This post reviews Deok-Hee Seo, “The Profitable Adventure of Threatened Middle-Class Families: An Ethnographic Study on Homeschooling in South Korea” in Asia Pacific Education Review 10, no. 3 (September 2009): 409-422
Seo, a professor at Chosun University in South Korea, here looks at the homeschooling experiences of four middle-class Korean families and situates these experiences in the context of Korean social and educational expectations. Seo begins with a brief orientation to homeschooling. Nearly all of the literature he relies on to introduce the phenomenon comes from the United States, but he notes that in South Korea in 2006 there were about 5,000 children being educated at home. Seo notes in all of this literature a lack of attention to the subjective expriences of the actual children being homeschooled as well as inattention to the broader social context within which homeschooling takes place.
One of the most important contextual components for Seo is social class. He sees homeschooling as a squarely middle class phenomenon. Furthermore, Korean middle class families are usually possessed of “education fever,” making it almost unthinkable that a parent would remove a child from school and putting tremendous pressure on the few who do.
Seo provides a wonderful autobiographical component in his paper wherein he explains that his interest in homeschooling emerged from his frustration as a school administrator with the narrow focus on bureaucracy, grades and diplomas rather than real learning and child autonomy. At first he saw homeschooling as “deschooling,” a break with formal education. But after years of intense study of four homeschooling families, he discovered that the deschooling paradigm was not an accurate portrayal of South Korean homeschooling.
All four of Seo’s homeschooling mothers were college educated and had formal teaching experience. They tended to switch to homeschooling out of frustration with school rules or a teacher’s strict behavior. Interestingly, all of them sent their children back to school after a year or two.
Though the experience was brief, both parents and children seemed to value their time homeschooling. Children enjoyed being freed from the constant pressure of test preparation to actually learn for fun, though they did feel socially isolated. As one homeschooled child put it, “not going to school means not having friends.” Children reported going back to school with a renewed appreciation of the value of friendship and a sense of personal responsibility for their learning. It seems to me that Seo’s homeschoolers were saying they didn’t really like homeschooling while they were doing it, but after it was over they were glad they did. But these kids understood in their bones that to succeed in Korea you really needed to go through the school channels, so they eventually went back.
All of Seo’s families were initially involved in a homeschool cooperative, but the group foundered. Why? Seo thinks it is because of the nature of the Korean middle-class, “egoistic familism, conservativism, and meritocracy.” At heart these families were not radicals taking on, deschooling style, the oppressive system. They hadn’t turned their backs on the middle class definition of success–social conformity and individual achievement. As Seo puts it, these “parents and children did not seem to have reflected critically on the dominant middle-class values embedded in their lives.” (p.418)
Because of the “deep-seated authoritarian collectivism in South Korean culture” resistance movements like homeschooling have a very hard time succeeding. There is simply not enough social capital to sustain serious alternatives to the dominant culture, says Seo.
I found Seo’s article fascinating if a bit lacking in detail and coherence. I had never read anything about Korean homeschooling before, but his explanation of Korean antipathy toward minority movements and autonomous individualism seemed a sensible explanation for why the homeschooling movement there has not been very successful to date.
In contrast, American homeschooling was aided by our deep traditions of suspicion toward monolithic government programs, celebration of individual and family autonomy, and especially our multiple subcultures, particularly the religious ones. Pioneer American homeschoolers had networks of support to help them as they worked out arugments grounded in traditional American commitments for what they were doing. South Koreans, if Seo is correct, simply don’t have these resources available.
One thing I wish he had discussed was Christianity in South Korea. In the late 19th century there were only a few hundred Christians in Korea. Today South Korea has “about 9 million Protestants and 3 to 4 million Catholics.” I went to college in Wheaton, IL with many South Korean Christians and found them very similar in worship style and missionary zeal to the conservative Protestants who form the backbone of the American homeschooling movement. Have these Christians played no role in challenging the social strictures of South Korean culture and fostering cultural alternatives? If not, why?