[Outlook]Wisdom needs a lifetime of thought

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[Outlook]Wisdom needs a lifetime of thought

Autumn is a season for reading. However, it is difficult to go to a bookstore nowadays and find new Korean publications that deserve to be read. Most of them are reference books aimed at middle and high school readers. Or they seem to be thin on factual knowledge but still try to tell a plausible story to readers.

These books, having lost some of their freshness, are the literary equivalent of tinned food. Unlike the richness we get in thick beef soup from the slow, deliberate boiling of beef bones, these books are flat and insipid.

So reading new Korean publications calls forth no response from my heart. Book reviews in newspapers mostly cover translated books from foreign countries.

Jacques Ellul, a leading French sociologist, said that the ranking system of knowledge in the sequence from data, through information, then on to knowledge, and finally to wisdom, is collapsing. He blames this on the increasingly information-driven and knowledge-oriented society.

The transformation should be ceaseless - from data to information, from information to knowledge, and from knowledge to wisdom.

However, Ellul insists that in today’s knowledge society, knowledge does not turn itself into wisdom. The environment barely escapes from the boundary of data and information, he says. Therefore, even though a slew of data and information is exchanged on the Internet, most of it is premature or backward knowledge that cannot be considered wisdom.

Peter Drucker, widely considered to be the father of modern management, underscored the importance of knowledge management. However, the collapse of America’s leading investment and financial firms, including Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, represent that knowledge and information that do not lead to wisdom are especially vulnerable to the adverse impacts of the global financial crisis.

Therefore, Drucker’s knowledge management should more accurately be called “wisdom management.” The importance of starting the process at home is gaining strength, as it is far easier to foster the change from knowledge to wisdom this way. The problem is that today’s domestic knowledge production still lags far behind its past peak performance.

Scholars must shoulder much of the burden of responsibility for the slow progress in Korea’s knowledge industry. The most important mission of the scholar is to create a good book and write a great thesis.

However, our scholars have been churning out huge piles of theses, like factories, for their own selfish survival. Of course, they are not entirely to blame since universities force professors to write a thesis every year in the name of competition. In this context, some high-ranking officials who were once professors had their reputations sullied after being caught publishing duplicates of their scholarly papers.

Many have raised the concern that Korean professors are “thesis-writing machines” and universities “thesis-publishing factories.”

Under such a system, even a great physicist like Einstein cannot survive as a professor. The number of theses he wrote all his life is insignificant. How would he have withstood the pressure in a Korean university?

It is generally believed that only professors who write between seven and eight academic papers per annum are regarded as excellent scholars in Korean universities. But one great scholar such as Einstein, rather than hundreds of small scholars, would certainly raise Korea’s knowledge industry on a higher plane.

However, universities are still immersed in their work to mass-produce worthless scholars. Of course, in America a professor needs to write a certain number of papers so that he can retire respectably. A doctoral degree is just as good as a license that allows someone to write a thesis without the guidance of an academic adviser, much like someone who has a driving license should still practice his drive skills.

However, if he is granted retirement under the age limit, he should prepare to write an everlasting masterpiece, a great book that deserves to be read by younger scholars. A scholar should be free to pursue the truth and shift the academic focus from knowledge to wisdom.

But Korean universities seem to be satisfied with winning the exercise game. By doing so, the university moves up in the league tables, and professors can get far larger research funds.

The Brain Korea 21 project, on which the past government spent a huge amount of money, added fuel to the fire, focusing on quantity, not quality. For this reason, some of the scholars involved call it “Idiot Korea” instead.

On hearing the news that cellist Chang Han-na went back to Harvard University to study philosophy so that she can be a better performer, I feel it is appropriate to introduce a rather heavy book on philosophy here.

“Philosophical Reasoning and Pursuit for Truth,” a book written by Kim Hyong-hyo, has taught me valuable lessons about the path to scholarship. The writer presented wisdom to the reader by touching on an extensive literature of Oriental and Western philosophies. It is instructive to note that the author devoted a lifetime to complete the book.


*The writer is a professor of journalism at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Jeong-tak

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