Korean excellence in education
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.