Korean ex­cel­lence in ed­u­ca­tion

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Mark Peter­son Mark Peter­son (markpeter­[email protected]) is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Korean, Asian and Near East­ern lan­guages at Brigham Young Univer­sity in Utah.

Korea has a well-es­tab­lished rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing one of the best ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in the world, but I have learned a new di­men­sion of that ex­cel­lence on my re­cent trip to Korea. I have been in­vited, of late, to give lec­tures to a va­ri­ety of groups — some break­fast groups, some lunchtime groups — and cou­pled with lec­tures I give to uni­ver­si­ties, govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions and pri­vate com­pa­nies, I’m start­ing to see a pic­ture of how ed­u­ca­tion in Korea is life-long and un­like other coun­tries in the world.

The pic­ture of how truly per­va­sive ed­u­ca­tional objectives are in Korea has be­come all the more clear to me when I tried re­cently to set up some lec­tures for a Korean friend vis­it­ing Amer­ica. I, for my part, have been the ben­e­fi­ciary of giv­ing nu­mer­ous lec­tures in Korea, and I thought I could do the same for my friend in Amer­ica. He has an in­ter­est­ing mes­sage, one that Amer­i­cans, in the right set­ting, en­joy hear­ing.

But the bot­tom line is that there just weren’t that many venues that we could find. There are schools, but that is dif­fi­cult to set up; there are Ro­tary Clubs and Ki­wa­nis Clubs, but they op­er­ate on the ba­sis of vol­un­teerism, and the time slot is only 25 min­utes. Korea, on the other hand, of­fers hour-long, well-paid lec­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties in nu­mer­ous set­tings.

This kind of lec­ture for­mat pre­sented to groups of adults, and some­times very se­nior adults, I think might be unique in world cul­ture. This kind of thing is hard to tab­u­late, but I can’t imag­ine an­other coun­try hav­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties for lec­tur­ing than those in Korea.

Re­cently, I spoke at the Global Eco­nomic and Cul­ture Fo­rum and I’ve lec­tured at the Kwangh­wa­mun Fo­rum and the Cheongun-dong Fo­rum and there have been sev­eral oth­ers. Next month, I’ve been in­vited to speak at the Ad­vance­ment

of To­e­gye Phi­los­o­phy As­so­ci­a­tion. These or­ga­ni­za­tions tend to meet on a monthly ba­sis, but there are some weekly meet­ings.

And then, of course, there are the alumni meet­ings (Dongchang-hoe). I’ve been in­vited to speak at not just univer­sity alumni meet­ings, but also high school alumni meet­ings! My own high school alumni as­so­ci­a­tion meets ev­ery 10 years, but re­cently we held a 55th an­niver­sary re­union be­cause peo­ple are dy­ing and may not make it to the 60th!

The greater ques­tion for Korea is the stand­ing of ed­u­ca­tion in so­ci­ety over­all. The fre­quency of the lec­ture set­tings that I have dis­cov­ered is a kind of crown­ing achieve­ment, what some would say is part of the so-called “life-long ed­u­ca­tion.” This sits on top of the stan­dard ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that is one of the best in the world, of­ten ranked num­ber one or num­ber two in stan­dard ex­ams.

The ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has its prob­lems. The high sui­cide rate is the most glar­ing prob­lem, but there are oth­ers. The one I’m hear­ing most of­ten these days con­cerns the fact that no Korean has yet to win a No­bel Prize, ex­cept for the Peace Prize won by Kim Dae-jung — no prize win­ner for eco­nom­ics, or chem­istry, or physics, or lit­er­a­ture, or medicine. The crit­i­cism I am hear­ing is that the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is still based too strongly on mem­o­riza­tion rather than cre­ative think­ing.

On the other hand, Korea ranks the high­est in the lat­est Bloomberg In­dex of In­no­va­tion.

To plug my fa­vorite theme song of late, the Korean sijo is not taught as a cre­ative writ­ing ex­er­cise, but rather the old mas­ter­pieces of 500 years ago are to be mem­o­rized for the SAT exam. The stu­dents miss the chance to write their own sijo. And in Amer­ica these days, the sijo move­ment is try­ing to catch up to the haiku move­ment that has suc­ceeded in cap­tur­ing the cre­ative writ­ing chal­lenge of ev­ery Amer­i­can grade school child. Thus there are more sijo writ­ten in Eng­lish in Amer­ica than sijo writ­ten in Korean in Korea.

Of course, the suc­cess of the Korean ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has its roots in the tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem based on the Con­fu­cian clas­sics and aimed at pass­ing the munkwa, civil ser­vice exam. The key there was to mem­o­rize whole pas­sages, if not the en­tire cor­pus of the Con­fu­cian canon. Mem­o­riza­tion! That was the key. That was the only thing.

What­ever short­fall Korean peo­ple find in their own ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem — and every­body has an opin­ion about what’s good and what’s bad about it — my re­cent dis­cov­ery of the var­i­ous groups that meet once a month or once a week to hear a lec­ture is a tes­ti­mony of the true value of Korean ed­u­ca­tion — that it does not stop with school, but en­riches one’s life con­tin­u­ally. And I am in­deed lucky to be on the list of or­ga­ni­za­tions that are look­ing for the next mean­ing­ful lec­ture.

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