to all, entitling every child a right to quality education. By doing so, the country raised an entire generation of skilled workers and professionals who provided the labor necessary for an industrial society. Demand for higher education increased which stemmed from the belief that individuals will improve their social status through the acquisition of better skills and scholarship. In less than fifty years, Korea accomplished the impossible by transforming itself from a developing country to a developed country, the only country that has transformed itself from a beneficiary to a donor of international aid. The education system in South Korea serves as a beacon of hope for developing countries today by demonstrating how access to quality education can lead to rapid economic growth and social development.

Let me introduce you to Eun Seok, a seven-year-old boy from South Korea. Three years ago, during the outbreak of the Korean War, Joo Won and his family were forced to flee from their home in Seoul. They left everything behind to seek refuge in the countryside, far from home. Even when the war ended, the family remained in this town because they had lost everything. Joo Won, however, has a reason to be happy. “Why?” you might ask.

Many Korean people lost absolutely everything – a place to call home, their wealth, and often their lives – to the three-year war. They did not, however, lose their devotion to education. After the war, Joo Won, and every displaced child at the shelter where he and his family stayed were given the opportunity to learn. This nationwide phenomenon of the “education fever” pushed every adult and parent to send their children to school. And soon, this became the force that pulled the country out of poverty, ruins, and despair. South Korea has surprised the world by rapidly transforming from a developing country to a developed country following the Korean War in the early 1950s. Scholars and foreign observers call this phenomenon the “Miracle on the Han River.” Universal access to primary education, which started in the late 1950s, provided the South Korean people, a long-term strategy to promote socio-economic development by improving the skills of the workforce and empowering individuals to make informed choices about their lives.

As a thread of continuity with the past, Koreans have long regarded education as one of the most important values in one’s life. Education was especially important during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the last dynasty of Korea, as it was founded on Confucian ideals. Confucius established education as a way for one to overcome individualism and gain self-discipline [qtd. in Ng 2]. More importantly, he argued education has no class distinction and, thus, should be available to all [2]. Amid this ideological backdrop, Korean parents have played a critical role in promoting the importance of education. Parents did whatever they can to support their child’s education “regardless of whatever difficulties they were faced with” [Republic of Korea, Ministry of Education 8]. This phenomenon became known as the “education fever,” or the intense desire to study or receive an education [8]. This “education fever” prevailed through extreme poverty, famine, pandemics, wars, and other national crises. For instance, in 1866, Korea was invaded by the French navy, and a French naval officer was left marveling at this educational fervor of the Korean people [3].

We cannot help but admire this place and found something that really crushed our ego. Here, even the poorest have books in their homes. There is almost no one who is illiterate and the illiterate are looked down upon [qtd. in 3].

This foreign invasion was only the start of historical tragedies in Korea. In 1910, after a long period of resistance, Korea fell under Japanese colonial rule, and the people fell victim to various atrocities the Japanese imperial forces committed, including mass killings and human experimentation [Fackler par. 4]. Koreans, however, especially during hardships develop a “strong conviction to do anything” to improve their lives [Jisoon Lee 15], and this “anything” was often education.

For thirty-five years, the educated resisted colonial rule and earned freedom, but this was not the last tragedy to befall on the Korean people. Their dedication to education will, again, be put to the test on June 25, 1950; the Korean War broke out. “During the war, we all went to school under very difficult circumstances,” recalls Mr. Park, who was an elementary school student during the war [Park par. 5]. He describes how his hometown Gumi was an airstrike target site, which caused many buildings to be destroyed, including his elementary school [par. 2]. Due to the limited government budget allocated to rebuild schools, students would volunteer after-school to carry sand and wood in their old book bags to build makeshift classrooms.

Fig. 1. Elementary school assembly at a makeshift school in Dongu in July, 1952 from: Park, Do. “한 반에 100명, 운동장 수업까지...뜨거운 교육열 [100 students in a Class, Schooling in the School Playfield...Education Fever].”, 17 Jul. 2017. Web. 22 Apr. 2020.

Mr. Park’s story is not unique to Korean students who attended school during the war. Despite the dire circumstances, parents will encourage their children to attend school, even if it means attending class outdoors on what used to be a school field and risking their own lives (see figure 1). The president of Sky Education, one of Korea’s leading private teaching institutions, was a high school student during the war, and he could not forget what his mother told him before he fled to the south [Choi par. 2]. “Even if you are the sole survivor of the war, you must study hard,” she said, and she handed him a math textbook she acquired with great difficulty [par. 2]. Korean political science professor Jun-man Kang argues the war reinforced the importance of education as people started to realize a war could “rob” them of anything but knowledge [Park par. 7]. This belief led to a widespread lust for learning throughout the fifties.

Though the war did not kill the enthusiasm for learning, it did kill the Korean economy. During the first four months of the war, the destruction ratios of major domestic industries were estimated to be as high as seventy percent of the textile industry and forty percent of the agricultural machinery industry [Jong-Won Lee 98]. The country lost many of its natural resources during the war with the mining industry reporting a loss of 549 million dollars [98]. The total war damage estimates are as high as 6.9 billion dollars applying the official exchange rate [98], but the Korean government immediately increased their budget allocated to compulsory education from sixty percent of their total education budget during the war back to eighty percent as soon as the war ended [Jisoon Lee 69]. This shows how education became one of the nation’s highest priorities even during the busy restoration period [“Secrets Behind Korea's Economic Success,” 00:03:10-00:03:13].

The Ministry of Education of Korea gives credit to the state’s devotion and investment in education as a major force behind reconstruction efforts [4]. Since Korea’s independence, the Korean government has expanded the provision of free education in gradual steps. In 1948, the Korean government made primary education compulsory, and this policy prevailed during the Korean War [5]. When the war ended and students were finally able to go to school in a safer environment, Korea became one of the poorest nations in the world in which families sold their fields and cows to support their child’s education [8]. To alleviate this burden, the government made primary education free for all in 1959 [5]. The government also distributed standardized textbooks to sustain a certain quality of education and extend schooling to different corners of the nation [Jisoon Lee 69]. The former minister of education Professor Yoon a student in the 1950s recalls “the school facilities were poor, but students of different backgrounds were represented at the school.” He added, “the teachers were very passionate, and the quality of education did not fall short of the schooling kids in the best schools in Seoul received” [Choi par. 6]. From 1945 to 1957, the number of elementary schools rose approximately 1.6 fold, and the number of students doubled from 1.6 million to 3.2 million [Jisoon Lee 61]. Ten years after primary education was made free, every child in Korea was enrolled in elementary school, and this trend remained [61].

Fig. 2. Elementary school students in a social studies class in Ansan in 1968 from: Wangi, Park. 콩나물교실 [Beansprout Classroom]. 1968. 그땐 그랬지 사진전 [How It Was Back Then Photo Collection], Seoul. Photovil. Web. 22 Apr. 2020.

Comparing the two classroom photos shown in Figures 1 and 2, we could see how the learning environment significantly improved since the outbreak of the war. Students in the sixties had a school where they could study in, all equipped with state-provided textbooks and school supplies. It is important to note Ansan is a town outside of Seoul, the capital, and, yet, students received the resources and education no different than the students in Seoul as Professor Yoon noted [Choi par. 6]. After achieving such success, the Ministry of Education expanded free education to include middle school in 1985, and it is currently working to achieve the same for high school education [5].

Once universal primary education was in place, the country embarked on a journey to achieve the “Miracle on the Han River.” After the war, Korea was universally known as one of the poorest countries in the world. During this time, the average Korean would live on less than sixty dollars a month [Jisoon Lee 1]. To help the nation rebuild its war-stricken economy, the amount of U.S. aid that entered Korea from 1954 to 1961 is estimated at 2.08 billion dollars [O, “The Poorest Country” 65]. Despite this significant amount, the economy “continued to be in a deep slumber” [65]. In addition, Korea does not benefit from an abundance of natural resources, and escaping the post-war poverty trap seemed even more impossible [Johnston para. 7]. This directed the Korean people to list “investment in human capital” as a top priority, and, ever since, the adults of the country never gave up on educating their children [Jisoon Lee 1]. The universalization of primary education provided the foundation for economic development by educating the manpower with the discipline and skills needed to implement the government’s Five-year Economic Development Plan in the sixties [Young-Hyun Lee 80]. This plan helped Korea achieve a forty percent annual increase in exports in light industries and become a major exporter in world trade [O, “The Miracle” 95]. In the seventies, with the universalization of secondary education and expansion of vocational skills education, the country was now able to provide a labor force for labor-intensive manufacturing in heavy industries and chemical industries [Ministry of Education 12]. As demand for higher education grew in the eighties, a very highly skilled labor force was available allowing the nation to branch out and enter the technology industry and service market [12], finally entering a market dominated by developed nations and rightfully earning its place in the world as one of the Four “Asian Tigers,” a term used to describe the highly developed economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, a club of countries able to achieve remarkably high and sustained economic growth [Ministry of Education 3].

The universalization of education is also recognized as a major contributing factor responsible for the social movements and change which occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century. By universalizing primary education, children faced “no discrimination based on gender, age, family standing, or regional background” to enter school [Lee Jisoon 16]. Once a child graduates from a higher education institution, they will be eligible to take examinations for high-ranking bureaucratic positions and professions in law which, in theory, follows a strictly open examination process [16]. This open process contributed to the creation of a middle class, which was virtually non-existent in Korea until the sixties [16]. Rapid economic growth and development came at a high price for the government. Social mobilization and modernization weres followed by a political crisis, and people began to call for greater political participation, challenging authoritarian rule [Kim 184]. Students who were educated after the war were familiarized with democratic concepts such as “dignity and worth of the individual” and “choosing good leaders” [Bishop par. 1], so whenever Korea’s democracy was under threat, the students fought back. In March 1960, President Rhee orchestrated a series of voting frauds to remain in power, and this sparked a movement of demonstrations all across the country [Gu and Ki 4]. This was the first successful nationwide protest for Korea’s democratization called the April Revolution.

Fig. 3. Elementary school students partaking in the April Revolution holding up a banner reading “do not aim your guns at our college students and parents from: Wangi, Park. 4.19혁명 56주년 [The 56th Anniversary of the Revolution of April 19th]. Apr. 1960. Nanum Munhwa. Web. 22 Apr. 2020.

When the police forces opened fire at the crowd, elementary school students, too, joined the movement to urge the president to not open fire and kill their fellow students and adults (see figure 3). Shortly the president resigned, but this will not be the last fight for the students. Soon after the president resigned, Park Chung Hee entered office and did not yield his power to anyone [2]. When the students were given another opportunity to install a democratic regime, the Korean military raised a military coup and seized power [2]. Exhausted by this endless chain of authoritarian leaders, university students spearheaded demonstrations across the nation throughout the eighties.

Fig. 4. The death of Lee Hanyeol, a Yonsei University student from: Taewon, Jung. 이한열 열사 [The Death of Lee Han Yeol]. 1987. Seoul. Reuters. Web. 22 Apr. 2020.

The government will soon learn “student power is one to be reckoned with in Korean politics” [Kim 186]. The death of Park Jongcheol, a Seoul National University student tortured to death, and Lee Hanyeol, a business student from Yonsei University who lost his life during the 1987 demonstration (see figure 4), students from Korea’s leading college institutions became the rallying cause of the “June Resistance Movement” in 1987 [186], one of the final battles fought to protect Korea’s democracy, led by the educated.

The education fever of the Korean people helped the country to abandon its former title of the world’s poorest economy in 1950 and join the small “rich man’s club” [Johnston par. 1] by the end of the century. Korea serves as a superb model to examine the correlation between education and economic growth as it is a country that has very limited resources other than the human factor. From past to present, Korea has shown the world that there is a strong correlation between education and growth. Education is a form of long-term investment the Koreans have decided to make for their economy. And by making this investment, the country achieved high and sustained economic growth and development by creating a highly skilled workforce and building an environment in which the economy can thrive by educating the Korean people to create stronger institutions and more equitable society. Donald Johnston, the former Secretary-General of the OECD (1996-2006), is confident “this Miracle on the a product of the education levels of the Korean people” and believes that Korea has set an example for developing economies to follow by being a “recipient” of development aid to being a “donor” and a distinguished member of the OECD Development Assistance Committee [Johnston par. 13]. During the 2015 World Education Forum, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attributed Korea’s economic miracle to a single source: education [par. 6].

“Mom, why do I have to go to school?” I asked my mom, like any other child on my first day to preschool. My mom laughed and left me with a frustrating response for a four-year-old. “You will find out when you are older.” And I waited. I attended preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, and university. And now, I am writing a ten-page paper responding to a question I have patiently waited to respond to.

Education, or “school,” is the most prized asset my grandparents took with them when they fled their homes during the war and the most powerful tool my parents used to find their place in Korean society. For me, education allows me to pursue my dreams. For at least three generations, education gave our family the chance to stand back on our feet and rebuild a new life from a war that robbed us of everything.

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