[Korea’s 60th Anniversary Special Contributions]No longer ‘frogs in a well’

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[Korea’s 60th Anniversary Special Contributions]No longer ‘frogs in a well’

Horace H. Underwood served six years as executive director of the Fulbright program in Korea until 2004. Previously Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University, Underwood spent most of his professional life working in Korea and in international education. The son of missionary parents, he grew up in Korea. He is a member of the board of directors of the Yonsei University Foundation.



For the first 50 years of its existence, the Republic of Korea was in the role of “student,” learning from the world, sending its best and brightest people overseas to study and return.

In the past 10 years Korea has changed its position in global education and has begun to take the role of teacher as well as learner. While the process is incomplete, and one can hope that Korea will never cease to learn the best that the world has to offer, learning is no longer just a one-way street.

Students of the world are coming to Korea to learn the latest technology, successful business methods, art, architecture and culture. The Republic of Korea in the 21st century, 60 years after its establishment as a poor and undeveloped country, is now a well-known and well-respected member of the international community of nations and is truly beginning to “teach the world.”

Centuries ago in the Unified Silla Dynasty Korea was thoroughly internationalized and integrated into the Chinese world culture of Tang China. Leading Korean scholars and poets communicated with and traveled to Tang China and considered themselves part of the Chinese cultural and educational world. Later, in the Goryeo Dynasty that harmonious relationship was disrupted by Mongol occupation. The Joseon Dynasty from its beginnings in 1392 sought to ward off foreign political and military influence in Korea by cutting off all contact with the outside world; thus began 500 years of the “Hermit Kingdom.”

During the Joseon Dynasty Confucianism and the Chinese classics became the fundamental basis of education, but such dominance of a foreign (Chinese) philosophy was not accompanied by openness to other foreign ideas or people.

When Korea was finally “opened” to the West in the 1880s, Korean culture received a great shock which resulted in the opening of Korean education as well. That opening from the very beginning took the form of Korean students going out of Korea to study. As early as 1885, Seo Jai-pil (who used the English name Philip Jaisohn) became the first “study abroad” student, going eventually to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He was followed by a long series of famous individuals, including Syngman Rhee, Paik Nak-jun (L. George Paik, later president of Yonsei University), and a host of other students starting in the 1890s.

The number of Koreans studying abroad remained quite small, however, until after the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948. As the new republic poured scarce resources into education for all citizens at the elementary level, higher-level students sought the best education possible, which at that time was overseas.

After the Korean War, the number of Korean students going overseas grew to a flood. In fact, the expertise brought back to Korea by students who had earned doctorates in the U.S. is widely credited with helping Korea’s growth and economic development from the 1960s onward.

The number of Koreans studying abroad continued to grow through the following decades. More recently, Korea has been listed in “Open Doors,” the annual U.S. statistical book of international students in America as third in university enrollment in the U.S., just behind China and India (which have immensely larger populations.) If pre-university education is included, South Korea has more foreign students in the United States than any other country in the world.

This immense flood of internationalization for Korea was entirely a one-way process - students went OUT of Korea, but few international students came into Korea. Korean internationalization was a one-way process, outbound only.

Korea’s profound belief in a homogeneous Korean nation had discouraged thinking that foreigners should be encouraged to study in Korea. The economics of a poor war-ravaged country were such that few foreigners considered Korea to have much worth studying.

The culture of Korean isolation meant that Koreans considered themselves to be like “a frog in a well.” This well-known Korean image is clear and emotionally satisfying; Koreans automatically “know” that the solution to the frog’s problem (seeing only a small patch of water and a small patch of sky) is to go out of the well. This view effectively prevented Koreans from thinking that another solution for the frog is to invite other frogs into the well. Thus Korean students (the “frogs”) went out of the well (Korea) in immense numbers, but at first very few Korean educators thought it important to establish programs to invite foreign people to learn from or in Korea.

For instance, there were 39,000 Koreans studying in the U.S. in 1990 but there were only 410 Americans studying in Korea that year. As late as 1998, while 87 percent of the nonmedical faculty of Yonsei University had doctorates from outside Korea, only two of its 600 tenured faculty were non-Korean.

Exchange programs were imbalanced, as more Korean students wanted to study overseas than there were foreign students who wanted to study in Korea. Despite fear of an “invasion” of foreign universities, in fact no branch campus of any non-Korean university was able to establish itself in Korea.

There had always been a small trickle of foreigners who wanted to learn about Korea - missionaries, U.S. Army veterans, Peace Corps volunteers - but their numbers were always small, very small. Korean internationalization was one-way internationalization.

The process whereby Korea has come to “teach the world” began with that small trickle of missionaries, military and Peace Corps alumni. A few Korean universities in Seoul, typically private universities with Christian backgrounds, began soon after the Korean War to open programs for international students. In 1966 Yonsei University began an “International Division” for incoming exchange students, though the number of students was very small (never more than 10 per year for the first 20 years).

While most international scholarship programs focused on providing funds for Korean students to study overseas (largely in the United States), a few programs such as the Fulbright program also provided funds for American students coming to Korea for research. Fulbright Korea’s goal has long been to achieve a rough balance between the flow of Korean grantees going to the U.S. and U.S. grantees coming to Korea.

The list of American scholars of Korean studies who have benefited from Fulbright grants is a roll call of the leading academics in the field, and Fulbright continues to this day to provide funding for Americans who want to learn from Korea.

By the late 1980s Korea’s economic miracle had become widely known throughout the world, and so the number of international students wishing to study Korean business and economics easily exceeded the numbers studying Korean history and culture. In 1996 the Ministry of Education made substantial grants to universities for the development of “international human resources,” and another seven graduate schools of international studies were opened in Korea, attracting more international graduate students. Throughout Korea, universities were welcoming international students by establishing special summer programs, academic year exchange programs and graduate programs. By 1998, 10 years ago, Korea had begun to teach the world.

A number of Korean presidents have spoken of the importance of internationalization, but often the concept appeared to be more words than action. But in fact over the decade since 1998 there has been genuine change. Indeed, Korean universities seem to be changing faster than Korean society as a whole. The number of international students, international agreements, and international programs has quietly grown and influenced all of academe.

The internationalization of education in the Republic of Korea is turning out to be a remarkable modification of 500 years of history and culture in just 10 years.

Perhaps the most remarkable development in the internationalization of Korean education, the change easiest to see on Korean campuses, has been the growth in the number of international students in Korea. Korea has begun holding its own “study abroad” fairs in recent years, particularly in China and Vietnam, as well as recruiting and welcoming students from countries around the world. As a result, there is no longer any Korean university without a contingent of foreign students, a situation unimaginable in previous years. The number of international students in Korea has grown from only a few hundred 10 years ago (and most of them in short-term study such as exchange programs or language study) to thousands, mostly in graduate degree programs.

Indeed, with the decline of the college-age population in Korea and the tendency of Koreans to go overseas for graduate study, many Korean institutions are discovering (as U.S. universities have discovered before them) that international graduate students, particularly in science and engineering, make the difference between a weak department and a strong graduate program.

In 2004 the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development promulgated the “Study Korea Project,” which signaled a fundamental change in many decades of Korean government policy toward international education. The Study Korea Project said explicitly and emphatically: “The focus of Korean governmental policies regarding international education is geared to recruiting foreign students to Korea, rather than sending Korean students abroad.”

For this new model of inbound international education, the Ministry set a goal of having 50,000 international students in Korea by the year 2010. In August, what is now the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology had to set a new goal of goal of 100,000 international students by 2012, because the old goal of 50,000 had already been met in 2007, three years ahead of schedule.

Korea is a rich country now, within the ranks of rich countries by every measure including the United Nations’ ranking of national economies. As Korea is now a rich country, it is symbolic and appropriate that the international relationships of its university education system should change from an emphasis on one-way study abroad to a two-way mutual exchange of learning, an exchange of people and ideas with other countries, to the benefit of both.

by Horace H. Underwood served six years as executive director of the Fulbright program in Korea until 2004. Previously Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University, Underwood spent most of his professional life working in Korea and in international education. The son of missionary parents, he grew up in Korea. He is a member of the board of directors of the Yonsei University Foundation.

by Horace H. Underwood
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