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[EDITORIALS]End the Neglect of Liberal Arts

May 15,2001
Professors from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences at Seoul National University have decided to write a declaration protesting government and university neglect of liberal arts studies. This is shocking. Voices expressing concern over trends expressing disdain of the liberal arts have never ceased. But the ramifications of collective action staged by professors from a public university are likely to be significant. Inter-campus problems including dissatisfaction with the university president's management style provided some of the motivations behind the professors' decision to engage in collective action. Nonetheless, as the collective move signifies that the liberal arts crisis has reached its limit, it should not be taken lightly.

The trend to look down on liberal arts in our society is not a novelty. In the 1960s and 1970s, they were shoved to the back by economic development arguments in favor of applied sciences. More recently, they have been eclipsed by the influence of globalization. Educating and bringing up qualified personnel to work in high-tech industries is not only necessary but also important for the country's economic development. Active support for research in high technology by private companies is also advisable and proper. Accordingly, the government should actively support the liberal arts studies that are outside the companies' reach. Nevertheless, its financial support is trifling. In the humanities alone, government financial support for research this year amounts to mere 3 percent of the total 130 billion won ($100 million), though it amounts to 4 billion won, a billion-won increase from last year.

Allowing university students to postpone their choice of major until their third year, a reform implemented by the "People's Government," actually exacerbated the liberal arts crisis. Government officials in the education field had recommended the new system in order to counter the ills caused by running the departments individually and to transfer the education system from supply-centered to demand-centered. Of course, it would be wrong to blame the system, as it has its good points. Departments are no longer divided and polarized as they used to be. However, it was wrong to have encouraged most universities to implement the system by providing carrots without taking into consideration negative side effects and the realities of each school. As a result, in some universities outside Seoul, liberal arts departments are on the verge of closing down because of the lack of applicants.

A sense of crisis is high among professors teaching liberal arts courses. The incident over Seoul National University's pocket books that have phone numbers of its employees is a clear example. The new organizational chart distributed by the university's headquarters, broke away from past practices of listing first the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences colleges that once belonged to the college of arts and sciences. Instead, it has arranged them in alphabetical order. The deans of the three colleges have refused to attend meetings with their counterparts for a month, to protest what they see as a humiliation of liberal arts scholars.

Without progress in the liberal arts, it is difficult to expect advancement and development for universities or the society at large. Even the practical sciences and high-tech engineering cannot advance without the backing of the liberal arts. The government should hasten to devise comprehensive measures to rescue the liberal arts from the verge of collapse. Each university should merge similar departments or join research programs and try to enhance their positions.



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