[OUTLOOK]Old scholars never dieSlowly but steadily, the history of Korean contemporary higher education is getting deeper and weightier. Some private universities that started off as professional schools have already surpassed their centennial mark and national universities that were established after Korea’s independence will soon mark 60 years of education. Another phenomenon reflecting the passing of time is the number of senior scholars that have retired during the past decade.
Recently, however, a small number of elder scholars have been proving that age doesn’t slow them down by actively performing on the academic stage. Scholars publishing their studies is nothing to be surprised at, despite the fact that many of them have passed retirement age.
The real reason behind the recent interest lies somewhere else. First of all, the activities of these elders is a lesson to us all as most of them participated in the beginning stages of college education in Korea.
Secondly, they are able to tell a touching story by connecting their journeys in education with personal experiences during Korea’s contemporary history.
A couple of weeks ago, comprehensive social scientist and professor Kwon Tai-joon published a book titled “Looking Back at Korea’s Century.” In it, Mr. Kwon expressed his concerns over modern-day intellectuals who are bogged down in ideological debates about Korea’s past.
For example, he points out that approaching the post-independence and Korean War period with nationalistic or hierarchical viewpoints is completely unrealistic and unhelpful in understanding a period when the entire nation was struggling to survive.
In the same context, it is unproductive to academically criticize President Syngman Rhee’s “pro-U.S. diplomacy policy” or Park Chung Hee’s developmental dictatorship, when scholars should be debating the everyday lives of people in this age of globalization.
Professor and pedagogy great Chung Bom-mo earlier this year subtitled his book “The Conditions of Studies”, with the question “Are Academic Studies Possible in Korea?”
In that book, Mr. Chung reflected that the situation at universities was more hopeful and dynamic back in the 1950s than it’s now.
Despite their small paychecks, professors enthusiastically prepared for classes while students studied diligently in makeshift buildings, overcoming poverty and hunger. But he points out that the general mindset in academic society has weakened and that while it has become easier to find people prepared to sell knowledge, it has become more and more difficult to find those seeking it.
Of course, intellectuals should not put a barrier between themselves and the outside world. There are times when society requires them to actively participate. Who can belittle the role that scholars played in the fight for democracy during the military dictatorship?
In that sense, Professor Chi Myong-kwan, who released his autobiography “Traveler who Crossed the Boundary” a few months ago, is one of the representative scholors who fit the title of critical scholars with an active role in society.
The fact that he led the committee that prepared President Roh Moo-hyun’s inaugural speech is worth noting. What makes Mr. Chi stand out, however, is that he openly stated that he had decided to leave the president’s camp. That was due to his belief that the current administration had committed an irreversible failure by dividing the Korean people.
The nation’s academic society has gone through a confusing period since 1980 that can be compared to its own “cultural revolution,” and this has intensified since the beginning of the current administration. Under the flag of “progressive studies,” some scholars have teamed up with those in power and are confusing the public with vulgar ideas and concepts. Even if we accept the so-called “386 generation scholars”, the scene of older scholars trying to take advantage of the situation and selling their souls by trying to match the government’s code makes us junior scholars feel shameful.
However, the increasing number of elder scholars who continue to actively guard the rightful position of intellectuals and scholarship is pleasing and pleasant to know. It seems that old soldiers never die nor do they fade away.
In fact, they continue to prove that they are strong despite the passing of time. This seems like the highest gift to be awarded to intellectuals who have won in the test of their consciences, constancy and internal freedom.
* The writer is a professor of sociology, graduate school of environment studies, Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jun Sang-in