[Outlook]Teaching the nation how to learnPresident Roh Moo-hyun is a self-made man. He was born to a poor family and went to a commercial high school. He did not go to college, even though college diplomas are very commonplace these days. But he still passed the national bar exam and worked as a human rights lawyer. He was elected a lawmaker and became popular when he performed well during hearings at the National Assembly. The president before Roh also went to a commercial high school. We have had two presidents who graduated from commercial high schools. We have seen them rise to the presidency, even though they did not go to college. But Koreans are still crazy about attending universities and sending their children to universities. The trend has become excessive and unreasonable and it’s a pity that we cannot bring it to an end.
These days, the president, the government and chancellors of universities are standing against one another over government measures introduced to reform the university entrance system. The measures prohibit universities from having their own entrance exams, admitting students who donate money and giving different credits to students according to the high school they attended. One side argues that our universities can only become world-class if the current measures are lifted. Another side argues that abolition of the current measures will destroy our education system. This debate is non-sense.
Before our egalitarian education system was introduced, universities had their own exams and they allowed people who donated money to the universities to attend classes as auditors. Back then, university courses were lousy and many complained that rural parents had to sell their bulls to put their children through college. Universities have improved since then.
Let me take Seoul National University as an example. No matter how hard the country’s most prestigious university tries to recruit the smartest students, whether it holds its own entrance exam or gives weighted credits to different high schools, half of its students do not care about their courses, but concentrate on passing the national civil service examinations. Many smart students flock to medical schools. Thus, there is no point recruiting smart students in various departments. The abolition of the current measures will endow universities with the right to select and recruit students on their own, but it does not necessarily mean an improvement in the quality of universities.
Determined to stick to the current measures, President Roh said that people who have a competitive advantage demand that universities hold their own exams with unlimited competition but that many people will be unable to compete in that system, so poverty will be passed from generation to generation. His remark appears to imply that to be admitted to a university means to overcome poverty.
In 1948, a silent film titled “The Prosecutor and the Teacher” was very popular. In the movie, a woman teacher takes good care of one of her pupils, who is very smart, even though he is from a poor family. The student studies hard and passes the national bar exam. He becomes a prosecutor. Later, the teacher is falsely accused of murder, but the prosecutor wins her freedom in the court.
After we gained independence from the Japanese occupation, our traditional value system was destroyed. A new formula of working hard, passing national exams and becoming successful became the dominant cultural norm. The movie spread this recipe to the entire nation. Problems in our education are hard to resolve because this rags-to-riches fantasy is still so powerful.
Completing a degree at a prestigious university and even passing the national bar exam do not guarantee success. There are many college graduates who are unemployed, but people desperately and blindly do anything to get admitted to universities, and parents are prepared to impoverish themselves to achieve the same result.
In Korea, 85 percent of people go to college, a much higher rate than in other advanced countries. In France, the rate is 56 percent, in Japan 51 percent and in Britain 64 percent, according to data released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Let me tell you a story about a person named Lim Chae-sik. He was born in Gokseong county, South Jeolla province. He graduated from a technical high school and was employed at Posco. He worked with melted iron and flames for 30 years. Lim became a master in rolling steel and became the head of the world’s largest iron mill.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine graduated from a commercial high school. He moved to Seoul afterwards. He worked during the day and took a night course at a university. He completed a degree. He then joined the air force and worked as an aircraft mechanic.
He was discharged from the military and got a job at Korean Air as a mechanic. Now he is the CEO of the flagship carrier.
These two people have accomplished astonishing achievements through continuing education and self discipline. These are miracles.
The country and society must respect people like them and work hard to train people like them. We need to have an education system in which people do not need to go to university in order to have a happy life in their chosen career and still have the chance to advance further through on-going education.
The government must not stick to the egalitarian education system. It must differentiate students and schools. The government must draw up measures to bolster technical and vocational schools to meet the demand in the design, automobile, animation and film industries. The government cannot and must not decide everything in education.
The government must boost the best national universities in different areas across the country to educate the top 5 percent of smart people to become our competitive leaders on the global stage. The government must work hard to train the 20 to 30 percent at the bottom as key workers in industrial fields.
The education for the middle part can be left to universities. Although belated, this effort must get started soon.
*The writer is a senior editorial advisor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Nyoung-bin