The answer to the above question is such that one would hope everyone working with kids would say, “Yes.” And to their credit, some teachers, parents, and students agree, as they showed by hosting an event back in July:
Seven chapters of the progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, the Parents Association for True Education, and the youth human rights group Asunaro will host an event Wednesday to launch the Seoul headquarters for rules on students’ human rights.
Can you imagine who disagreed?
In response, the conservative Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations released a commentary Tuesday saying, “Legislating laws on students’ human rights encourages conflict between teachers and students.”
And the killer is their reasoning for doing so:
“Rules on students’ human rights do not respect schools and see things only from the perspective of universal human rights,” the commentary said. “Too much emphasis on a student’s human rights could infringe on other students’ right to learn and teachers’ right to teach.”
One is tempted to wonder why schools — institutions designed to serve human beings — are supposed to be “respected” more than the human beings they’re designed to serve; one wonders to what degree a sane person can argue that a system that is incompatible with the perspective of universal human rights doesn’t deserve to be maintained.
One of the examples given was what students who feel a little hungry in class might demand the right to go out and eat, and if the teacher says, “Wait till breaktime,” the student might claim his or her human rights were violated.
Which seems inane. A Westerner would look at such a dispute and point out the fact that if the rules were written intelligently, this kind of outcry would be immediately demonstrably silly. Write the rules well, minimize the loopholes for abuse on all sides, and enjoy the increase in quality that ensues. Yes, writing rules well is hard: but it’s much better to have rules that can be repaired than to have none: at least, that’s what makes sense from a Westerner’s perspective.
I say “a Westerner’s perspective” because, obviously, it’s not Westerners who are the primary stakeholders in this dispute. Korea’s Confucian background may have soemthing to do with it: after all, as Simon Leys puts it:
Confucius had a deep distrust of laws: laws invite people to become tricky, and bring out the worst in them. The true cohesion of a society is secured not through legal rules but through ritual observances. (From Ley’s introduction to his translation of The Analects of Confucius, pgxxv.)
If you ask me, though, this explanation is too clever by half. There may be some cultural foundation on which this distrust and fear of rules is seen as normative among right-wingers — but there are left-wingers from the same culture who are calling for a specific set of rules to be established.
So to me, it seems likelier that the reality is simply this: Confucius was unfair to rules: human trickiness comes out whether you have them or not, and the teachers who’re against having rules are just leery about having one form of trickiness — the kind that is used in a rules-poor system — replaced by the need for another kind of trickiness — the sort that we find in a rules-rich system.
If anyone is looking for examples of how a rules-poor system makes for an unlivable modernity: drive a car in Korea. While a majority of people know and follow the rules, a large minority seem to operate as if the rules of the road either don’t exist, are guidelines, or simply don’t apply to them as individuals. (I don’t drive myself, but the rides I get with Western friends and in cabs are, as often as not, quite harrowing.)
In any case, for those who don’t live in Korea, here’s a roundup of links on the kinds of issues that are at stake for Korean schoolkids and their human rights:
- A moronic editorial that points out how things are soooo much better for schoolkids today than during the dictatorship era, and how it’s the human rights of North Korean schoolkids that are the real concern. Er… so, until the Koreas reunite, South Koreans have no right to criticize the establishment or improve things? How stupid is that?
- Corporal Punishment is now banned in Gyeonggi-do, the most populous and powerful province in Korea. Which is confusing: everyone says it’s not allowed, but it’s widely practiced just the same. Anyway, it’s being officially replaced by a reward-and-punishment system called Green Mileage. No word on whether Stephen King has taken offense on the copyright pseudo-infringement, though it is telling that this system’s name is so close to the name of a famous prison novel and film.
- Here’s an article from 2003, published by Human Rights Osaka, about the Korean education system and students’, teachers’, and parents’ rights.
- Hair is, for some reason, an obsession among Korean school administrators and teachers:
- In 2008 students at certain schools who had naturally brown or curly hair face discrimination and even were required to carry special ID… because it’s not allowed for students to color or perm their hair.
- Hair length is a constant issue, as are summary clippings which, quite obviously, are designed not to shorten hair but to humiliate (see the pictures in this article also). It’s worth noting that during the dictatorship era, this kind of summary hair-length checking and clipping was carried out on the street, in order to “prevent cultural contamination” — but Korean society is now thankfully free of such ridiculous dictatorial practices… except, of course, schoolkids. Note that this kind of crap is a newsworthy oddity in the West: in Korea, it’s everyday practice.
- Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling, who’s done a ton of research and writing on this issue, points out just how much of the worst part of the dictatorship era lives on in South Korean schools today. (You can find more of his writing about issues affecting Youth in Korea — including school issues — here.)
- I wrote earlier about violence in Korean schools here, as part of my discussion of the film Kick-Ass. There’s a lot of writing about that online, though… feel free to Google around.
- As part of the same discussion, I mentioned school uniforms, and I personally think it’s quite self-evident how oppressive it is to make people wear them. (After all, anyone who’s shown up at a party to find someone else wearing the same article of clothing as himself or herself will know what this feels like. Anyone who argues it’s different for kids, or when carried out on a mass scale, is, I think, wilfully ignoring that kids have feelings too, or that oppressive structures can be carried out on a wide scale. (Consider the amount of spying on fellow citizens that has been part of most totalitarian regimes, including South Korea’s postwar dictatorships.) But I think it’s more worthwhile to point you at a couple of articles mentioned in the source footnotes to Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (or see the book’s website), which stand as good evidence that, on a scientific basis, it’s oppressive to make schoolkids wear them…
(And I’ll add, before someone jumps in an argues that Korean society is different, being “less individualistic” and “more collectivist,” that these articles and other studies in general suggest that human beings are neither fully individualistic nor fully collectivist, but rather balance the two tendencies or needs. We can predict the boundary line for norms being set in different place, but that’s unlikely to do away with the deep-seated need to both fit in and be however different is permissible or lauded in a society. (And my everyday experiences with Koreans in and out of classrooms supports this observation.)
- Brewer, M.B. (1991). “The social self: On being the same and different at the same time.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 475-482. Basically: Brewer outlines the basics of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory, showing that people socially seek to be both similar enough to others to “fit in” but also distinctive enough to be perceived as an individual with distinctive, worthwhile traits. Basically — we like to fit in, but not too well.
- Fromkin, Howard L. “Effects of experimentally aroused feelings of undistinctiveness upon valuation of scarce and novel experiences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 16, Issue 3, November 1970, Pages 521-529; and (no link, sorry, the issue has not been added to the journal’s online archive) Fromkin, H.L. “Feelings of Interpersonal Undistinctiveness: An Unpleasant Affective State.” Journal of Experimental Research in Personaluity 6: 178-85 (1972). Basically, it’s neither pleasant nor good for your experience of the world to be made to feel less unique than one tends to already feel oneself to be.
Anyway, what I meant to point out, at the outset, is not the problems alone, but that there is at least discussion going on. Not all the links in my link list are about negative things: the banning of corporal punishment is a really good thing… in theory. However, I’m not optimistic about how quickly, or effectively, this will root out teacher-student violence: the real remedy is to fix the dysfunctional school system itself — a system that exaggerates the dysfunction already found in the modern, industrial school system more genrrally. (Which is to say, schools everywhere are a mess, not just in Korea… but the Korean model seems to bring out even more of the bad and suppress too much of what good can be scraped together in modern schools.)
By the way, hat tip to Surprises Aplenty!, who got me going on this subject and from whose post on the issue my first link was taken.