The imminent prospect of trial by exams can sometimes seem overwhelming, a reduction of life’s diverse experience to the brutal calculations of standardized success or failure. The mind of the student can become an echo-chamber of memorisations and expectations, yearning for a source of consolation. In the modern world, salvation can be found in recognising the global nature of this communal challenge and taking a transnational journey of exam commiseration. A notable point of departure on this journey is the Seunung, or the University entrance exam in the Republic of Korea.
As an expatriate language and literature teacher in Korea I have witnessed first hand the atmosphere generated by this national event, a mammoth nine-hour multiple-choice exam, which spans the whole gamut of school subjects and represents the intense and attritional culmination of a student’s formal education. It is a milestone deemed so important that international flight paths are rerouted so as not to disturb the concentration of the candidates and police motorcycles are dragooned into service ferrying late-comers to their academic reckoning. During the test, superstitious parents tenderly attach messages of encouragement and invocations to benevolent ancestors to the school fences and national news cameras compete with each other to obtain close ups of the most moving appeals.
The empathetic journey through worldwide education does not stop at commiseration with the blameless Korean students. If possible, perhaps sympathy can be extended to the teachers responsible for devising this macabre assignment. Rumour has it that a carefully selected band of educators are ferried off every year to a secure location, known only to a handful of officials, and kept in seclusion as a gospel of multiple-choice is painstakingly created and finally delivered to the government.
Set against this absurd drama, the wonderful bite-size chunks of GCSE and A-Level assessment can seem almost appetizing.