[Viewpoint]Our next leader must reform education

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[Viewpoint]Our next leader must reform education

Former President Kim Dae-jung was on friendly terms with the Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union. The teachers’ union was one of his bases of political support.
In January 1999, one year after President Kim’s inauguration and the 10th anniversary of the forming of the union, the teachers union was officially recognized as a legitimate organization.
The slogan of the teachers’ union at that time, as well as now, was to level off education or make it an equal-opportunity system for everyone.
No business corporation in the world hates to monopolize the market, and no labor union on Earth will say it is in favor of competition.
No matter what it calls itself, the teachers’ union is a labor union. Although the union claims that it pursues the ideals of “balanced education” and “true education,” its actual interest is to protect the vested interests of its members, teachers and education workers.
If the principle of standardization of education is broken, the “iron bowl” of teachers who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs will be broken at the same time. That is, teachers will also have to study and compete with others, which means they’ll have to work hard.
In 2002, the last year of the Kim Dae-jung administration, however, the government quietly tried to abolish the “leveling off” policy.
President Kim Dae-jung instructed one of his close aides: “We cannot enhance national competitiveness if we let things go on like this. It is urgent for us to come up with an alternative.” He even instructed the presidential aide “to consult with the opposition Grand National Party, if necessary for the abolition of the ‘leveling off’ policy.”
These instructions did not bear fruit. “Why?” The answer is the lame duck.
The Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Roh Moo-hyun, had a clear-cut view on education. Appearing in a televised debate as a presidential candidate, Roh emphasized that “the policy on education should not be changed.”
The sway of his political power was great.
As soon as Roh was elected president, the number of people who emigrated from Korea to other countries for educational purposes and the number of families with members living apart for the sake of their children’s education abroad increased drastically, and the size of the private education market snowballed within a few years. However, the Roh administration’s education policy did not budge an inch.
Nowadays, many people ask themselves, “Why does President Roh, who had braved the risk of all sorts of protests to have a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, so stubbornly resist changing the educational policy?”
The fundamentals of the two issues are the same. That is, we have to accept competition, even if things are painful and difficult right now.
To soften the impact of the introduction of competition, the government should give due consideration to the people who have dropped out of competition and help them to live with dignity. If the fundamentals are the same, why are the responses of the president so different?
There is no way for us to know the answer to this question, because we do not know what Roh is thinking. I wonder whether his infatuation with “leveling off” education has to do with the way he was raised.
President Roh graduated from a countryside commercial high school and wandered about doing hard manual labor at one point. Then he made up his mind one day and studied hard to pass the state bar examination. He worked as a judge for a little more than a year, and then quit the court.
The state bar examination, which at that time picked very few people, was practically dominated by graduates of Kyunggi High School and Seoul National University. No matter how smart Roh might have been ― and even though he passed the state bar examination ― because he graduated from a commercial high school, Roh could not become part of the inner circles of school cronies. Therefore, he might have started to feel strong antipathy toward them. Anyone in the same situation would have felt the same way. It does not matter much, whether it was out of that personal experience, or because of his belief that the leveling off policy would improve competitiveness.
Anyway, competition in the 21st century has already started on a global level. It is not a problem related to Kyunggi High School or Seoul National University.
As it happens, now is the right time to resolve the education problem. If we want to solve the problem, we have to get the candidates for the upcoming presidential election make public pledges about education reform.
Some people put the blame for our education problems on “the selfishness of parents who only look after their own children” and “the insincerity of teachers.” Their assertions may have some grounds. But a call for higher ethical standards for teachers does not solve the problem. The illness in our education is too deeply rooted.
The race for the next president has practically started. The front runners are the former Seoul mayor, Lee Myung-bak, and Park Geun-hye, former chairwoman of the Grand National Party. The two politicians have made public pledges that they will promote the construction of a Seoul-Busan canal or a Korea-China train-ferry if elected to the presidency. What a pity, though. The entire nation is finding it difficult even to breathe because of our education problem; “canals” and “ferries” sound like visions of a distant country.
I ask politicians who want to be president, regardless of their political affiliation, to heed the following appeal.
It is fine with me that you want do something for the future of the nation, but first solve the problems that the nation currently faces. Please bring a new solution to our education problem.
Anyone who can solve the education problem is more than qualified to become the president of the Republic of Korea.
I want to see a president who truly agonizes over the problems of education in Korea.

*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Chong-hyuk
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