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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.

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