Thesis: The retreat from formal schooling: “Educational manager mothers” in the private after-school market of South Korea (2006)


My dissertation examines South Korean mothers’ management of their children’s private after-school education in order to reveal the workings of both social inequality and ideologies of motherhood. I conducted my ethnographic research (2001–2003) in Seoul amidst South Korea’s neo-liberal transformations, including dramatic educational reform and the escalation of the private after-school market. These transformations were thoroughly mediated by class difference. This private after-school market challenged the state’s decades-long “school equalization policy” and the idea of “educational equality.” Significantly, the growing private after-school market places greater demands on mothers as the primary educational consumers and managers than formal schooling ever did.

My dissertation thus argues that South Korea’s broader neo-liberal transformations have produced “educational manager mothers (maenij├┤ ├┤mma).” These refashioned roles have become central to the measurement of married women’s social worth and citizenship. While acknowledging manager mothers’ continuity with earlier maternal roles, my research explores new aspects of the emerging image of “manager mothers” in relation to neo-liberal transformations and its calls for “creative citizens” through educational reforms. I argue that both educational manger mothers and their children as “new creative citizens” are the co-production of the recent neo-liberal transformation.

Although private after-school education today is ubiquitous in South Korea, my thesis focuses on the private after-school market particularly for elementary students. Since this market for elementary students is the fastest growing education industry, its heavy burdens on young children have been widely criticized. More importantly, however, the elementary after-school market is much more fraught with the tension between “old” and “new” educational, values (e.g., “uniformity” vs. “creativity”) and pedagogy (e.g., “rote-memorization” vs. “the promotion of creativity”) than the secondary school market. As such, this market has produced heightened bewilderment among mothers. Although all mothers are anxious about their children’s education and futures, differences of economic, cultural, and social capital make for distinctions in their educational strategies. While examining the class inflections of women, I consider mothers’ commitments to their children’s education as an intergenerational and gendered project. My thesis thus offers an anthropological perspective on the complex articulation of class and gender amidst the privatization and globalization of education.