Lime told me today, as we were talking about the educational system in Korea, “I don’t believe this country’s future is so bright.” The reasons she gave, though, were interesting. “Young people aren’t interested in anything that matters. They don’t think about politics. They aren’t interested in science, philosophy, or history. What they worry about is getting a job, and money… and then, getting married and settling down and having kids. And then the only thing that matters is their kids, sending their kids to a good University.”
She lamented the person she was, and said that until high school, she was the sort of person who very vocally aired her opinions, her dissent. “What do you think of the word ‘outstanding’,” she asked me, and of course, I knew what she was getting at. In her educational experience, anything ‘outstanding’ has to be normativized, made average. Being different is unacceptable, if it involves deviation from the norms, the standards, the party line. She said she used to be more outstanding, and lost that. And she claims it also killed her creativity, her passion, and her imagination. Which is not true, but I can feel how they were stifled by the schooling she went through.
So anyway, one thing we touched upon was that schooling children here is something we’re both uncomfortable with, even down to elementary school. I’m more uncomfortable than her, it seems… she thinks kindergarten and maybe grade one or two might be okay, but I’m thinking that, while that might be true for a Korean kid, it’s probably not so true for a mixed-race kid, right now anyway. Things might be different when the time comes, but anyway, we both feel it’s very important to get whatever kids we might have an education that equips them to think critically, evaluate things logically, have an opinion, dare to be different, and an education that nurtures creativity instead of stifling it and then choking it to death under the weight of a life-determining exam written at age 18.
From my own side, I noted that education in the West isn’t perfect, and is missing some major and important things, too, but that a lot of them seem to be missing from Korean education as well. Korean public education, in other words, seems to have most of the negatives of a Western education, and few of the positives.
As for my current frustration, after a week of meeting students one-on-one about their essays, what distresses me most is this pattern I’ve seen. Almost every time a student comes to me with his or her essay, and says, “What does this note mean?” and I explain the note, and how the passage thus annotated opens whole cans of worms in terms of assumptions — in other words, nearly everytime I ask a student, “Is that true? Show me some evidence!”– the student asks me, “Should I just cut this passage?”
Even though they know that they are expected to expand their essays with material gotten from research, the vast majority of students who find themselves having to question their assumptions or get some evidence to prove their claims seem to interpret my demand for evidence, or faced with a request that they reflect on whether their assumptions are true and why, seem to think that I’m telling them their answer is wrong and needs to be cut, or at least seem to be thinking, “God, I don’t want to think about this and write about it, can’t I skip the fundamental questions?”
Which brings me to an interesting discussion of plagiarism, of presentation-making as more than just downloading and reading content from Wikipedia, and of how our department is, and should be, handling this issue. One of my co-workers has handed around an interesting, but I think somewhat problematic, passage from a book on cultural differences in terms of thinking and education. I need to read it again and think about it before I comment further.
UPDATE: While on the current state of affairs of education here, a couple of worthwhile links to Marmot’s, one on effective censorship of an employee by his university, and the other on parallels between historical and contemporary opposition to academic reforms in Korea. Sobering stuff.