Cultural, Philosophical, and Historical Influences in Education

Many people wonder how South Korea can so quickly rise up and continue to have one of the most successful education outcomes in the world. In the 2009 results from the Programme for International Student Assessment, South Korea ranked within the top 10 in overall mathematics, science, and reading literacy (Fleischman et al., 2010). Even President Barack Obama of the United States praised South Korea saying that the U.S. needed to catch up to the South Korean education system. So what influenced the country to succeed in such ways?

Historial Influences on Education

For over 400 years until 1873, Korea had been closed to outside contact. Similar to their culture and located adjacent to Korea, the Japanese gradually made their way into Korea and by 1910 took complete control over Korea. As a colony of Japan, Korea was made to conform to the Japanese’s colonial administration. The Japanese colonial administration was “autocratic, systemic, thorough, and used large numbers of ethnic Japanese brought from the metropole to occupy key niches in the civil service, educational system, business, and industry” (Sorensen, 1994). The Japanese’s rigid control on Korea was a way to ensure the assimilation of the ethnic Koreans. During this time, ethnic Japanese and ethnic Koreans had separate education systems with secondary education highly restricted for ethnic Koreans. The medium of instruction in all schools regardless of the system are in Japanese and taught by Japanese instructors.

In 1919, after the failed independent movement, the ethnic Koreans realized that in order to become qualified to be to regain their independence, acquisition of modern education was needed. No matter how hard the Japanese tried to restrict the Koreans from education, ethnic Koreans managed to get their education and even demanded more: from elementary school access to access in tertiary education.

Finally, after 72 years of occupation, the Japanese left Korea in 1945. However, the Japanese deliberately left the Koreans with a broken education system. Because all schools were taught by ethnic Japanese, when they left there was a huge gap in trained manpower. There was a shortage of teachers and the illiteracy rate was 78%.

Making Educational Changes 

To mitigate the multi-tiered, social segregation system that the Japanese left behind, the Basic Education Law was implemented in 1949 unifying  the education system. This created 6 years of compulsory education from the moment children reached age 7. Though middle school and high school were still non-compulsory and tuitioned, the Basic Education Law set these two levels of education at 3 years each.

The tuitioned and non-compulsory middle school and high school did not deter Koreans from pursuing an education, which could have been the result from the emphasis-on-education mentality during the Japanese occupation. From 1949 to 1953, the education system was experiencing an increase in the number of students enrolling in middle school and high school, but with no regulation, the schools were admitting students even without the space. Because of the overcrowding of the schools, the government began to implement a comprehensive exam for middle school and high school to ensure the quality of the students enrolling in these schools with limited seats.

With the increasing number of students entering high school, vocational high schools were reintroduced in 1963. This started the tracking system in the Korean education system. The human resources in Korea now had a choice to attain certain skills from these vocational schools.

In order to make education more accessible, in 1969 the middle school entrance exam was abolished and this level of education was made compulsory. The current education system is still governed by these policies with 9 years of compulsory education for all students and entrance exams are only for high school admission and an exit examination is used for university admission.

Intertwining Influences of History and Culture on Education

The Korean culture and philosophies have always been highly influenced by the Chinese Confucius school of thought. “Confucianism has provided these countries with high levels of social capital in the form of strong family structure and norms of frugality, hard work, and a high valuation of education.” (Sorensen, 1994, p. 11) Therefore, education had always been fairly structured and emphasized in Korean culture. However, education was only accessible to the elite, which meant that the class segregation kept Korean society highly hierarchical. Additionally, the Confucius education system emphasized on memorization and recitation which was not a necessity for workers.

However, everything changed when the Japanese took over in 1873. The Japanese occupation forced all Koreans to follow that Japanese societal structure and educational structure. The Japanese imposed their curriculum and methods of teaching, which highly influenced the Korean education system even after they left the country. However, because the Confucianism was also very influential in Japan, the teacher-centered teaching and highly memorization-based methods were also maintained by these historical cultural influences. The Japanese also left behind some of classroom culture, like cleaning the classroom by the students, that still remains today in Korea.

Although the Japanese occupation was extremely oppressive, it made the Koreans realized the importance of gaining access to education, which furthered their value on education. It also opened up education access to the general public, which influenced the way the Korean’s macro and micro education structure when the occupation was over and the reformation of the Korean republic began.

The changes that Korea made in their education system after the Japanese occupation were highly focused on the the productivity of the country through access to education. By increasing the literacy rate, the Korean population are more equipped to make better decisions about societal changes. By increasing accessibility to education -whether compulsory education or vocational education – the Korean population would be able to specialize and have the knowledge of the various fields that support the country. The belief that the more education their children gets, the more available options there will be in the future are still extremely prevalent in Korean society today. Therefore no matter the cost, Korean parents work hard and make sure that their children are getting the most out of their education so they can continue to excel in the world.




Fleischman, H.L. et al. (2010). Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science literacy in an international context. Institute of Education Sciences. December, 2010.

The Korean Herald. (26 Jan 2011). Obama says S. Korea’s education, internet outperforming U.S. The Korean Herald. 

Sorensen, C.W. (1994). Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38:1, 10-35.