[LETTERS to the editor]Why are American colleges so popular?South Koreans make up the third-biggest group of foreign students attending American colleges, and the number of Korean applicants to the colleges is consistently rising. Many people bemoan the phenomenon because an increase in students registering in American universities leads to a decrease in students registering in Korean universities. Before complaining, let us take a close look at how American universities were born.
Although the 18th-century Enlightenment greatly contributed to generating interest in higher education, such enthusiasm was long in the making. Colonists had emphasized the importance of education, despite difficult access to schools, by at least teaching their children to read and write. A 1647 Massachusetts law which required every town to support a public school became the forerunner of government-supported education. While many communities failed to comply with the law, a decent network of educational establishments emerged. Widows and unmarried women conducted “dame schools” in their homes, while Quakers and other religious groups ran church schools. In addition, master craftsmen opened evening schools for their apprentices. Although eagerness to advance the family into a higher class was a large reason for the early passion for education, religious reasons were also dominant. Colonists in New England, in particular, emphasized education for religious purposes. These colonists were usually devout Puritans who thought education was necessary in order to read and understand the Bible and live according to its teachings.
Universities and colleges were the final and marvellous products of such educational efforts. Universities and colleges in colonial America displayed the best examples of the intermixture of the influences of traditional religiosity and the new spirit of the Enlightenment. By 1763, six colleges were in operation, four of them founded for the purpose of training preachers. Yet, all of the schools were somewhat influenced by new scientific and rational approaches to knowledge. Harvard, which was established in 1636 by the General Court of Massachusetts, was the first college in colonial America. Next came William and Mary College (1693), Yale (1701) and the College of New Jersey (1746), later renamed Princeton. All four colleges were founded mainly as training centers for ministers but they adopted a liberal education (for example, offering instruction in logic, ethics, astronomy and Latin) in addition to theology. Two colleges established later ― King’s College (1754), later renamed Columbia and the College of Philadelphia (1755), later renamed University of Pennsylvania ― were, unlike their predecessors, secular institutions.
This was how American schools at the college level first appeared. Over time, these institutions consistently improved themselves with the government and the people assisting their development, and they ultimately served as models for later universities and colleges. The first six American colleges mentioned above are now some of the best schools in the world.
Most of today’s Korean colleges were established abruptly during national disorder, whereas American colleges emerged gradually and naturally. Korean universities should take a careful look at the origins of American universities that laid the basis for America’s position as the leading country in college education today. Koreans should note that what makes American universities so successful is their primary focus on how well they prepare their students for the real world, which many Korean universities fail to do.
by Andrew Taesup Park