Activists find a new home: The classroom

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Activists find a new home: The classroom


In the ’80s, they were part of the legion of students fighting for better conditions for factory workers and farmers, modernity and democracy. In the 2000s, however, they’re teaching essay writing to the kids of wealthy parents at private institutes in southern Seoul.
That’s left a few people scratching their heads at how committed social activists with a nearly legendary reputation could wind up working in a field widely considered responsible for making Korea a more stratified, class-based country. Even the parents of their students are suspicious. Who knows if the teachers are propagating their leftist ideology in the classroom?
That’s nonsense, the teachers say. But one thing is for certain: The market for preparing students for college-entrance examinations is a very large and lucrative one. A typical large private academy teaching essay-writing in the Gangnam district of southern Seoul makes about 10 billion won a year (about $10.4 million); there are hundreds of academies there and thousands of teachers, many also working privately. Many of those teachers are former student activists. At just one academy, Eureka, about 30 percent of the essay-writing instructors had been student activists.
Many of the activists in the ’80s went to Korea’s top schools, mainly Seoul National, Yonsei and Korea universities, which are the three schools most of their current students are aiming to attend.
Lee Hae-woong, 40, the president of Eureka, is a former activist himself. He entered Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 1985 and became the vice chairman of the student council in 1988. After the police came looking for him for his involvement with a pro-North organization, Jamintong (Freedom Democracy Unification) in 1992, he spent three years on the lam. Once things with the law were cleared up, however, he had problems finding a job and eventually became an instructor teaching at a private educational institute.

“I thought I was going to do it one more year and then for another year. Now 10 years have passed,” Mr. Lee said.
Student activism was in its heyday in the 1980s, but after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union and the communist bloc disintegrated, the movement in Korea lost steam. Military juntas gave way to democratic governments, and the students, with little left to rally about, went on with their lives.
“An older student asked me to give [teaching] a chance,” said Ham Gyeong-mok, the president of Choam, when asked why he went into the business. “There’s no need to submit a resume to teach at private educational institutes.” That was one of the lures of the field: Private institutes don’t care about work experience as much as they do about their teachers’ educational backgrounds. What matters is that the teacher was accepted to a prestigious university, and not whether he or she was expelled from it later or even thrown in jail.
The major universities had stopped including essays in their admission criteria for some time, but brought the practice back in 1994 in order to better test the Korean language ability of students. That year, Choam, which specializes in teaching essay writing, was founded; Eureka followed two years later.
By 1999, the essays had become so important they could almost entirely determine whether an applicant was accepted to a top university. At that time, Choam and Eureka were sending large numbers of young students to Seoul National University.
“There were 17 students in our institution and 14 of them went to Seoul National,” said the president of Choam. “The next year, when we opened a branch in Mok-dong, western Seoul, we advertised for 240 students and 1,200 registered.”
Though the initial lure for former activists was the lack of background checks, it turned out that their background was an important factor in their success teaching writing. The reason is that student organizations often had furious debates over goals and tactics. Some advocated waging a fight against “capitalist imperialism,” while others argued the necessity of first ending Korea’s “fascist government.” Victory in those debates depended entirely on a student’s powers of persuasion.

“Being a student activist, I learned different ideologies and theories for 10 years. If I hadn’t been a student activist, it would have been impossible [to learn that],” one essay-writing instructor said. “We had the ability to persuade the public and present alternatives. We were devoted, and actively trained ourselves,” said Kang Sang-shik, the president of Hakrim, another essay-writing academy.
Because the students often found jobs through connections with older students in the same groups, the academies also tend to have clumps of instructors who were all in the same activist groups. The more radical the group was, the more some parents worry about sending their children to that institute, for fear of having their child indoctrinated with pro-communist propaganda.
Instructors, however, say the students go to essay-writing classes to learn how to write essays, not how to fight capitalism.
“The market is rational,” said Seong Min-ki, the president of Choam. “There were those kinds of concerns four or five years ago, but not anymore.”
Most of all, they argue, universities don’t like essays that are one-sided proponents of radical leftist ideology.
“Answers that are ideologically unbalanced won’t help a student get good grades,” said Lee Jae-hun, a Korea University professor who wrote essay questions for the college scholastic ability test.
“The direction of essay questions is determined by universities, not by private educational institutions,” said another instructor. “Good essay-writing schools are the ones that merge well with the aim of conservative universities.”
Asked about the criticism that former activists are taking advantage of the elitist private education boom in Korea, Mr. Lee said, “They’re talking as if we are some sort of traitors or neo-liberalists. It is not fair for anyone to ask us to be activists forever.
“In the past, if someone got a job at a conglomerate, he would have been criticized. Everyone has talent. But in real life, you’re always competing and are evaluated by how well you compete,” Mr. Lee said.
One instructor put it more succinctly: “No one can blame us for making a living.”

by Ko Jung-ae
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