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     Nov 22, 2012

Korea shows America its lost intimacy
By John M Rodgers

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

"Somewhere in Asia" "Under west China" "Northeast of Japan." Among a classroom of 18 college freshmen, these were the three best answers I got when I asked the location of South Korea. Asking if they knew anything about the country, the

Korean War and Psy's song Gangnam Style were the only things anyone could summon. This constituted my return to the US classroom - speaking to a series of college philosophy classes about my experiences in Korea. It was a rough landing.

In Korea, I taught at a respected prep school where the students had to arrive before 8 am, clean their classrooms, sit through lectures until 5 pm and then self-study under the guise of a stick-wielding hall monitor until the final bell at 10:20 pm. The kids were study machines. They had to be, or else. They'd been molded for a decade of more to fit into the desk, to consume and digest information and to, in as rapid a period as possible, ace an exam on that information.

In addition, though it started to decline in my final years, they exhibited reverence for the teacher and his or her subject of expertise. Attention was the norm, not the exception. If I were a bit late to class, I'd find a student at my office to see if everything was OK. In the hallways, students bowed to greet me. On Teachers' Day, a holiday still taken seriously, students would join in song, honoring the teacher, flowers were often given along with numerous other gifts (though the administration forbid any kind of money or expensive gifts due to a historical problem with bribes nationwide).

The respect for the teacher and learning in South Korea, at least where I taught, helped bring life (and order) to the classroom. If you know you're going to arrive at class with ready students, it tends to put a little skip in your step. Moreover, it helps to know that there's a desire to exercise knowledge. Ask a class full of Korean students where Sri Lanka or Tuvalu or Ecuador is and it's a good bet many have an idea.

My first chance to enter an American classroom post-Korea occurred when an old philosophy professor suggested I speak to his freshman seminar class "On Doing Good and Living Well" about "intimacy," and the collective consciousness/unconsciousness as they related to my journey to and life in Asia. "Great," I told him, "I'll get something together right away." At home I eagerly pieced together a presentation full of images from my years abroad mixed with keywords and anecdotes.

Naively expecting a classroom full of attentive kids, I arrived early for my 2:30 pm class in a blue dress shirt with an old red tie and khakis. I double-checked the technology, uploaded my PPT file and made sure everything was in order. Not seeing the professor, I walked to his office where he began riffing on the French intellectual Georges Bataille's Theory of Religion. Noticing the clock (and me), the professor gathered himself and we strolled to class; "lost intimacy," he said as walked into the classroom. It was a Bataille thing.

As I stood in front of the class of 18, the first thing I noticed were electronic devices on almost every desk or in hands - cell phones, an iPad, a few laptops - and a look of "are you more important than this device" on many faces. If I'd been in Korea I would have torn into a lecture about manners and grades and responsibility, berating the students along the way. But it wasn't my class so I just began with some images followed by general, what-the-heck-do-you-know-about-Korea questions.

Within two minutes one boy was messaging under his desk and two students were typing on their laptops (I don't think they were taking notes). "Do you guys mind?" I asked, looking at the perpetrators who only slowly returned their eyes, a look of apathy on their faces. But, minutes later, I'd lost them again so I just carried on. Subsequent classes differed little.

In the professor's office after classes, I told him what would've happened in Korean classes, how those distracted delinquents would've had their clocks cleaned. "It's unacceptable that they think it's acceptable to act that way," he said slowly. "And it doesn't matter if you ban them or not they find a way to use them," he said referring to the devices. Having taught 37 years, the professor said this newest assault on learning (and manners) troubled him deeply. "When I retire I am going to write a book about the collapse of the American university," he sighed.

As I left his office, my day complete, I once again heard him say, "loss of intimacy" and knew he was telling me something about the day, my presentation's examples of overcoming obstacles to become closer to Korea and Koreans, the inability of many students to understand this because they were in another place, and the general state of the American classroom (and perhaps America itself).

Ambling across the quiet campus, I breathed in the late autumn air, thinking of my intimacy with Korea, with friends, the land, the culture, my students. I thought of how students in Korea are forced to be intimate with school and teachers, spending most of their days with both, cleaning the place where they learn, respecting the people who instruct them, and taking their work seriously. Surely, the American classroom could use a dose of such intimacy and austerity.

John M Rodgers spent nearly a decade teaching AP English at Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul. He is currently editor-in-chief of The Three Wise Monkeys (.com) and editor at large of Groove Korea.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if 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.

(Copyright 2012 John M Rodgers) 

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