[OUTLOOK]Educators Should Stay ApoliticalThe Korean Federation of Teachers' Associations recently announced a plan to become actively involved in politics. In order to "correct the policies making slight of teachers' rights and distorted educational policies, and to punish the failures of educational policies by the past governments," the federation is said to be eager to support parties or candidates in the upcoming campaigns for local and presidential elections.
The federation opposes the reduction in the retirement age for teachers, demanding that it be changed to 65 as it was in the past. It also wants better treatment for teachers.
Its active participation in politics, the federation hopes, will give it the chance to criticize the policy failures of the current government and force political parties to take more interest in educational policy.
The group's plan is very much understandable. The current government aggravated the crisis in education by a series of slapdash educational policies and by installing every four or five months a new minister of education and human resources development.
All the governments since the founding of South Korea in 1948 have in fact paid almost no attention to education, although they all repeatedly say that education is very important. There is not much difference between now and in 1945 as far as the basic educational environment, such as school facilities and the number of students per classroom, is concerned.
The federation's plan is perhaps the most effective way to make the political parties get interested in education. Teachers in the United States and many countries of Europe are getting the results they want by playing an active role in politics.
But there are many reasons to worry about teachers' involvement in politics in Korea. Our political environment and cultures is greatly different from that in other developed countries.
Political parties in the United States and Europe have pursued consistent platforms based on their own political ideologies. However, political parties in South Korea are no more than gatherings of politicians who join and separate with the political tides.
Candidates for local and nationwide offices are on the basis of how loyal they are to the president of a political party, not by their political philosophy. The results of elections usually depends on ties based on hometown, alma mater, and family clan.
With this kind of foundation for our politics, direct involvement in politics by teachers may make political campaigns even messier than they have been in the past.
Furthermore if the teachers' federation and the Korea Teachers' and Educational Workers' Union compete to demonstrate each group's influence on election results, the teachers themselves would be carried away by a political typhoon. Students would be the victims if teachers become politicized in this way.
Article 6 of the Framework Act on Education says, "Education should be administered to function according to its original purpose, should not be used for propagating any political parties' or individual prejudices." From my perspective, not supporting teachers' direct involvement in politics, I can see some validity in that section of the law.
Second, our teachers are different from teachers in other countries, including the United States, in the sense that our teachers have the status of government officials. If we allow teachers to get involved in politics, we have to allow other government officials to do the same thing.
If government officials start supporting political parties and their candidates, great dangers will arise for the fairness of any election. The drawing up and implementation of national policies is also almost certain to be affected by the interests of political parties. If we revise the law to allow only teachers among government officials to take part in politics, questions of equity would be raised.
Third, if teachers don't abide by the law that was established through rational discussion in our society and through due process, it will inevitably give their students a bad example of civic virtue. What would students learn from teachers who ridicule the law and order of our society?
Since students have not yet developed their own beliefs and judgements, they are more likely to be influenced by teachers who ignore the law. Many people worry that students are not paying attention to basic principles, and have no awareness of public order. Illegal behavior by teachers would boost the undesirable trends among students.
I can fully sympathize with the federation's intention to "correct the policies slighting teachers' rights and the distorted educational policies" by direct involvement in politics.
But it is more likely that education itself could be disrupted by the federation's political activities, contrary to its expectations. I urge the federation to reconsider and make a wiser judgement.
The writer is a professor of education studies at Hanyang University.
by Cheong Jean-gon