[SERI COLUMN]Education is a Korean noble obligationFor years, the expression “noblesse oblige,” or noble obligation, has been in vogue in Korea among those concerned about the unrestrained use of power by the rich and influential. Now the expression has become almost a cliche, because we have heard it so many times in the news media. But when it comes to how we can institutionalize the elite’s social responsibility, we hear so little.
On Aug. 9, a senior Appeals Court judge was arrested for allegedly taking bribes in exchange for promises of a favorable ruling. This is an occasion again to think hard about what noblesse oblige really means to us.
Although the term is French, the practice of imposing heavy responsibility on the elite is a patently Anglo-American tradition. In continental Europe, governments tended to render most social services and government officials accounted for the largest proportion of society’s elites.
In contrast, local gentlemen in England took on the jobs, because in that paragon of a free-market economy there was little room for the government to intervene in matters of social welfare and public service.
To English gentlemen, the most important virtue was serving their own country in times of crisis, and not minding sacrificing their lives on the battlefield.
In the late 19th century, this tradition of English gentlemanship traveled to the New World, where the railroad buildout and an industrial revolution had just started producing a sizable class of millionaires. Although they were often mocked as “robber barons” for the unsavory ways many of them enriched themselves, they were, on the whole, responsible citizens.
The most visible examples included Andrew Carnegie, the founder of the first public library system in the United States, and Solomon R. Guggenheim, who donated a large sum of his wealth to build the Guggenheim Museum.
John Jacob Astor IV, one of the descendants of the Astors who made a great fortune from the fur trade and real estate business starting in the mid-19th century, was an equally responsible person.
A lieutenant colonel in the 1898 Spanish-American War, Mr. Astor afterward was involved in his family’s real estate business, one of which was the management of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. In April 1912, he drowned while returning home from his honeymoon.
As perceptive readers may have already guessed, the passenger ship he was on was none other than the ill-fated Titanic. In the 1997 smash-hit movie of the same name, male passengers in the first-class deck were pushing and shoving children and women to get onto the lifeboats first, many offering wads of cash to the crew for their seats. But it was far from what really happened on the sinking luxury liner.
As it turned out, most men in the first-class deck sank with the Titanic, while only three women on that deck decided to die with their husbands. The name of Astor, of course, ended up on the list of the deceased. He refused to board a lifeboat with his wife because he followed the instructions that women and children be saved first.
How could such a classy act be possible in a life-and-death situation? According to Fareed Zakaria, author of “The Future of Freedom” (2003), it was the influence of the spartan education that people such as Mr. Astor received during their youth in prestigious private boarding schools.
These schools, as they still do today, charged exorbitant sums for tuition while providing bare-minimum services in dining halls and dorm rooms. Of course, it was all by design. The children who had lived like little princes before coming to the schools had to be content with sleeping in military-like barracks and taking cold showers in the morning.
What they were taught in these schools, largely, was the heavy responsibility they would have toward the society in which they would someday lead as politicians, generals and business executives.
Although a few of the graduates became troublemakers, most turned out to be fine statesmen, great soldiers and philanthropic chief executives, not forgetting the hard-earned lessons from their school days.
Going back to the case of Korea, what can we learn from the individual stories above?
One of the best ways to build a well-functioning society is to nurture future leaders in good schools, with emphasis on their responsibility to the community to which they belong. The first step toward that direction would be establishing world-class private schools where rich people can send their kids without having to worry about the quality of the education. Such a “wild” idea will no doubt attract heavy criticism from populist-leaning people, who say that it would only widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
Come to think of it, however, it could be a great way to save dollars currently spent on tuition and living expenses for our children studying abroad, in places such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Noblesse oblige would not emerge overnight, but it may be possible within 20 or 30 years when the next-generation leaders could learn enough lessons in these private schools.
* The writer is managing editor of SERIWorld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of the publication that carries it.
by Sangho Chung