MAARTEN MEIJER SPENT his childhood in a small town in the Netherlands. After completing his school education, he traveled widely, from Ireland to Israel, from Spain to Finland. He got his B.S. and M.A. in America, and his Ph.D. in Russia. In 1982, he met his wife Myra in New York City. They moved to Korea in 2000. Maarten taught English at a Seoul university for several years. Their daughter and their three sons attend Korean high school, elementary school, and kindergarten, respectively.
In 2002, Maarten interviewed Guus Hiddink and wrote "Hiddink Biography." In September of this year, Maarten published a new book with Hyeonamsa, "What's So Good about Korea, Maarten?" in English, and it in Korean. "Marriage made in heaven," "The sexual revolution," "Fifty ways to meet your lover," "An American girl in Seoul," "Be my Valentine," "Foreigners," "College the Korean social oasis," "Konglish," "Crisis in education," are just some of the almost one hundred forty topics that are discussed in the book.
But the benefits of Korean education should not be underestimated. Korean students are good at "basics" such as math, science, and grammar exactly because the disciplined repetition and the standardized format of classes give them an advantage in areas that require clear structure and organization. Furthermore, it is likely that the clear edge that Koreans have over most of their western competitors in practical computer skills is indirectly related to their mastery of such basic subjects.
Another strong point of Korean school education is that it is based on trust, whereas the western model is based on skepticism. In the West, whatever the teacher says is questioned and sometimes challenged. In Korea, the teacher is generally considered a reliable source of knowledge and his presentation of the facts is taken at face value. School ties are more similar to family relationships than they are in the West. Foreign teachers in Korea are often touched by the way students seem to attach themselves to their seonsaeng-nim. The teacher is regarded as a second parent, and the closeness of the teacher-student relationship reinforces the confidence that has been inspired by the parent-child bond.
Korean parents, dreaming of giving an American or European education to their children, should be well aware of the usual academic mediocrity of schools in many western nations and a school culture of sexual permissiveness, drugs, and sometimes violence. So I wholeheartedly encourage my children to continue their studies at their Korean schools. My daughter Renee, who will be going to college soon, even had a good experience in hagwon, saying that she has learned much more than just school subjects: gossip, Korean slang, the latest movies and celebrities, new food. She also says that life in Korea and Korean school is fun if you do outrageous things and always try new things: going to the theater to watch Korean movies, seeing Korean singers live, going shopping everyplace possible, eating silkworms and baby octopus, going to a mogyoktang. Intellectually, there are clear benefits associated with the Korean approach to primary and secondary education. In 2002, UNICEF listed 24 nations in order of educational quality, based on its study of 14- and 15-year-olds. Korean students outperformed all their competitors and landed in first place. Britain placed a modest 7th, the United States a poor 18th.
At the college level, things are not as well in Korea. According to a Swiss survey, it ranked 43rd among 47 countries in competitiveness of university education. So there is some room for improvement. One of the problems is that many Korean students are not encouraged to use their creativity and, as a consequence, lack confidence to express themselves in group situations. And even if they do say something, they are often afraid to express a viewpoint that is different from others in the group. This is particularly strong among women. When I taught English at Seoul Women's University, we often we had "topic discussions"on controversial issues. Frequently, a student who had presented some unconventional view would change her mind once she discovered that everybody in the class thought differently… At another time, when I gave a writing assignment on "The American Intervention in Afghanistan," the essays I received from the students seemed like carbon copies no one expressed a unique, individual viewpoint, as if there was only one reasonable perspective on the issue.
When they are encouraged and are allowed some room, Koreans are ingenious, creative, skillful, and funny. I remember well the joy we shared during speech contests, dodge ball games, and wild "water melon eating competitions" at our college. Many university students deserve a better education than they are getting now. They are just as smart as their western peers and should have a chance to overcome their timidity and their fear of making English mistakes!, develop their talents, and show how great and good they and their country really are.