[CULTUAL DIMENSIONS]Curbing the new totalitariansEducation has become the latest battlefield in the deepening ideological conflict in Korea. Feeling that its time has come, the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union has become more active in asserting a liberal, if not left-wing, ideological agenda. The union has moved from advocating teachers’ rights to asserting a liberal interpretation of history and current events in classes. In the lead up to the war in Iraq, special “anti-war” classes became, some said, forums for anti-American indoctrination, causing President Roh Moo-hyun to warn the union against such activities. Other aggressive complaints by the union drove an elementary school principal to suicide in April, causing widespread public outrage.
President Roh’s concern echoes that of most sectors of Korean society. As expected, parents have reacted most negatively, with some taking the unusual step of refusing to send their children to classes taught by members of the union. Officials at the Ministry of Education are not used to seeing teachers resist ministry authority, and are scrambling to develop a strategy to deal with the union.
The controversy surrounding the role of teachers unions is neither new nor unique to Korea. The union emerged from underground during the democratization fever of the 1980s and fought a long battle for legal status. The battle to recognize the existence of an “unofficial” teachers union helped advance the cause of democracy and the rights of workers in Korea. The union’s latest push for the election of principals comes from this tradition.
Teachers unions in Japan, for example, have long been associated with the Communist Party and Social Democratic Party and have used the classroom to advance their political agenda, particularly through “peace education.” Teachers unions in most advanced democratic societies are associated with the liberal end of the political spectrum. There is something about teaching that fits with liberal ideas of social justice. As educators responsible for young minds, teachers come face-to-face with the issue of the public good every day in their work. As public employees, teachers are naturally sympathetic to a role for government. For similar reasons, university professors in many countries are also attracted to the same ideas, making them one of the most liberal groups in society.
A healthy democracy needs healthy political actors, but to be healthy, political actors must be fair. As any student of modern Korean history knows, conservative forces in Korea have hardly been fair in pushing their agenda. The teachers union knows this only too well because many of its founding members were fired and jailed in the battle for recognition. The problem with this easy narrative of victimization is that the teachers union and other liberal forces are not victims, but winners of the great struggle for democracy in Korea.
As an important participant in the winning side, the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union must be fair and act like winners, not victims. Fair winners offer charity to the defeated while working to consolidate and, where necessary, expand their victory. To do otherwise risks reproducing totalitarianism in the name of a different ideology in the schools. To many, the ideological edge to the special “anti-war” classes and the dogmatism that drove a principal to suicide represents such a new totalitarianism.
To avoid becomeing new totalitarians, the teachers union must direct its efforts to creating an open and democratic educational environment that enhances the public good. The recent push for election of principals and concern over the type of information held in the proposed National Education Information System database are examples of such efforts. The process of official textbook approval, the quality of teacher education, teacher certification procedures, and corruption in hiring and promotion of teachers are some of the many other issues that are yet to come under full critical scrutiny. Nurturing openness and democracy will ensure that the teachers union, however liberal its members may be, remains a healthy force in Korea’s evolving democracy.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser
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