Like Magic

I had a student in my office last week who said something rather saddening. She was, of course, one of an endless parade of students who don’t know how to formulate a thesis, don’t know how to ask a fundamentally interesting question about the world, or rather, who haven’t been taught how one does so, but is now being required to demonstrate such skills… or so I thought. And I thought, it’s not their fault, but it does make me wonder and worry about how useful what we’re teaching them. We’re, in the collective sense. How coherent our curriculum and pedagogical goals are as a department, you know, things like that.

It’s nice to be able to write a paper about some topic, or make effective presentation, but if nobody’s shown you how to make an argument, or how to ask the kind of questions that tend to be worth asking (about your own preoccupations, even if nothing else)  then how useful are those “practical” skills?

Anyway, about the saddening thing she said: well, she asked how one comes up with an interesting thesis, and I walked her through an example. “Give me your bag,” I said, and on the bag was written, over and over, “NEW YORK NEW YORK NEW YORK.” I asked her if she liked New York, and she said she did.

“Have you ever been there?”


“So why do you like New York? How do you know? What does it mean to like New York? What ideas do you have about the city, and why do you have them?”

We talked about things like how sofas became popular in Korea, why pimatgol has been torn down, and more. The thing that made me sad, though, was when she said, “Your words are like magic. Suddenly you find something interesting in anything. Suddenly you can find some interesting question everywhere.”

I’m not bragging about this. Frankly, any student who doesn’t realize that his or her own words are like magic, is a person who has been failed by his or her education. Because, in the end, education is about teaching people how to think. This student, encountering very basic processes of thinking about the world around oneself, confused it with magic, the way Arthur C. Clarke imagined we would be unable to distinguish any sufficiently advanced technology from magic.

Except that thinking about the world is a very, very basic technology. It’s a very basic process, and every student should have a fairly good handle on it by the third year of her or his studies… especially when someone is studying language and culture as a specialty, as all of my students do (albeit, in some cases, as a secondary specialty following business, science, or some other subject1).

I’ll be honest: while I am skeptical of the idea that Korea’s the only society that uses education to pummel the creativity and wisdom from its masses, I do think Korea’s elevated it to an artform (of sorts, if a horror show can be an art). Miss Jiwaku has a friend who is a teacher, and she was talking to her lately about teaching. The friend was saying things like how high school kids appearing on TV in a quiz show ought to dress in school uniforms, because after all they are students and should look like students, not like adults. Miss Jiwaku balked at this, not only remembering how much she hated having to wear a school uniform, but also remembering how this friend herself had absolutely reviled it, how she had seen friends stuck wearing hand-me-down uniforms that didn’t fit because they were too expensive to buy new, in the correct size. This friend herself had complained at having to wear a skirt, and now she was saying kids should wear them.

The problem, you see, isn’t just teachers. A lot of good teachers somehow become cogs in a big bad system. John Taylor Gatto and others make similar arguments about education in the West. But if we’re not teaching students how to think critically, how to ask questions and seek out answers to them, if we are training people to leave school only to be easily brainwashed by spurious explanations of the world… what are we teaching people in schools?

I’ll confide another depressing comment here. I was recently told by a Korean colleague that I was asking too much of students. I was saying how we needed to bring the level up on presentations since we have a presentation contest, and the response, no word of a lie, was, “No, we need to lower our expectations.” This, despite the fact that raising our expectations resulted in a much better average performance overall.

When you’ve proposed the same obvious, simple curriculum changes years in a row, when students are even pointing out they there should be prerequisite courses, though, it becomes hard to see what one ought to do. Here’s the obvious, you say. Let’s do this.

Oh, but we can’t, comes the reply. And here’s a spurious reason why.

The most recent form of this, though, I encountered yesterday, when I was told that, “We can’t expect creativity from students. They’re only undergrads.”

Which is a puzzling sort of assertion, especially when it’s made in the context of my comment that something on presentation proposal was essentially a regurgitation of popular claims on the internet.

(Specifically, that American depictions of Koreans and Asians in general betray a deep-seated, unmistakable, pervasive white supremacism supposedly universal in American entertainment and American society as well. Premised on the notion that Lost was anti-Korean. That the reason human trafficking is presented as being perpetrated by Koreans in films like Crash is because of racism, and not because it’s such a serious problem in Korea and in Korean expatriate communities in places like Los Angeles. Because William Hung didn’t win American Idol — despite being a “handsome Asian man” — because he’s not white:

I’m sympathetic to the idea that Asians, especially Asian men, get short shrift in American entertainment media. But Lost was only racist if you’re a thoroughgoing sexist. (I’m far from the only one to have noted that Jin becomes a very sympathetic character over time, while Sun is pretty much sympathetic all the way along, and is indeed one of the few characters–major or minor–who is really, genuinely nice and sympathetic from the start, along with Bernard and Rose.) As my American co-worker pointed out, there’s real-life reasons why human trafficking is framed as a problem with Korean-Americans (and Koreans, period) and the problem is real and serious in Korea, here and now.

And William Hung? I mean, really? It is not apparent from the video above that he’s as untalented as plenty of other Idol Search TV show contestants? Does he compare so favorably to this guy?

Maybe all that karaoke one must experience living in Korea has simply callused this poor student’s mind to the horror of that awful singing.2

Whatever the case, what my (undoubtedly well-meaning) colleague said to me is plain wrong: when we challenge students to do something they think they are unable to do, what often happens is that they surprise themselves by rising to the challenge. Hell, the premise of my approach to teaching is that one must push students to constantly take on bigger and bigger challenges, until it becomes a habit for them, because that is how one learns to do increasingly difficult things. And in my experience, most students who are actually interested in learning adjust to the higher standards: they learn what they need to, they push themselves a little harder,, and suddenly they’re doing things you assumed might be too hard for them.

(Like having their own ideas about the world, instead of just regurgitating. This is something I am working on learning too, in another way: in classroom discussions, I’ll hear things that would make most Westerners turn horrified, disgusted. I feel that way too, sometimes. I often stop and feed in a little information, some statistics that devastate the popular (regurgitated) opinion. But today, I stood back and watched as students themselves did this, looking up statistics and facts online. It’s not optimal–they’re not totally sure how to separate wheat from chaff when it comes to statistics, for example–but they’re  looking beyond what parents, media, peers, and professors tell them to think.)

But I have another objection to assuming undergrads are incapable of thinking creatively, and it’s not even to do with the evidence that, in a lot of cognitive areas, young adults perform better than their elders. I believe that treating students this way is to treat them like little kids, and in doing so we do both the students, the future, and the society a great disservice. It is, indeed, a form of infantilization, and infantilization, as Robert Epstein argues in his latest book, is the surest way to disempower, silence, and subdue young people.

Korean society needs its young people to think hard, to talk loud, to push for changes that need to happen if Korea’s to contend with the future that it is tumbling towards at high speed. Without those changes, a host of problems that already exist now will bloom into full-on dysfunctions and social crises. What Korea needs right now is not more of the same, but rather creative attempts to deal with its problems. However, in institutions that are dominated by people who aren’t just older, but who also think younger people ought to know their place, and cannot come up with anything worth considering, a vital wellspring of human creativity is being stifled and indeed utterly blocked.

Perhaps it would behoove Korean society to consider the concept of “flow” to crucial to its local version of feng shui and of oriental medicine alike: if you block a flow, you do serious damage and cause problems for the whole system. Right now, the flow of respect from old to young, and the flow of ideas from young to everyone, are both severely blocked. There is room, in other words, for a reenvisioning of the social dynamics we see in Korea even from within the same cultural sources that underpin this status quo. A society normally need necessarily to not look beyond its own tradition to find sources for a radical reevaluation of its status quo.

And I think the situation is serious. A long-term expat I know, and was talking with the other night, said to me that she felt as if the country was falling apart at the moment. Koreans I’m close to who live here have generally expressed a sentiment of worry about the immediate future of this country, and very many of them seem to simply wish to leave, because the machinery that has brought the society to this peril is too big, too complex, too much like a juggernaut that they feel no hope for stopping its movement, changing its course, or even surviving as it slams through their own lives.

And by the way, I’m not saying Korea is unique in this. The results of the very recent mid-term elections in the USA terrify me, not because Obama’s my personal political Jesus (he isn’t) but because the other guys are so much worse. I sometimes feel as if the whole of the modern, “developed” world is sinking down into the sea, and we’re arguing about whether taxes are fair, whether women should be able to have abortions or birth control pills, whether there should be sex-education. Canada’s not doing significantly better, from what some friends tell me… we’re become a blue state-red-state American-styled football game too, in the years since I left (and it was already starting in the years before I left Canada.)

And the same kind of fiddling-while-Rome-burns is what  see when I look at Korea. And it doesn’t have to be that way, at all. But unless we start asking people to think, holding them responsible for their opinions and challenging them to have reasons for thinking the way they do, we might as well just give up on education altogether. We might as well just lie down on the track while that juggernaut train rolls in, with its rich older men at the helm, and most of humanity shoveling coal and slopping buckets of oil into the furnace.

It’s now or never: are you a teacher, or just a cog in a machine that’s chewing up the whole world?

And what would you rather be?


1. Korea seems like one of those AD&D campaigns where everyone is playing a multi-classed character, not characters with a single class. It also seems like the kind of campaign where people would be minmaxing their characters. Yes, I am suggesting that all those comeliness points (for those who remember AD&D first edition) come at a cost: if you spend all day worrying about your makeup or hair, you’re not thinking about the world, and it will cost you intelligence and wisdom points.

2. Seriously, on the karaoke: I am starting to wonder if anyone has carried out serious tests for sensitivity to tuning problems. I don’t mean sensitivity in terms of ability to detect such problems, but rather, in terms of ability to tolerate off-key music. I am unusually sensitive to it, such that I find karaoke outings pretty much unbearable even with people I’d like to have fun with–primarily because, let’s be honest, most normal people cannot sing very well. I wonder whether people in societies where karaoke is popular are more tolerant of off-key singing because of the popularity of karaoke, or whether the karaoke is more popular because the off-key singing doesn’t bother them as much as in societies where karaoke is less popular, or what. One might imagine noise-sensitivity in general might play a part: I find Koreans very much more noise-insensitive on average than North Americans (and hence most coffeeshops are riotously loud here) but at the same time, in my experience, Japan is much, much quieter and they’re all over the kaaraoke. So, of course, it may be there are mostly other factors at play — acculturation, genetics, experience, development — that could explain all this. But I still think a study inquiring whether average Koreans are more or less tolerant of noise, and especially of off-key music, would be very interesting.

10 thoughts on “Like Magic

  1. Isn’t this essentially the same problem in any public school system? You teach to the test, learn the correct answers to all the possible questions, and aim for the highest score possible. The biggest difference is that academic success means so much more here than elsewhere.

    Creativity doesn’t necessarily function the same way here, that’s for sure. Until that’s something that’s considered on a test, or that creative ‘low-test-score’ person finds a high-profile, high-class job, we keep the students regurgitating…

  2. While I agree with you on most points, I wonder if you’re not placing too much expectation on the school system itself. Personally, I don’t know a lot of people who take the time to really sit down and think about the ‘magic’ in their life. Our societies impose very specific goals and school is just a vehicle towards achieving those goals. It’s definitely true that schools (especially Korean ones) need to do more to nurture this kind of critical thinking, but at the same time I wonder if some people are just predisposed to not thinking very creatively or imaginatively.

  3. Chris,

    I don’t know… my experience of the public school system in Canada was, well… I can only compare anecdotally with those who experienced the Korean system, but the system I went through (from the late seventies until the early 90s) seems much less inquisitiveness-destroying, and much more creativity-nurturing. I remember a lot of teachers who in fact did not teach to the test, who aksed of their students not “right answers” but rather “interesting” or “thoughtful” ones — so much so that in a story I’m working on, a Korean kid in a foreign school, undergoing educational-culture shock, has to learn this kind of “bullshitting” from a Japanese kid who learned it the hard way earlier in his foreign school experience.

    I agree that any system that has grades will push students to do whatever is gotten by getting grades. But I also had teachers who were aware of the need to help not only those who were extrinsically motivated, but also those who were motivated to learn intrinsically… as well, indeed, as the need to foster more intrinsic motivation to learn in as many students as possible.

    The biggest difference is that academic success means so much more here than elsewhere.

    Well, and while it’s not unique to Korea, also the fact that academic success is mostly defined (until grad school, but in fact even there in some fields) as being very, very good at regurgitating what an authority figure claims. Critical thinking is, essentially, an extraneous skill.

    Which is why I always have a small core of students who describe taking classes with (good) foreign teachers as a sudden shock; “And then I realized, ah, this is what university is supposed to be like,” is a sentence I’ve heard time and time again.

    Sadly, I worry that nobody’s going to realize that there’s a need for anything beyond regurgitating till Korea’s set up for the same kind of ignominous decline that Japan has suffered… and I suspect it’ll hit Korea much harder, given other aspects of the culture.


    You may be right: perhaps I’m overemphasizing the educational system. But that said, even if there are mostly people who cannot or will not think–because I agree, some people are just not born to do it much–I think that school systems create massive, formative experiences where more people end up that way than need to… and I also think that they discourage and marginalize the few who are born to think about the world around them.

    (And, I’d say, most very young people I’ve met are quite curious and inquisitive about the world. It’s outright shocking to see how they end up in high school, dulled and bored and trained very well to comply with any authority, however unjustified. I’d recommend John Taylor Gatto’s essay “The Six Lesson Schoolteacher” for a little more on why I think it’s not so unbelievable to think that the school system is an active and important part of that deformation of the public mentality.)

    But I agree, the madness of any educational system (even Canada’s) reflects a more general societal madness. That said, I expect universities to be a haven for the people who saw through that crap in high school, and wanted more. My own (not so famous or special) university in undergrad certainly was that for me. When professors fail to see how important they could be as a palliative to the failure of the system, I think they participate in the same disservice.

    EDIT: Here’s a link to the updated version of the essay I mentioned, “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher.”

  4. You’ve written an interesting essay and, in the main, I agree with it. Out of the long essay, I am going to argue against nine words. Oh, I was a science major and that might be reflected here.

    ““We can’t expect creativity from students. They’re only undergrads.””

    You felt this quote displayed a bias against creativity and an example of how creativity is undervalued or crushed here. In a very specific way, I disagree.

    In my very light research into creativity, and backed up by common sense, I can see that sometimes creativity really isn’t wanted. When you teach the absolute basics to students, you want them to simply absorb. There isn’t much room for creativity or personality when learning the multiplication tables, for instance. Later, when solving word problems, creativity will be needed.

    Undergrads might be taught controversial content (and pseudo-controversial, like evolution), but normally, they are taught the background, so they can creatively test those things as a graduate student.

    I want my students – undergraduates all – to be more creative, but I can see that in their major, Professors are more interested in getting the information across than in using it yet.

  5. You seem to be forgetting one of the main reasons of getting an undergrad education–professional employment.

    While having employees who can think on their feet is great, it can be a double-edged sword if they start questioning everything and start doing nothing. Having employees who are far-removed from the “nuts and bolts” of the job that they were hired for is definitely not (which tests help to measure) a great place to have employees doing any extra thinking.

    As someone who has sat on both sides of the creative fence, having workers who actually work is great while having those who fritter away the working hours on grandiose ideas that will never be implementable instead of keeping the assembly line humming is a drain on both the company’s bottom line and society’s.

    Yes, certain artist-type jobs do require creativity, but on the whole they make up a much smaller percentage of the population than do those who are the true “cogs” in the world’s workforce. There’s a reason why boats have only one captain because when the lowly cook’s apprentice thinks that he knows more about how to captain the boat than the captain because he’s read a couple of books and has seen how Captain Kirk ran things on the Enterprise, there are going to be serious problems as the cook’s apprentice is no longer doing the job that he was hired for and is now becoming an irritant for the both the captain and cook and nothing more than dead weight for the company.

    Can you actually imagine a world full of only creative people like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Robert Heinlien, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Aaron Spelling, Philo Farnsworth, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.? From a creative standpoint, it would be unbelievable, but they’d all have quickly died if there weren’t the farmers and cooks to feed them, the clothiers to clothe them, the doctors to care for them, the construction workers to house them, the educators to educate them, etc.

    In hindsight, just how broken is the educational system? If everyone was a doctor, it would be broken. If everyone was a writer, it would be broken. If everyone was a bricklayer, it would be broken. As it stands, it may not be perfect, but can you actually think of a better way to do it in which certain professions weren’t overrun with an abundance of workers and others totally lacking. For example, how much more time do we really have to devote to reading new authors or watching more and more TV and films?

  6. Surprisesaplenty,

    You’re right to pick on my focusing on the word creativity, and the implications of it. I should have noted that I’m using the word in a sense that may not be apparent, and that this may have misled some respondents.

    I researched creativity a bit this past summer (mostly just reading all of a single huge survey of the literature on creativity, to be honest) and at least as of when the book was published, a few years ago, there was no strong consensus on how to define creativity. The text I read, however, had a strong focus not just on the kinds of things that you and John might think I mean, but also the thoughtful insight into problems like speciation and heredity that led to discoveries of evolution and the function of DNA, or the devising of Newtonian physics.

    There’s some disagreement about whether there’s anything extraordinary, but there is more than enough evidence for there to be a strong position that “creativity” is actually based on the same kinds of thought processes that “normal” people (those not normally regarded as “creative”) engage in every day. The apparent difference may (some argue) come down to things like desire to be “creative” in a specific way, but also to things like intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations to do a certain kind of work, and so on.

    You’re right, as is John, that lots of work in the world doesn’t necessarily rely on “creativity”, not even in the enlarged the sense in which I mean the word. For example, the lab technician whose job is to make sure that all the equipment is in good working order, or to culture the slants properly, may not need to draw on any deep creativity to do his or her work.

    But I’d say that this, indeed, is part of the problem: the premise is that things both are and should be this way, and I take issue with the latter assertion.

    Here’s an example: beer.

    The average megabrewery does not really need creativity. In fact, creativity is a little scary to a megabrewery, because what they need is a consistent, reliable, recognizable product. Budweiser needs to taste like Budweiser every time. If it suddenly tastes like, well, Molson Canadian for a month, then the Budweiser company is going to be in trouble.

    A homebrewer, on the other hand, can rely on creativity. Relatively speaking, the homebrewer is flying a cheaper glider, not a Boeing 747. If it crashes, it’s not as if the homebrewer is necessarily dead, or bankrupt. Some beers turn out amazing, some turn out okay.

    But most turn out better than the megabrews, if a homebrewer is even minimally competent. There is a learning curve, but it’s not so steep nor is it very long. I’m consistently producing beers I’m happy with now, even as I am learning more and more about the craft. And right now I am consistently producing beers that are, by most who try them either really like them, or even declare them better than the megabrew stuff.

    Homebrewing isn’t really scalable, though: even if it were legal in Korea, I couldn’t support myself doing it. But the Craft Beer business that has taken off in the USA seems to be a kind of hybrid of the two models: they do things on a scale where they can support their staff, but also on a scale where they can experiment, try different things, and bring their intelligence and creativity to work.

    Now, bringing your creativity to work in a brewing situation doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn basics. You absolutely do: you need to know about sanitation. You need to know the brewing procedure, and be attentive to it. (I overheat my strike water all too often, for example.) So yes, people — students, workers, whoever — need to learn the fundamentals. But one can learn the fundamentals without having a sense of what lies beyond it smashed into oblivion.

    Indeed, I have problems with the idea of a workplace that reserves the “creative” work for a small class, and drops the “brainless” work on the masses. I have problems with a schooling system that creates those classes–because, in fact, I think more people would be able to do both kinds of work more effectively if they weren’t streamed into one or another category from such an early age, through such a pervasive sorting system, and if they were not, repeatedly, conditioned to consign themselves to boredom, to obeying authority, and all the other lessons Gatto mentions in his essay.

    To go back to the craft beer example, I honestly think that beer drinkers would, in general, be much happier and healthier if megabrewing crumbled away and craft beers rose up and filled the niche. They would enjoy their beer more, they would support more people in making good beer, they would enjoy greater variety (even in just local brews) and they would have a product that was designed for tasting, enjoying, and so on — not just a cheap, tasteless vector for the transmission of alcohol.

    (Likewise, I’d be happier if the big soju manufacturers went out of business and smaller businesses rose to fill the niche with more varied offerings. Andong soju is the sort of thing that makes you realize most sojus are, indeed, just a byproduct of oil refining and similar industrial processes).

    So, to skip ahead to John’s comment: I realize that workplaces do rely on the dumbing down of people. I just don’t think it’s any way to run a society. Because dumbed down workers might be good for a business — or rather, for the small elite that profits from those businesses — but it doesn’t benefit the workers so much (certainly no more than it would if the workers were given a say in how things are run, or a share of the “creative” work involved) let alone the society. Dumbed down workers are also dumbed-down citizens, after all.

    Now, when we get freshmen in from high school, we know several things about them:

    They’ve been taught to regurgitate instead of thinking for themselves for over a decade.
    They’ve been taught that academic excellence is about scoring highly on exams, which is achieved by providing “right answers” (ie. regurgitation).
    They’ve not been taught how to write, how to formulate a thesis or to support an opinion. Not at all, not in any way they can actually use in an intellectual discussion. Period.

    I want to emphasize that what I am talking about is a humanities program. In undergrad studies for humanities, it is absolutely standard to, for example, have the students learn things like:

    How to formulate a thesis.
    How to support your thesis with sensible evidence, examples, and explanation.
    How to perform the basic work of writing an essay, or presenting one’s arguments in verbal form. (Skills that are reinforced by a lot of practice in writing assignments and in-class presentations where a thesis and supporting evidence is expected.)
    How to formulate interpretations or even just reactions to “texts” (which in a literature context can include more than written texts) or theoretical ideas.
    How to ask questions that are particularly incisive, or thoughtful, or likely to yield fruit, about things that they have observed.
    How to be observant in a useful way.

    Which is to say, a humanities education, properly served up, is not about getting people to “read new authors” or “watch more TV and films”, but rather it uses literary texts, TV, films, and more to train students into analyzing discourses — complex networked claims made in language — and assessing ideas.

    This is the absolutely fundamental basis of an education in the humanities, though what is used and analyzed — the specific specialties — involve different emphases.

    So what I’m saying is that when you gut out things like “how to make a sensible thesis” or “how to argue your point” or “how to think creatively about a subject,” there’s not really a whole hell of a lot there.

    I understand and agree that one needs, say, a solid basis in the established versions or theories of history in order to do sensible historiographic analysis, or needs to have read a shit-ton of literature to be able to understand the historical context and significance of a text or author, or whatever.

    And indeed, one needs to insist on the necessity of mastering the basics. (Though bear in mind, in the humanities it is fundamentally basic to be able to formulate a thesis and do the other things I mentioned, at a level beyond what someone who majored in, say, engineering would be expected to be capable of doing.)

    But it seems to be quite misleading and counterproductive — and, honestly, quite in cahoots with the misconception of education John mentions, to which I’ll turn next — to gut undergrad education of the “creative” side of things. Students shouldn’t be expected to be working at a graduate level, but they also should not have the urge to inquisitively attempt more than they can really do quashed; nor, indeed, should they be encouraged to simply jump through the hoops. If being able to formulate an argument is basic, they should not be excused from being capable of doing so.

    And as for the idea that post-secondary education is a form of job training, I say: just because the public, and companies, want it to be thus, does not mean we need to play ball with the idea.

    (For one example: many companies in Korea seem to think it’s fine, or desirable, to hire a student in his or her last semester of school; students seem to think it’s also desirable to get a job at this point. But inherently, this is a position that devalues education, and turns it into a hoop-jumping exercise. The fact that companies and students and families expect students to graduate without doing any coursework in that last semester is pretty objectionable for anyone who considers his or her courses to be educational in some sense.)

    Indeed, it seems to me a dual corruption is inescapable when we “play ball” this way:

    First, because it really represents a kind of coopting of job training by an institution singularly poor at such things. University students generally graduate quite ill-equipped for the tasks they need to perform to make a living. It would be far better for some form of apprenticeship to be available in various fields, and indeed, this exists: it’s why so many students are going crazy trying to get internships during holidays or even during semesters. The corruption here is that universities are willing to stray from their real purpose — education — to represent themselves as job-training sites, because it’s good for their bottom line and for their survival in general. This represents a betrayal (in cahoots with businesses) of society and of the the many individuals who waste huge amounts of money jumping through hoop after hoop that fail to actually prepare them for any kind of work in a realistic way.

    But it’s also a corruption in that very straying, for it cannot but compromise the education that it provides when it coopts this function as a kind of extension of high school. In that sense, it both fails to prepare students for any real working environment in a way that couldn’t be done better, but it also fails to educate students in the classical sense of the word: to train them to have better control of that most important of instruments, their mind. (And thus, for example, fails to train them in ways that might facilitate them “thinking of better ways to run things.”)

    I agree, if everyone was a doctor or a bricklayer, both education and work (and society) would be a mess. But I think society and work and education are also a mess if everyone cannot be given the tools and encouragement to be a thoughtful, engaged, and self-conscious citizen possessed of some sense about how one may question what one is told about the world.

    I also think that a lot of our social problems in the modern world relate directly to the uneven distribution of say-so and creative work in our industries. You may see a system that works: I see a world shooting straight toward the precipice, and a vast majority of its people have only the vaguest of ideas that this is even happening. So… I think the system is well and truly broken, yes.

    I also think a working system would be extremely inconvenient for the people who are now occupying the positions like the one you describe having held, on the manager side. I think this inconvenience would work out to be a good thing, however, in the long run… but the run would have to be long to rehabilitate modern societies from the mess into which they’ve gotten themselves.

  7. Gord,

    Thanks for a very long and interesting reply.

    I have put a little effort over the past year to learn about creativity and how to teach it. Clicking on my name to will take you to a blog that I’m using to record the results of my study. It’s not much but I think there are a few nuggets there.

    I wrote that to let you know I agree with you and am working, in my small way, to change things. I think my original point was valid but overstated; the professor who didn’t expect creativity from his students was indeed wrong, merely not so wrong as my first reading lead me to believe you felt.

  8. Thanks for the reminder, I haven’t seen your blog in a while.

    It’s cool to know someone else is out there working on this stuff. I have been lecturing my Public Speaking class on argumentation, logic, thesis formulation, and so on. A lot of it, though, is also involving how one does creative intellectual work: brainstorm, sorting through ideas, and so on.

  9. Korean media’s approach to portraying education (and it’s corollary, productive work) has changed a lot in the years since this was published, what with all the hype over Steve Jobs and the like. A lot of sources are pushing “creativity” as far down as the high school level. I won’t talk at length about how hypocritical this new spin is, only share a snippet that’s widely circulated on the interwebs, with a corresponding translation:

    H그룹 인사부 선배는 요즘 대학생들에게는 도전 정신이 없다는 이야기를 한참 늘어놓았다.

    “요즘 학생들 보면 이렇게들 패기가 없어서야 참 걱정이다 싶을 때가 있어. 세세한 스펙 따위 별 상관도 없으니 거기에 목숨 걸고 그러지 말고 큰 꿈을 가져봐.”

    “그런데 왜 청년들한테 도전 정신이 있어야 하는 거죠?”

    내 물음에 H그룹 과장은 황당하다는 표정을 지었다.

    “그러면 늙은이들더러 도전 정신을 가지라고 하겠니?”

    숭배자들-A대학 경영학과 학생들-의 웃음.

    “도전 정신이 그렇게 좋은 거라면 젊은이고 나이 든 사람이고 할 것 없이 다 가져야지, 왜 청년들한테만 가지라고 하나요?”

    “젊을 때는 잃을 게 없고, 뭘 해도 다시 일어설 수 있으니까 그럴 때 여러 거지 기회를 다 노려봐야 한다는 얘기지. 그러다가 뭐가 되기라도 하면 대박이잖아.”

    “오히려 오륙십 대의 나이 든 사람들이야말로 인생 저물어 가는데 잃을 거 없지 않나요. 젊은 사람들은 잃을 게 얼마나 많은데……. 일례로 시간을 2, 3년만 잃어버리면 H그룹 같은 데에서는 받아주지도 않잖아요. 나이 제한을 넘겼다면서.”

    “대신에 그에 상응하는 경험이 남겠지.”

    “무슨 경험이 있든 간에 나이를 넘기면 H그룹 공채에 서류도 못 내잖아요.”

    “애가 원래 좀 삐딱해요.”

    누군가가 끼어들어 제지하려 했으나 나는 멈추지 않았다. 나는 술을 마시면 멈추는 법이 없었다.

    “저는요, 젊은이들더러 도전하라는 말이 젊은 세대를 착취하려고 하는 말이라고 생각해요. 뭣 모르고 잘 속는 어린애들한테 이것저것 시켜봐서 되는지 안 되는지 알아보고 되는 분야에는 기성세대들도 뛰어 들겠다는 거 아닌가요? 도전이라는 게 그렇게 수지맞는 장사라면 왜 그 일을 청년의 특권이라면서 양보합니까? 척 보기에도 승률이 희박해 보이니까 자기들은 안 하고 청년의 패기 운운 하는 거잖아요.”

    “이름이 뭐랬지? 넌 우리 회사 오면 안 되겠다.”

    그 말을 듣고 나는 빈정대는 말투로 한마디 내뱉었다.

    “거봐, 아까는 도전하라고 훈계하더니 내가 막상 도전하니까 안 받아주잖아.”


    An alumnus, currently of Company H, was complaining about the unadventurousness of college students these days.

    “It worries me that students these days have no spunk. Listen to me, don’t fixate on your ‘specs’, dream big!”

    “So why should it should be young people who are supposed to be adventurous?”

    The president of company H. was taken aback by my statement.

    “So you think the elderly should be the ones to be adventurous?”

    His acolytes–business students at University A–laughed.

    “So, if adventurousness is as great as you say it is, why should young people have a monopoly on it?”

    “Young people have nothing to lose, and they can always get back up after a fall. They should take this opportunity to explore: who knows, maybe one of those ventures could strike it big!”

    “On the contrary, it’s the elderly nearing the end of their lives who have nothing to lose. Young people have so much to lose: for example, your very own company rejects anyone who happens to have ‘wasted’ two, three years on ventures that didn’t pay off, because they’re over the ‘age limit.'”

    “But then you have the experience to show for it.”

    “What does experience count for? Anyone “too old” isn’t even allowed to submit a resume.”

    “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s always negative.”

    But I was on a roll.

    “I think exhorting youth to take risks is exploitation, plain and simple. Gullible youths can be the guinea pigs, and if they happen to stumble on something that works, then the old, established guys swoop in. If adventure was such a profitable business, why leave it to the young ones? They know that these things rarely pay off, so they foist it off on youth under the name of bolstering their pluck.”

    “What’s your name? Don’t you even think of applying to our company.”

    I smirked and said.

    “You see? You told us to take risks. I took one, and look how well you took it.”

    1. That’s really interesting, and answers a question a few friends of mine and I raised in discussions — but never bothered to try answer — about how Steve Jobs has managed to attain idol status in Korea, given how contrary pretty much everything in Korean education and professional society are to how Jobs “made it.” Hypocritical indeed.

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