SPEAKING FREELY Tough test awaits Korean education
By Taru Taylor
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Imagine the South Korean student as a series of concentric circles: individual, clan, Korea, United Nations. As a patriotic Korean, but, more importantly, as a cosmopolitan world citizen. Imagine him as the potential Chun Tzu, the Confucian gentleman and scholar or lady and scholar who would construct Korean civilization, its national unity, as the potential world citizen who would inquire into and perhaps solve some of the pressing problems of human civilization. It is easy to imagine given our current UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.
Imagine the Korean academy overlapping a Venn diagram of three circles: Western civilization (Europe and America), Southern civilization (Africa), and Eastern civilization (Asia). Serving civilization; not indulging Korean ethnocentrism. As a bastion of
liberal education - teaching how to generalize, how to analyze and criticize society and the world at large, to improve it. Teaching Korean students their civic rights and duties, dignity as their birthright. To be Koreans at home, world citizens abroad. Imagine the said academy not regimenting the Korean group mind. Not merely aiding and abetting status seekers to get name-brand university prestige.
Abraham Lincoln said that no country can be half slave and half free. Thus Lincoln expressed the American dilemma. That no school can be half regimentation and half liberal education is the dilemma of Korean education. The American dilemma came down to a choice: slavocracy or democracy. The Korean dilemma comes down to deciding between regimentation and liberal education.
We, the students and parents and teachers of Generic Korean Academy, face a dilemma: GKA's liberal education of the once and future world citizen, or the regimentation of dead-end future robots thanks to South Korea's National Education Information System (NEIS). GKA or NEIS - we must decide. Alas, Orwellian doublethink ignores this dilemma.
NEIS: the archenemy of liberal education in Korea
We liberal educators would rather not grade at all. Grades are a necessary evil. But when called to grade, we grade. With apologies to our students, we do so according to an absolute standard of excellence. Our grading system thus accounts for each individual performance regarding a given course of study. We rank students only after we have graded them.
Take archery. If 10 archers, in turn, each hit the bull's-eye, having achieved perfection they tie for first place. But if the 10, in turn, miss the target altogether, having all failed they tie for last place. The point here is that a proper tournament scores the archer according to his individual performance.
Only afterwards is he ranked according to his score. In golf tournaments such as The Master's, each golfer plays the course, trying to make par, on his own. Neither archery nor golf is intrinsically competitive. Nor is scholarship. The bull's-eye, the golf course, and the liberal arts curriculum present lone challenges, intrinsically solitary. So a proper grading system evaluates each student on his individual merits. Only afterwards is he ranked. He merits A, B, C, D or F, regardless of other students' grades. Thus does liberal education, if it must have a grading system, respect each student's dignity.
NEIS ignores dignity. It blasphemes nobility. Of the pedagogic prison rather than the academy, its operative word is utility. NEIS's grade-grinding system does not grade students. It degrades them. For it does not evaluate individual merit.
NEIS regiments students with a hyper-efficient bell curve. Its grade-grinding system, a zero-sum game pitting student against student, enforces neurotic competition - see Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games and Koushun Takami's Battle Royale. It reminds us of Procrustes, the ancient Greek serial killer who chopped people who were too long for his iron bed, and hammered out those too short for it. But the real school, of leisurely scholarship and brotherly and sisterly cooperation, evokes Plato's The Republic and The Analects of Confucius.
GKA, an institutional slave of NEIS, does not grade students for it does not evaluate students as individuals. GKA degrades them. For GKA, at the behest of NEIS, evaluates students as a group. To grade is to evaluate individual merit, or the lack thereof. To regiment is to establish a pecking order. The liberal educator grades, if he must, according to an absolute standard of excellence. Pedagogues regiment according to relative standards of collective mediocrity.
GKA students should merit As, Bs and Cs, Ds and Fs, according to each student's percentage score of completed course-work. But NEIS forces GKA students to earn Rank 1s, Rank 2s, through to Rank 9s, as percentiles within a pecking order. NEIS's Procrustean bed is an iron bell curve.
Yi: the Confucian champion of liberal education
The Works of Mencius records Kung-sun Ch'ou, ancient spokesman for NEIS, saying to Mencius:
The Way is indeed lofty and beautiful, but to attempt it is like trying to climb up to Heaven which seems beyond one's reach. Why not substitute for it something which men have some hopes of attaining so as to encourage them constantly to make the effort?
A great craftsman does not put aside the plumb-line for the benefit of the clumsy carpenter. Yi did not compromise on his standards of drawing the bow for the sake of the clumsy archer. A gentleman is full of eagerness when he has drawn his bow, but before he lets fly the arrow, he stands in the middle of the path, and those who are able to do so follow him.
Mencius is clear, that the student must level up to the gold standard of the discipline in question. That the liberal educator must never dumb down his standards of excellence. That he must ever be the standard-bearer of the Tao. That he must never compromise his professional integrity. That he must respect his students with highest expectations. Consider Star Wars: Did Yoda dumb down the Force while educating Luke Skywalker to the Jedi? Or, to cite another legend, did Merlin ease Arthur's draw of the sword from the stone?
The pedagogue, like Kung-sun Ch'ou, defies Confucianism. He dumbs discipline down to the lowest common denominator. He makes his subject "fun and easy". He standardizes it with multiple-choice tests and the like. His students thus level down to his arbitrary standardization. Hence NEIS, the digital alter ego of Kung-sun Ch'ou, "grading on a curve".
Mencius argued for thoroughgoing discipline and absolute standards. For the liberal educator as standard-bearer of the Tao, against dumbing down and grade inflation and multiple-choice tests and standardization and McDonaldization.
The world citizen - or NEIS robots
Liberal education occurs when the teacher recognizes the budding scholar as the agent of education. Indeed, liberal education is about the teacher recognizing that the student does not need him for education to occur. The student who can read can teach himself anything. Education is self-education. Miseducation happens when the teacher thinks of himself as the agent of education, as if the student needs him. The pedagogue reeks of delusional pedantry. Classroom management is a soft power-trip. Miseducation is indoctrination.
The academy "occasions" world citizens. It does not "produce" them. This is because the world citizen is a self-production. Learning is a matter of will-power. Scholarship is self-motivated, self-driven. The scholar, essentially, is self-taught. Ultimately, every boy and every girl grows up to be an adult on his own. "The child is father of the man" in that the child himself is responsible for leveling up to the gentleman and scholar or lady and scholar. The child is father of the world citizen. Civilization comes down to liberally educated self-made citizens. Which schools, at best, occasion.
The academy is somewhat inefficient, yet effective. It humbly occasions the world citizen. The pedagogic prison is hyper-efficient but ineffective from a humane standpoint. It mass-produces robots, some of them glossed with status symbols from Korea's "SKY" universities or from the Ivy League universities of America. Juvenile status seekers and the pedagogues who aid and abet them, at parents' behest, obsess over prestige. Collective neurosis, if not suicidal psychosis, results. But the cool, calm and collected scholars of the academy engage in leisurely yet passionate dialogue and criticism. Here, sanity and scholarship prevail.
Liberal educators do not possess a magic formula that would produce the world citizen. But the academy's liberal arts do provide a curriculum that occasions the world citizen. I learned the concept of occasion from Danish existential philosopher Johannes Climacus. The hero of Soren Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments taught me the essence of Socratic method - the teacher understanding himself as mere occasion for student learning. He taught me that the teacher, "if he gives of himself and his erudition in any other way, he does not give but takes away. Then he is not even the other's friend, much less his teacher. This is the profundity of Socratic thinking, this his noble, thoroughgoing humanity."
The Korean dilemma - the choice between regimentation and liberal education, the pedagogic prison or the academy, NEIS or GKA - comes down to utilitarianism or Confucianism. Will we continue to doom our children to the pedagogic zero-sum game, to the niggardly dream that they be the haves, not the have-nots, of Korea's "zero-sum society"? Will we continue to incarcerate them in pedagogic prisons on the paltry hope that they "succeed" in said society? Will the Korean big shot continue to be like Tsze-kung, whom Confucius called out as a "gemmed sacrificial utensil" in The Analects? Or will he rise to the Chun tzu, which Confucius reminds us is an "accomplished scholar" not "utensil"?
I, for one, choose liberal education. I choose Generic Korean Academy as academy. For I dream of Korean children growing up to be world citizens. Of them one day improving Korean society and civilization beyond. As a liberal educator I presume to occasion the Korean world citizen, in the hope that he defend his dignity and achieve nobility.
GKA's principal chose me, he hired me, but that does not mean that he owns me. Neither he, nor the parents, nor the students have any right to command me. I am not a pedagogue obeying orders as if hired to do a "job". That's what McDonald's clerks do. My duty is not to him, nor am I a company-man slavishly devoted to GKA. A portrait of the pedagogue as organization man.
My duty is to the criteria of my profession, to its liberal arts curriculum, to Socratic method, to my conscience as an educator. GKA purports liberal education, calls itself an "academy". So as a teacher here I do have the mandate to truly educate, which NEIS has made it impossible for me to do. Which is why, in the tradition of "holding firmly to truth" that Mahatma Gandhi called satyagraha, I hearby non-cooperate with NEIS.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Taru Taylor is an American teaching English literature at a private high school in Korea.