A ‘boot camp’ for moral renewal

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A ‘boot camp’ for moral renewal

HANAM, Gyeonggi
In the midst of the moral chaos and confusion of modern times, people yearn to escape their hectic everyday lives. To be in nature, to work in a community of caring people, and to endeavor to lead a spiritually and morally uplifting life was the aspiration of the Transcendentalists in 19th-century New England.
A similar effort took root here in the 1960s when the late Kim Yong-ki, a social activist, founded the Canaan Farmers’ School in Hanam. The school was established to educate agriculturalists, but over the years it has evolved into a moral training institute for all people, from public officials to coal miners.
The school is located in Gyeonngi’s “Greenbelt,” a tranquil and pastoral area just outside Seoul. Several one-story buildings are scattered on the school grounds, which are surrounded by fields of cabbage, potatoes and other crops. The buildings are old-fashioned, but there is a sense of harmony and neatness to the surroundings. The Canaan Farmers’ School originally offered two-week training programs but it has recently trimmed back its program to three days. A sister school in Wonju, Gangwon province, run by the founder’s son, offers five-day courses.
Day 1
On the large, open grounds, 67 trainees in casual clothes have gathered for the start of the three-day training session. The group of men and women, employees from 13 companies ranging from Osram Korea to Seosan Medical Center, stand around looking rather tense as the instructors bark out orders, such as “Attention!” and “At ease.” The school’s principal, Kim Pyung-il, says a few words, welcoming the trainees to the “epicenter of moral, consciousness and lifestyle education of Korea.” Speaking in a stern and unwavering voice, Mr. Kim gives a brief introduction to the school. “So far we have had 600,000 graduates from more than 6,000 companies and institutions, and from more than 40 professions. Even if we have never actively publicized the school, our reputation is far-reaching,” he says. “High-ranking officials have gone through training here. All those who pass through our gates leave with a profound learning experience. I hope you will all do the same.”
After lunch in the cafeteria, the trainees are led to the Education Hall to begin the first in a series of lectures. It is led by Shin Sang-il, the school administrator, who discusses Canaan’s guiding principles and values, its regulations and regimen, the curriculum and other details of how the school operates. Trainees are taught school decorum, such as greeting instructors by placing their hand on their chest and chanting “gaecheok,” which means pioneer. The school’s three key beliefs are labor, service and sacrifice, mottos that are posted in almost every room of the school and emphasized at each lecture.
The second lecture is a two-hour session on the “Pioneer Spirit” of Canaan’s founder, Kim Yong-ki. There is a constant reference to Christianity, since the school’s founding principles are based on this creed, and to Mr. Kim’s achievements, which include starting a communal farm, and receiving the Magsaysay award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, given by the Philippine government. References are made to moral values such as doing good for others and leading a diligent life.
People initially seem skeptical about the impact that a three-day training program can have. Min Deuk-hwa, an employee of Sungbo Industrial Corp., says, “I’m still a bit bewildered by the environment. The learning has not really sunk in yet.” She adds, “It’s uncomfortable to have the facilities so far off, but even though they seem old, the environment is cleaner than I thought.” The washroom and toilets are in separate buildings about 50 meters (164 feet) away from each other and 30 meters from the sleeping quarters.
At mealtime, trainees are taught to finish everything on their plates. Before eating, in groups of six, they chant “Thank you for the meal.” After dinner, trainees reassemble in the Education Hall. The evening session is an orientation period, where representatives from the 13 companies give brief talks about their companies and how many of their group are participating in the program. Each team comes to the front of the class and sings a folk song, some members also dancing to the tune. “This is hilarious,” one participant says. The previously somber atmosphere has become decidedly livelier. Before the session ends, the instructor announces the names of those who are in charge of cleaning up the washrooms, kitchen and classroom.
At 9 o’clock, the group gets ready to sleep, washing up and preparing the ondol floor rooms, where 12 trainees sleep in each room. Before going to bed, everyone is tested on the school’s guiding principles and sings all four verses of the Korean national anthem. At precisely 10 p.m., lights go out. Most of the trainees fall asleep, tired from the day’s punctilious schedule.
Day 2
At exactly 4:48 a.m., participants’ alarms go off and the trainees get ready to assemble at the main grounds. Huddling together and shivering in the frosty morning air, the group congregates at 5:10 a.m. The instructor shouts “Positions!” and the group falls into line. As exercise regimen music blasts from loudspeakers, the trainees begin their physical exercises. It feels like boot camp, but without the uniform. The group then is told to run about 10 laps around the grounds, chanting mottos such as “We can do it!” and “We are young!” as well as the school’s three principles and other doctrines. One female trainee collapses during the run and is sent to the infirmary.
After washing up, the group attends a lecture on “Lifelong Health” by Jeong Sun-cheol, a professor of physical fitness. Mr. Jeong preaches the importance of regular exercise and a regimented lifestyle. “I can see that they are trying to discipline us with this strict regimen,” Kim Yeong-ok, 32, says, “but the lectures are a bit too old-fashioned for my liking. It’s like being in a 1970s classroom.”
After breakfast at 8 a.m., some men and women shoot hoops in the courtyard in front of the sleeping quarters while some play jokgu, a form of volleyball. Others sit in the open courtyard, chatting.
Organic farming is the topic of the 9 a.m. session. The booming voice and expansive gestures of the instructor, Jeong Jin-yeong, entrance his listeners. The trainees listen intently to the lecture, taking notes and laughing aloud as Mr. Jeong jokes about the decreasing sperm count among Korean men, which he blames on the consumption of inorganic food. Slides depict pressing environmental hazards and the growing number of babies who are born disabled. The two-hour session ends with roars of laughter and applause. Kim Jae-yun, an employee of KyungAn Pipe Co., says, “After hearing the lecture, I’m thinking of quitting smoking now.” Another trainee, Ju Dae-ho, says, “This was most helpful lesson I’ve had so far. I wish my wife could hear this.”
The next session typically involves working in the fields, but because of the rain this session is canceled. Instead, the trainees hold group discussions on such topics as piety, health, social order and other ethical matters. The trainees grumble about this activity. But as the weather clears up, some go to pick cabbage in the fields.
“The lectures remind us of the basic values in life, of leading a healthy life, and I believe this program can be a turning point for me,” says Kim Kyung-ae, an administrator at Dongmyung Information College in Busan. “For example, as we get ready for the early-morning drill, we help each other fold blankets and this kind of comradery and cooperative spirit is something we don’t get to experience that often in the workplace. It’s like getting in touch with the basics in human relationships.”
After lunch, Hong In-cheol, a professor at ChungAng University, delivers a lecture, “Global Economy,” while recounting tales of his tenure as economic adviser to former President Park Chung Hee. A few of the trainees doze off during the class. The principal’s wife, Lee Hwa-seop, leads the next lecture, “Family Values.” Speaking in a soft voice that further lulls the audience, she tells of the hardships she has endured in life and stresses the importance of family values at a time when Korea’s divorce rate is rising. After dinner, the evening’s lecture topic is “Leadership.” It is led by Bae Min-ho, a self-help guru, who lectures on the subject of service to others.
Day 3
Again, the day begins a little before 5 a.m., with the same exercise drills. During breakfast, there is a remarkable change in the faces of the trainees. They look rosy and more confident, as if they have gained a new perspective on life. “I find that this program is an opportunity for me to take a good look at my life. I think it’s a helpful sort of self-improvement program,” Bae Seong-hyun, 33, says. “They discipline the trainees on the essential aspects of life, but all in all, serving others leaves a lasting impression for me.”
The morning lecture is led by the principal himself, who gives a long talk on the importance of filial piety and what it means in today’s society. “Filial piety,” says Mr. Kim, “is the fundamental value of human life.” Most of the trainees find this session bland but try not to show it.
After receiving their certificates of attendance and having a hearty lunch, the group assembles on the grounds to bid farewell. Before the trainees’ departure, Mr. Kim once again reiterates the school’s values. The numerous lectures, the disciplined schedules and rules, and the guiding principles of Canaan all contribute to awakening the basics of human life: to save, to work hard and to help others and society. “These are lasting and unchanging values that stay with us even if times are changing,” Mr. Kim says.
While short, the three-day training program invoked values that people tend to take for granted. Jeon Hyang-hee, a hospital administrator, says, “I wish I could send my kids here. I know they would learn a lot. I am too old to see profound changes in my life but I believe the training here can impact the lives of children.”


by Choi Jie-ho

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