Closing the Book: Professor Says Farewell to Teaching, Students

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Closing the Book: Professor Says Farewell to Teaching, Students

On Friday at Ewha Womans University, an old friend gave his final lecture.

Some of the 300 or so people in attendance at Ewha's International Education Center jotted down notes as the elderly professor spoke. Periodically, the hall filled with laughter.

The lecture was the last for Lee O-young, 67, a Korean literature professor who was ending 42 years of teaching, mostly at Ewha. Mr. Lee was not a professor who only taught Korean literature. He was also a literature critic, novelist, magazine editor, the former culture and tourism minister, a researcher of Japanese culture and an organizer of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

In attendance Friday were the novelist Choi In-hoon, the pansori singer An Sook-sun and several former students of Mr. Lee's, including Jang Sang, president of Ewha Womans University, and Yoon Hoo-jung, a trustee of the Ewha foundation.

As "The Culture Man" of Korea, Mr. Lee has brought his creativity to whomever sought it, and whenever it was needed. Most of all, Mr. Lee is and will forever be thought of as a professor.

"I've dedicated my whole youth to this rostrum," Mr. Lee said. "When Joseph A. Schumpeter, a Harvard economics professor, gave a retirement speech at age 66, Mr. Schumpeter said all he wanted was to be remembered as a teacher who helped raise students to the highest standards. I've always hoped I could do the same."

Throughout last week's lecture, Mr. Lee emphasized the significance of flexibility in interpreting literature. Mr. Lee gave an example of his early days of teaching.

It was 1967, and he was supervising a college entrance examination for the first time. Glancing at an applicant's exam paper, Mr. Lee received a jolt. The test questions on Kim So-wol's famous poem "Azalea" were multiple choice.

"Poems are supposed to be interpreted in various ways as freely as possible," Mr. Lee said. "I was very frustrated to see the uniformed education that students had been receiving in our society. I came to think that my mission as a professor was to fight against the false educational customs in which students apply standardized methods in understanding poems."

Since then, Mr. Lee has spent his efforts making students realize that literature was not about distinguishing between black and white but seeing instead a "gray zone." In the meaning of a poem, Mr. Lee said the gray zone is not a symbol for fence sitting, but an ideal place that creates new meanings and richer life experiences.

Mr. Lee also mentioned the word "hemlock," a poison taken by the Greek philosopher Socrates. Before he died, Socrates discussed wisdom and knowledge with his students. According to Mr. Lee, hemlock enabled Socrates to draw out something positive from something extremely negative.

Hemlock is a poison that kills, but it can also work as a medicine to help relieve pain, and that "dual effect" or "gray zone" is the aesthetics of liberal arts, Mr. Lee said.

"When we don't apply that 'hemlock effect' in the world, our society is divided only into two extremes - black and white. We've been living in such a dry world for a long time, and it is hard to find truth in that kind of world."

Since January, Mr. Lee has served as an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. In his retirement, he'll also continue to write.

"From now on, I want to write books that interpret classics for younger generations."

by Lee Jung-kyu

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