Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day from the Hermit Kingdom

It's interesting to reflect on the American Civil Rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr this year from the Hermit Kingdom, where the vast majority of people are the same race and speak the same language and have a shared history that goes back hundreds of years. 

The population in South Korea is beginning to diversify, as the birth rate plummets and migrant workers come in from other Asian countries to fill factory and agricultural jobs. There is a wave of English teachers and business people, and of course military.  But white faces like mine are still rare in some parts of South Korea; Black faces are more rare. 

In such a homogenous country, education plays an enormous role in differentiating people and setting their place on the social ladder. After the Joseon Dynasty lost power and the Japanese occupation ended, a social system that concentrated power among a small number of royalty, scholars and elites was flattened. Nearly everyone was left destitute by the Korean War, and education is what brought people wealth and success in the coming generations. This could help illustrate why academic striving is so intense here.

At first, the system was heralded as a true meritocracy -- whoever studied hard enough and performed best on the college exam or the civil service exam got in. But now, many fear that the resulting class system is simply reproducing itself, with the wealthiest parents providing the best tutors and opportunities for their kids. Today government officials in Korea fret about a class-based achievement gap the way Americans talk about the gap in school performance between different races or ethnicities.

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