Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”
This country, Finland, is the anti-Korea. Rather than rewarding success and punishing failure, the Finns prefer ensuring that everyone receives a quality education, as opposed to the Koreans, who dwell within one of the most competitive societies in the world. Everything in this country is a fight; even the most mundane routines are epic Darwinian battles for genetic supremacy. People cut each other when they’re buying movie tickets or waiting at the grocery checkout line, and just a couple of days ago I saw a car speed up onto the sidewalk and drive all the way down to the next sidestreet rather than wait fifteen or twenty seconds for an opening to occur in the gray-white-black traffic. When I step outside and walk down the street I’m usually challenged by whoever happens to be walking toward me: old or young, big or small, handsome or ugly, they don’t want to move to the left or the right, because to do so would mean that they have lost, and that I have won, and that I am better. And yet in New York City, a metropolis wholly lacking in jeong, people get out of each other’s way; the foot traffic flows in purling rivers.
America is somewhere in between Finland, where real winners “do not compete”, and Korea, where real winners “crush their opponents to bloody, palpitating pulps”. I read part of this article from The Atlantic and talked about it with one of my Korean students yesterday, and both of us wondered how these strange Finnish ideas could possibly be transplanted to Korea: how can you take a classroom where children learn almost entirely by sitting and listening and replace it with a classroom where children learn by playing and talking? Is it even possible?
More importantly, this good Mr. Sahlberg has said that there are no private schools in his country. Imagine the consequences if private schools were outlawed in Korea, and if this law were actually enforced by the hagwon paparazzi—ordinary citizens paid bounties by the police to rat out illegal cram schools—and imagine what Korean parents would do with themselves if all of their children were forced to attend the same institutions. I think it would be great for this country, and that people would be a lot happier, after an initial period of absolute chaos; it would be terrible for me, however, since almost half of my income originates within the hearts of these competitive ajummas who, for whatever un-Finnish reason, are desperate to have their kids crush the kids who live next door.