[Viewpoint]Me-first educationThe election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States has created a wave of emotions that moved the entire world. This is probably because people see the possibility of real “change” in Obama, whose father was black and whose mother was white. He overcame all the obstacles that blocked the way of someone outside the mainstream and rose to the position of leading the United States. Obama’s is the story of a youth who once strayed from the right path and even tried drugs, finding his identity and going to Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He enters the political world, starts a wind of change and at the young age of 47 finally becomes the president of the United States. Obama’s story is like a television drama. The fact that a black American was elected president with majority support in the United States shows the tolerance of American society and its capacity to right itself.
There are many reasons behind Obama’s success, but one of the main factors allowing a non-mainstream politician to travel the road to the White House is probably because he is a graduate of both Columbia and Harvard universities. Ivy League universities like Harvard and Columbia are typical elite training institutions in the United States. Even extreme racists who doubt the intellectual capacity of black people might have been at a loss for words when they learned Barack Obama was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. The fact that Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, studied at Princeton University and went to graduate school at Harvard definitely reassured the white middle class, who are the actual mainstream of U.S. society.
In fact, prestigious private U.S. universities like Harvard and Princeton support the prevailing societal order, reinforcing their roles in that order. Graduates of these universities advance to the financial or political world and create strong human connections, which they exercise to help each other.
Robert B. Reich, who served as the secretary of labor under former President Bill Clinton, said in his book, “The Future of Success,” published in 2001: “To tell the truth, the true value of a university education in terms of getting a job is related more to the people you meet at university rather than what you learn [there]. ... The advantage of getting an education at an Ivy League university is more in the personal connections at the university than in their huge library or skilled professors.”
Although Ivy League universities preserve the existing prerogatives of a society, they also serve as a conduit for the weak to enter the mainstream, as we can see in the case of the Obamas. This is perhaps one of the important reasons why American society maintains its health despite defects.
The true power of prestigious U.S. universities, like Harvard, is in that they admit talented students regardless of family background or educational environment and train them to become people who can lead the trends of change in society. Needless to say, Harvard is the university that produces the largest number of scientific theses in the world. It is also the world’s richest university with the largest amount of development funds. However, I think what is even more powerful than this external power is the powerful role it plays as a societal melting pot.
Are Korean universities maintaining a healthy society like these U.S. universities do? In the past, Korean universities provided opportunities for those at the bottom of society, although their efforts were not fully satisfactory. Recently, however, they give the impression that they strengthen the rights of the dominant group and fail to provide those at the bottom of society the chance to rise up the social ladder.
For example, even prestigious private universities do not seriously contemplate how to set standards for selecting students. They appear to be more interested in getting higher ranks on the university charts at cram schools in Gangnam so that they can admit only the top students.
Some universities openly advertise preparation courses for medical or dental graduate school or law school, giving people the impression that university exists solely to prepare students for a comfortable life. Of course, this could be the result of past situations in which universities were unable to pursue individual excellence due to extreme government interference. However, one cannot deny that a lack of imagination and sense of responsibility at universities also plays a part in this phenomenon. Isn’t it time for Korean universities to become aware of the public aspect of a university education and think more seriously about the effects of student selection and education curricula on society?
*The writer is a physics professor and dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Oh Se-jung