[VIEWPOINT]Let a thousand exams bloom

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[VIEWPOINT]Let a thousand exams bloom

In his book “Learning to Labour,” the British cultural anthropologist Paul Willis questioned the theory that anyone can become a “self-made man” if he’s willing to do the hard work necessary. The book studied 12 working-class boys in a high school in the industrial town of Hammertown, England, and described in detail how these sons of laborers wound up laborers themselves.
They were “problem children,” sneering at the model students and turning their back on their school, forming what Mr. Willis called a “counter school culture” of their own. Upon graduation, they were promptly sent into society as manual workers. In a society where knowledge and information are important assets, education decides one’s social status.
As long as an educational system that makes working-class children into working-class people continues, schools will be a place where social status is reinforced. In other words, an egalitarian education does not guarantee social mobility.
It may seem like a stretch to adapt Mr. Willis’s study of a high school in Hammertown to Korean society, but considering that more than half of Seoul National University’s freshmen every year come from the Gangnam area, it is hard to dispel the suspicion that Korea’s schools are perpetuating the existing social status.
That is why the Ministry of Education and Human Resources sticks to its policy of not allowing universities to conduct independent entrance examinations, grade high schools or accept students in return for donations. In particular, the ministry’s resistance to allowing independent entrance exams can be understood in this light.
I would like to believe that the government’s stand on independent entrance exams is rooted in the principle that schools should not be a place where the social hierarchy is reinforced, but a starting point where the socio-economic gaps between classes and genders are removed.
The thinking would seem to be that permitting different universities to hold their own entrance exams would lead to furious competition and more reliance on private tutoring. That would put the children of the rich at an advantage, because their families can pay more for private education. Banning independent entrance exams is an expression of the government’s desire to prevent such a situation.
But such political good will notwithstanding, the ban on independent entrance exams only demonstrates the policymakers’ lack of imagination.
The issue is not whether or not there are independent exams. The real issue is whether or not public education can get rid of its current structure, which indeed perpetuates class divisions, and instead create an opportunity to nurture the creative spirit by supporting a “counter school culture” like the one Hammertown’s working-class boys created.
I can say with confidence that we cannot expect the current system, with its reliance on the College Scholastic Ability Test, to bring about such a result.
The CSAT’s multiple-choice format does not nurture students’ creativity ― it diminishes their imaginations, and accustoms them to a mechanical way of thinking. From talking to history teachers, it becomes apparent that history education is carried out somewhat better in the Gangbuk area north of the Han River, where the schools are a little freer from the pressures of university admissions, than in the affluent Gangnam area to the south, where the schools channel their energy into the college admissions proces.
Picture a history class in which the students write and perform a play based on a historical event, reading and discussing a variety of materials to prepare.
Now picture another class, in which all the students’ time and energy is devoted to preparing for the CSAT, and underlining important passages in their history textbooks. There is no need to even ask which class will do a better job of developing students’ historical thinking, and contributing to their grasp of human beings and society.
In the class that spends its time underlining passages in a textbook, history is degraded to a matter of rote memorization. The same goes for other subjects. Extra-curricular lessons and private tuition are more prevalent where there is an emphasis on the CSAT, because concentration and repetitive training make a noticable difference on multiple-choice test scores. If a test that emphasized creativity and fresh ideas were established, education would probably become less of a burden.
Of course, this involves a presupposition. That presupposition is that university admission policy should undergo a change in direction, encouraging not just the autonomy of universities, but the autonomy of individual departments, so that each department can select students that have the kind of creativity that’s suitable for the field.
Oxford and Cambridge universities both invest much importance in a prospective student’s admissions interview. The history department at Warszawski University, which selects its students through an oral history examination, shows how a university can be a public body and still maintain its autonomy. We should do away with the anti-intellectual viewpoint that those two things cannot go together.

* The writer is a professor of history at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lim Ji-hyun
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