[OUTLOOK]What to do about Seoul National

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[OUTLOOK]What to do about Seoul National

The current debate over government measures to restrain the Gangnam real estate prices has sparked another social debate: the basic framework of our education system, including the pros and cons of the standard curriculum in our high schools. Most people, including financial and economic policymakers, believe that the main reason for the rising apartment prices in Gangnam is its superior education environment. This leads to the argument that we should abolish the standardization of high schools. On the other hand, traditional education providers, including the Education Ministry and the teachers’ unions, insist that this analysis is wrong.
The debate was started by the Gangnam real estate policies but the two sides have always held fundamentally different views on the objective of education, and thus have always and probably will always clash in one way or other. Those who support a more competitive education system are those who believe that the biggest objective of education is to rear superior human resources, while those who hold on to standardizing the high schools are those who believe that achieving social equity through education is more important.
These two sides hold opposing views on almost all the education-related issues under discussion. Yet there is one subject that they agree on ― Seoul National University must change.
The group that emphasizes the competitiveness of education believes that our biggest national university falls very short of international standards and that it is failing to educate the human resources that our country and society need. The other group argues that Seoul National University is the source and pinnacle of the “pecking order” that is our educational system’s biggest problem and that the university is doing nothing but enlarging and reproducing its vested interests. There are those who even argue that Seoul National University must be abolished if we are to set our education system right. Of course, the criticism that Seoul National University is not in the ranks of the world’s best universities is true and sometimes, even in the eyes of a faculty member, the school abuses its rights shamelessly. But judging objectively, is Seoul National University in such a mess that it would be better to close it down?
First, let’s take a look at where Seoul National University stands in international rankings. It must be said that ranking a university is difficult because there are many standards for ranking schools. However, according to a quantitative analysis, Seoul National University has made impressive progress in recent years. Only five years ago, the university was not in the top 100 universities around the world in the publication of internationally-acclaimed dissertations in the fields of science and technology. Last year, it jumped to 34th in the world. Considering the fact that Samsung Electronics, the poster child of Korean business, remained 59th in Fortune’s list of global firm rankings, and considering the difficult environment, this is an achievement by Seoul National University that we can all be proud of. All the universities placed ahead of Seoul National were from five advanced countries, including the United States and Japan, showing us that we have the potential to compete with advanced countries in the production of knowledge.
The criticism that Seoul National University is only interested in enlarging and prolonging its vested interests is also lopsided. In the past, Seoul National University provided a way for those from poorer families to make their way up in society. Also, while it is true that there are many Seoul National graduates in the vested ranks of society, they have also played an important part in the resistance to authoritarian rule. For example, Seoul National University students played a leading role in the anti-dictatorship and pro-democracy fight up until the 1980s. Even now, many of our graduates are working in civic movements and groups.
The real problem actually has only just begun. Seoul National University has had its merits and demerits in the past, yet there is a danger of only its faults being highlighted from now on. The student body now comprises members from a narrower portion of society, and this might lead to graduates with narrow minds. In the pursuit of quantitative enlargement, the school might lose the opportunity to enhance the quality of its research and education. Fortunately, many within Seoul National University are also aware of these dangers and are starting to do something about them. At the professors’ meeting on Wednesday, a debate was held on the subject of “What Seoul National University is in Korean society.” Many participants spoke of the need for self-reform and change. When I published a column in the school newspaper stating that we of Seoul National University must change before accusing others, I received more words of encouragement than resentment.
Reform does not always have to mean destruction. It could also mean putting to good use what is already there. Would not this be the wiser way?

* The writer is a professor of physics at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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