Academic Success in South Korea and Happiness: Can they Co-exist?

Academic Success in South Korea and Happiness:  Can they Co-exist?

Olivia Mount- Period 7- Honorbound

Throughout the world, academics and education are an important part of a child’s upbringing and have a significant impact on their lives as adults.  This fact is supported throughout Aristotle’s theory about happiness, which states that to obtain happiness; one must live a contemplative life according to reason.  Surely, people throughout the world agree with this theory and see this as “good” and a method towards happiness.  However, also following his theory of happiness, it is possible that pursuing education to its extremes could result in a destructive outcome.  According to Aristotle, “There is a similar uncertainty also about what is good, because good things often do people harm: men have before now been ruined by wealth, and have lost their lives through courage.”[1]  In South Korea, the education system and the pressure from parents to achieve excellence supports Aristotle’s idea that good things can cause harm.  As a result of this, in general, the people of South Korea are overworked and do not achieve happiness, thus affirming Aristotle’s claims.

Aristotle believes that happiness is living a certain kind of life that is based on reason and virtue.  However, both of these should not be practiced in the extreme.  Aristotle claims that “virtue, then, has to deal with feelings or passions and with outward acts, in which excess is wrong and deficiency is also blamed, but the mean amount is praised and is right-both of which are characteristics of virtue.  Virtue, then, is a kind of moderation, inasmuch as it aims at the mean or moderate amount.”[2] In the South Korean society, perfection in every aspect of life is of the utmost importance.  According to a study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korean students, on average, go to school 16 more the standard imposed by the organization.  [3]  Commonly motivated by overbearing parents, often referred to as tiger parents, it is not uncommon for South Korean children as young as kindergarteners to spend 13 hours a day at school or various school sponsored events.  To prepare for the rigorous and highly competitive college entrance exams, Korean high school students sleep, on average, 5.5 hours of sleep every night, although it is not uncommon for them to get at little as 3 hours.  According to a popular saying in south Korea, “If you sleep three hours a night, you may get into a top ‘Sky University;’ If you sleep four hours each night, you may get into another university; if you sleep five or more hours each night, especially in your last year of high school, forget about getting into any university.”[4] This quote demonstrates South Korea’s obsessive dedication to perfection.  This dedication to perfection challenges that of Aristotle because Aristotle supports a moderation of virtues, rather than striving for perfection.  Although the South Korean society intends for this demanding school routine to be beneficial to the student by contributing to their success, it ultimately, often times, leads to their downfall and does not help them fulfill their function in life.

According to Aristotle, “the happy life is through to be that which exhibits virtue; and such a life must be serious and cannot consist of amusement.”[5] A happy life will not consist of pursuing pleasures of an animal nature or working for the sole purpose of amusement.  However, Aristotle does recognize that while amusement is not an end, it is a means to exercising full virtue.  Aristotle writes: “while to amuse ourselves in order that we may be serious, as Anarchists say, seems to be right; for amusement is a sort of recreation, and we need recreation because we are unable to work continuously.”[6]  On the contrary, according to the South Korean society, all of a student’s time and energy should be used to better themselves or further their success in some way.  Instead of participating in extra-curricular activities, South Korean students are encouraged to “build character and independence by being responsible for their school’s janitorial work, etc.”[7]  By focusing all of their time and energy on schoolwork and other academic related things, South Korean students very rarely have time to participate in extracurricular activities.  As a result of this, according to Aristotle, they are not able to exercise their full virtues and therefore not able to achieve the full level of happiness.

Aristotle believes that “none of the moral excellences or virtues is implanted in us by nature… the virtues, then, come neither by nature nor against nature, but nature gives the capacity for acquiring them, and this is developed by training.”[8]  It is through interaction with others and training that youth learns to act with excellence and how youth are brought up makes a great difference in the resulting character.[9]  Through this principle, people are often taught virtues and behaviors.  However, in the case of South Korea, it is used incorrectly to reinforce academic competition between peers.  Commonly, this destructive and negative reinforcement comes from the parents of the child and is introduced to the children at a very young age.  Journalist See-Wong Koo describes her own brief experience with this intense system by saying: “The idea of success was the most important… my report card after my first exam in middle school ranked me 21st out of 60 students in my homeroom class.  My mother… immediately found me a private tutor for math, which helped me shoot up to a respectable 3rd place in the homeroom hierarchy.”[10]  This quote proves that in the South Korean society, the only way to be considered successful and worthy of anything is to beat the others and be at the top.  This competitive view challenges Aristotle’s principles of happiness due to the fact the competition goes directly against the development of moral excellence in virtues.  As a result of the competitive nature and peer pressure that instilled in South Koreans virtually from birth, violence and bullying between students often occurs.  Often time, the violence in conducted through suicide due to the extreme peer pressure and feeling unworthy compared to others.  In a study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was shown that more than half of children in South Korea between the ages of 16 and 19 are suicidal.[11]  Therefore, as a result of the competitiveness of their academic system, these students are not fulfilling their function and not achieving true happiness.

Although, true happiness can really only be measure at the end of life, that doesn’t mean some one cannot pursue happiness as a goal or an end by living a life that achieves virtues at an excellent level.  As Aristotle said: “If we ever call a child happy, it is because we hope he will do them.  For, as we said, happiness requires not only perfect excellence or virtue, but also a full term of years for its exercise.”[12]  However, due to their extreme dedication to constantly working to the extreme to obtain and compete with their peers for perfection and success in a negative way, the South Koreans are not on the path of achieving these excellent virtues.  Because of this, unless the South Koreans change some of their policies regarding their views of academic excellence, they will not, by Aristotle’s definition, be able to achieve final, true happiness.

[1] Aristotle, “Book 1: Chapter 3.”  In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

[2] Aristotle, “Book 2: Chapter 6.” In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

 [3] Ju-min Park, “South Korean Children Finish Last in Happiness Survey,” Reuters,  November 4, 2014, Accessed December 10, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/04/us-southkorea-children-idUSKBN0IO0OA20141104.

[4] See-woong Koo, “An Assault Upon Our Children,” The New York Times, August 1, 2014, Accessed December 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/opinion/sunday/south-koreas-education-system-hurts-students.html?_r=0.

[5] Aristotle, “Book 10: Chapter 6.”  In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

[6] Aristotle, “Book 10: Chapter 6.”  In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

[7] Lita Davidson, “South Korean Students Face Long Hours of Study,” Demotix, Accessed December 10, 2014, http://www.demotix.com/news/231023/south-korean-students-face-long-hours-study#media-231013.

[8] Aristotle, “Book 2: Chapter 1.” In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

[9] Aristotle, “Book 2: Chapter 1.” In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

[10] See-woong Koo, “An Assault Upon Our Children,” The New York Times, August 1, 2014, Accessed December 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/opinion/sunday/south-koreas-education-system-hurts-students.html?_r=0.

[11] Ju-min Park, “South Korean Children Finish Last in Happiness Survey,” Reuters,  November 4, 2014, Accessed December 10, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/04/us-southkorea-children-idUSKBN0IO0OA20141104.

[12] Aristotle, “Book 1: Chapter 9.” In Nicomachean Ethics.  Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

Bibliography

Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics. Bernardo Aparicio, 2014.

Davidson, Lita. “South Korean Students Face Long Hours of Study.” Demotix. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.demotix.com/news/231023/south-korean-students-face-long-hours-study#media-231013.

Koo, Se-woong. “An Assault Upon Our Children.” The New York Times. August 1, 2014. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/opinion/sunday/south-koreas-education-system-hurts-students.html?_r=0.

Park, Ju-min. “South Korean Children Finish Last in Happiness Survey.” Reuters. November 4, 2014. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/04/us-southkorea-children-idUSKBN0IO0OA20141104.

Photograph. “Slideshow: Children Sleep Problems.” WebMD. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.webmd.com/children/ss/children-sleep-problems.

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