Tae Yeon leaves the house for the finale veneration ceremony for her recently deceased grandparents. Her friend who has come with her from school does not have hagwon until four and wants to know if she can stay with me and play. I explain that after age 10 we no longer play. We hang out, and of course she can. We have a substantial conversation that comes to a point at 3:54 or so when she asks, in effect, ‘if American students don’t study hard, how is the country so rich and strong?’
I realize I should not have said we don’t study hard. I want to shake these Korean kids who don’t even eat dinner at home because they’re out “studying” (and their parents who think that’s ok) and say “Don’t study so hard!” But “hard” is not the right word to characterize their studying, nor is “not hard,” appropriate for ours.
My student’s studying is so aimless, so unstandardized depending on what hagwon she attends. (I read a story recently about fraudulent hagwon teachers who didn’t speak English but happened to be white and passed themselves off as such.) It is measured in hours spent with her nose in a textbook, not in the number of tasks accomplished. Its effectiveness is ultimately equivalent to her score on one single multiple choice test that she can take only once. Why must we persist in this charade that 15 year old girls can actually sit in a room for four hours and think only about math? For pity’s sake, let them do something else.
Quantity she understands my explanation of, but I can’t explain the concept of quality. It exhausts our linguistic common ground. She leaves to study and I change to work out.