If you wonder why most Asian countries have done so much better than Latin American nations in recent decades, I strongly recommend that you do what I did during a trip to South Korea — visit a local school.
I spent a recent afternoon at the Seoul Robotics High School, a vocational school where students learn to build and operate robots, as part of my research for a forthcoming book on automation and the future of jobs.
I had long known, from visiting similar schools in China and Singapore in recent years, that Asian youths study much harder than their Latin American counterparts.
But visiting the 455-student, state-run robotics school was a powerful reminder of why South Korea has become so much richer than Latin America. South Korea is as beset by political corruption scandals as most Latin American countries — its recent president Park Geun-hye was put in jail last week — and was as underdeveloped as the poorest Latin American nations only five decades ago. And yet its attitude toward education has been markedly different from Latin America’s.
During my visit to the South Korean school, I asked 17-year-old student Surim Kim to describe me a typical day of hers.
She told me that she wakes up at 6:30 am, has breakfast and starts classes at 8 am. The school's regular classes last until 4:10 p.m. From 4:10 p.m to 8 p.m., she attends after-school classes for help in getting her national certificate in math and other technical skills, she said.
When does she do her homework? "From 8 p.m. until 11 p.m., or later," she told me. "Several days a week, I study until 1 a.m."
When I raised my eyebrows, she shrugged, as if surprised by the fact that I found her daily schedule unusual. "That's normal here," she said.
On the weekends, she studies for about six hours a day. And during her summer vacations, she either goes to a private school or does an internship at a company, she added.
While Kim studies an average of sixteen hours a day, most Latin American high school students spend about half that time or less doing academic work. And while South Korea has a 220-day school year, most Latin American countries' school years are of between 180 and 200 days, although because of frequent teachers' strikes they often end up closer to 170 days.
Also, South Korean teachers have to pass much tougher examinations, are better paid and enjoy a much higher social status than their Latin American counterparts. Only the top 5 percent of South Korean college graduates can aspire to become teachers, while in Latin America teachers must meet relatively low academic requirements.
Not surprisingly, South Korea comes up in the top 10 on international standardized PISA tests of math and reading comprehension for 15-year-old students, while most Latin American countries rank in the bottom 10.
And not surprisingly, South Korea registered 18,000 patents of new inventions — a key measure of innovation — in the U.S. Office of Patents and Trademarks last year, compared with Brazil's 320, Mexico's 170 and Argentina's 70. All Latin American countries together register less than 5 percent of South Korea's patents a year.
In part because of its obsession with education, South Korea has become much richer in recent decades, whereas most Latin American countries have remained largely stagnated.
According to the International Monetary Fund, South Korea's per capita GDP is $37,000, while Chile's is $24,100, Argentina's is $20,000, Mexico's is $18,000 and Brazil's is $15,000.
South Korea doesn’t have all the answers. For example, its relatively high youth suicide rates may be an indication that something is wrong with its educational system.
My opinion: South Korea's obsession with academic success may place too many burdens on young people, but Latin America's culture of complacency is just as bad, if not worse. It breeds inequality and chronic backwardness.
Visit any South Korean school, and you will realize why South Korea is developing so much faster than Latin America: It has a lot to do with education.