As seniors wade through the thick of college apps season, and classes are now multiplying in workload, discourse surrounding “the SIS student” is resurfacing. The SIS student, according to commonly accepted notions among students and staff, is excessively competitive, obsessively prioritizes grades and college, and is a conformist.
The academic atmosphere of our student body, without a doubt, is competitive and often toxically so. There is no denying that many students will go the extra mile, sacrifice that hour of sleep, in the hopes of securing a higher score on the pre-calculus test the following day. It is also evident that many students, particularly during college apps season, feel as though the campus is a battleground in which exposing one’s top choice school results in a fatal weak spot. Many of us strive for better, if not the best, and sacrifice whatever it takes—time spent in a hagwon, distancing oneself from peers (or competitors), or our mental health.
But painting this portrait of SIS in carelessly broad, generalizing strokes without identifying the roots of issues does little other than reinforce a vilifying stereotype of the student body as a whole. Of course, these problems exist and pervade our school, but perhaps we are identifying them in a way that only encourages greater divide and less progress. In reality, a significant portion of students are not stuck in hagwon until midnight, and the majority of students are not mindless conformists who believe that one point will alter their self-worth and alma-mater. More importantly, the everyday discourse surrounding destructive competitiveness—like criticizing SIS students for their supposed reliance on hagwons or obsessive desire to win—often places the blame on students as individuals, neglecting that the phenomenon is, in fact, systemic. The narrative that SIS students are inherently cutthroat, therefore, not only falsely generalizes the entirety of the student body, but also misidentifies students as the problem rather than the victims of a long-standing system of competition.
When we embrace generalizations about Korean students, too, we run the risk of perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the East in relation to the West. The stereotypical dichotomy between the obsessive, conformist East and individualistic, free West is not only false but also pernicious. To begin with, overly-ambitious students or parents are not exclusive to Korean society; the US college scandal from this past year has demonstrated that excessive, unethical means of reaching the top are not unique to Korea. But even if this were a problem exclusive to Korean society, drawing an assumed connection between students’ Korean identities and their academic grit reinforces existing stereotypes about East Asians—obsessive and unable to think independently. While we may not be intentionally perpetuating such notions, we should be more wary of how comments we easily blurt out about “Western” or “Korean” values often carry broader cultural implications.
So how do we more effectively and collectively address toxic competition? The first and most significant step is to change how we talk about ambition, college, and SIS culture. Like with any societal issue, both staff and students should understand that we are addressing a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. This means that the issue is not students’ intrinsically competitive attitudes, but rather a combination of long-standing implicit factors, including deeply-ingrained attitudes toward academics, Korean history and culture, and even school policies like rankings that make it difficult for students to break away from the structure of competition that had already been established before they entered it. Thus, a single policy change or simply telling students to care less about grades will only worsen the divide in mindset between students and staff. Rather, a collective shift in attitude and increased consciousness is necessary; both teachers and students should make an effort to recognize the dangers of stereotyping and essentializing individuals based on cultural values.