[VIEWPOINT]We Must Have Preferential Admissions

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[VIEWPOINT]We Must Have Preferential Admissions

Will we survive? Will our Korean identity in its current form continue to exist 20 years from now? Given our current state of affairs, the chances are very slim indeed. The reason is that universities are not playing their proper role, and the education system that is supposed to instill a sense of identity in children is coming apart at the seams.

Universities are places where knowledge is created and stored. Whether in the past or the present, top-notch knowledge comes from universities and is concentrated there.

A good example is the ability of American universities since the middle of the last century to perform quality research and garner Nobel prizes in every category. American intellectuals are still certain in their belief that the American dominance of the world will continue at least for another century. The sole reason for their conviction is the creativity of American universities.

The strength of American institutions of higher learning lies in basic academic disciplines. These are mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology in the natural sciences, and literature, history and philosophy in the humanities. Political science, economics and sociology in their basic forms can also fall into this category.

The liberal arts disciplines in Korea are struggling to make ends meet. As questionable market principles are applied to university administration, departments that provide vocational training are flourishing while liberal arts departments are falling apart.

It has already been pointed out numerous times that applied sciences cannot survive without basic science and that job-oriented departments would not be able to survive without continued development of liberal arts departments. But for some reason, such a warning now only seems to amount to a repeated chant and a futile prayer.

I do not understand why Korean universities are heading toward self-destruction. Why are national universities, Seoul National University in particular, not protecting and promoting liberal arts? Why, indeed, are they the first to abandon them? It is strange that no one is coming forward to take issue with this alarming trend.

It has long been known that more than half of the students at Seoul National University are cramming for state examinations to become lawyers, bureaucrats and diplomats.

In a country where the type of knowledge required to become government officials is far lower in standard than that commonly used in the business world, how do the students intend to provide new visions for society by studying such archaic material? Do they even have the will to produce a new set of knowledge or a new culture? In our students, I see only the desire to be able to feed themselves as they prepare for government examinations. Even dogs, cattle and horses can feed themselves; they don't need a college education to do so.

The world has entered the digital age: a world composed not of atoms but of bits. More important in the digital age, however, is the world within us that has to do with spirituality and perception. Without the sensitivity, throbbing hearts and profound impressions that literature, history and philosophy provide, material creation is impossible. In other words, high-tech is impossible without high touch.

Liberal arts disciplines are directly related to cultural creativity and identity. The things that one could never conceptualize or imagine through other means can come into being with the help of the liberal arts.

In this changed world, what exactly is the role of national universities if the Korean people pay taxes to subsidize the students there so that they can get "education for bread?" Are we paying for their education so that they can kowtow to the nation's president, saying, "It is your mountainous royal grace that bestowed honor on me and my family," as did the justice minister who was fired recently within hours of his appointment?

Who dares change the deeply ingrained structure and misguided behavior of national universities now? Just who can change the shamelessly vocation-oriented national universities so that they can focus on liberal arts? It is obvious that restructuring plans and talk of "paradigm shifts" will not be enough to turn around the situation.

Hence the responsibility of promoting and consolidating liberal arts falls on private universities. Taking into account the real-world situation, only a handful of private universities are capable of carrying out this responsibility. However, private schools are chronically short of money. They can't even raise their tuition fees without student consent.

State intervention that eventually brings about the destruction of research as well as the universities themselves has been more frightening than a fanatic religious cult.

On top of this, the government now strictly forbids private universities from giving preferential treatment during admissions to applicants who have contributed significantly to the school.

Hear ye, citizens and government officials! There is no reason why universities, private and national alike, should all self-destruct. We desperately need the preferential admissions system to produce more men like the novelist Choi In-ho and the poet Chung Hyun-jong than men like Kim Woo-choong, the fugitive head of the collapsed Daewoo Group.

Please allow us to implement the system of preferential admissions.


The writer is a professor of political sociology at Yonsei University.

by Song Bok

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