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Students: Do They Have Human Rights?

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:

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.

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