[VIEWPOINT]Time for an 'education president'No matter whether we like it or not, we are living in an age of globalization where competition is stiff. If people do not become the world's best in their fields, they cannot survive, and the educational field is no exception. Korean society looks at students' preference for a first-class education and companies' preference for the best-educated as "academic cliquism" or "a pathological obsession with elite education." Is that the real problem, though?
A late-19th-century president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, made many reforms for the advancement of the university over his 40-year tenure. Once at a dinner party, a professor praised the president's efforts, saying Harvard University had become a treasure house of knowledge since the president had taken office. The president agreed, but he jokingly said he didn't deserve any credit; while freshmen came into the university with abundant knowledge, seniors took very little of it away when they left. If this were true, could Harvard University have continued to be one of the most prestigious universities in the world?
The world is already in a transition from an industrial society to a knowledge-based society. No one can be sure how this new society will develop, but it is certain that knowledge will be the most important factor of production and the source of value-added. So in a knowledge-based society, the winners among individuals and countries will depend on the content and the quality of the education people receive.
In the past industrial society, Korea was in a very disadvantageous position because of a lack of natural resources. But now, for the first time in its history, Korea is in the best position for global competition. We have a wealth of human resources with a passion for education. The problem is that unless the content and quality of our education improves dramatically, we cannot reap the fruits of our bountiful human resources.
Let's think it over. Can educational methods driven by memorization work in a knowledge-based society, where creativity is valued above all? How can Korea excel in the global competition of a knowledge-based society if it sticks to the standardization of high schools that only lowers educational standards and even runs the risk of making gifted children mediocre?
In a knowledge-based society, value is created through networking and communication between people. How can we strengthen competitiveness without educating people how to understand and live in harmony with other people?
The standardization of high schools was extended to more parts of Gyeonggi province this year. Because of the corporate preference for hiring graduates from prestigious universities, some people came up with the ridiculous idea that an applicant's academic background should not be a part of job applications. Those are two signs that we do not yet have a good appreciation of the kind of educational system we will need in the future.
Extracurricular education, which chews up 7 trillion won ($5.3 billion) annually, and "overheated after-school studies" are not ruining our formal school system － just the opposite is true. Our creaking education system and educational policy failures have caused that boom in extracurricular education. High schools are standardized; the government interferes in university academic policies; the funding system for our schools is too rigid － private funds cannot be solicited － and so we lack the ability to upgrade our physical facilities and the treatment of our teachers.
In order to eliminate "academic cliquism," the government should make every university first-class by creating a competitive environment for education.
The most significant task for us at this point is to reform the whole educational system to make it suitable for a knowledge-based society. In the past, when Korea was suffering from a vicious cycle of absolute poverty, we needed an "economic president" to concentrate the nation's efforts on economic development and stability to escape from that extreme poverty.
Now we need "an education president" who has enough insight and capability to promote genuine reform in the educational system in order to build a first-class nation in a knowledge-based society. Let's elect an education president this December.
The writer is chairman of the Institute for Global Economics.
by Sakong Il