[Viewpoint] Colleges: Accentuate the practical

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[Viewpoint] Colleges: Accentuate the practical

In an interview with a daily newspaper about a month ago, I likened liberal arts studies at universities to programs at a district office culture center. Many seemed to find my remarks disagreeable, maintaining that universities are different from vocational schools, that they should provide an education to help students develop character and to produce leaders of our society for the future. They say, therefore, that it is outrageous to select only practical subjects to be taught as liberal arts at universities.

I made the remark because when I visited the culture center at the Dongjak district office by chance after I was sworn as the chief director at Chung-Ang University, I found out that the programs at the center were similar to subjects that were taught at the university. That provoked many thoughts in me. I asked myself if it was right to teach students liberal arts at the same level as a district office cultural center when students pay so much money in tuition.

Many say the liberal arts are necessary to nurture students’ personalities. I agree to some extent. Nonetheless it is doubtful that students worked hard in high school to get into universities and learn something that they could learn at the district office cultural center. Parents probably want more than that when they pay 5 million won ($4,000) per term.

The Korean Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance asked me how I, as the president of the Korea Sports Council, can say that physical education is unnecessary at schools and try to strip physical education teachers of their jobs. Some emphasize the importance the humanities. But I have never said that physical education or other liberal arts should not be taught at schools.

Let’s take soccer as an example. For soccer to become a subject at universities, at least the rules of FIFA or the economics of the World Cup games must be taught. It is not enough to give students credit for playing soccer on the playground for a term. Students should learn the rules of international events, how soccer games are run and how profit is made from them.

Not many of them will likely have the chance to talk about soccer or baseball when they work after graduation and meet clients from other countries. But if they get familiar with the rules of Major League Baseball or the British Premier League, what is happening there and what the business structures of the leagues are like, these sports become good topics for conversation. That is liberal arts. An acquaintance of mine told me that prestigious universities in the United States that belong to the Ivy League have such subjects. I also know that, as I went to university in the United States.

We need to compete on the global stage against graduates and students of prestigious universities in the United States, and they do not need to study a second language to take Toefl tests. They do not need to serve two years of mandatory military service either.

Unless Americans learn Korean to do business with us, we need to learn English. Even though students of today speak better English, many still have difficulty with the language. To compete against Americans, Korean students should be able to communicate with them at least.

Male Korean students go to the military after they finish their first or second year at university. Spending two years in the military, they learn perseverance, tolerance, cooperation and many other things they would never learn on campus. In that sense, the military offers a good experience. But in terms of studies, things are different. When students take two years off from university, they fall behind students in other countries.

Thus, a liberal arts college here must be able to offer them a better education to compensate for the time they spend off campus. It would be more helpful to students if the current subjects were changed into more practical ones, rather than giving them credit for kicking a ball around the playground.

I asked my university to introduce some new mandatory subjects. One of them is introduction to accounting. Everything that is happening in business is related to accounting. Accounting is the basis of business. Most liberal arts students and many engineering students do not learn accounting before they get jobs. That means companies must pay to teach them accounting. They do not need to learn a higher level of accounting than business major students. However, they should be able to distinguish the debit side and the credit side, at least, and universities must give a minimum level of education in the subject.

Competition for jobs is increasingly fierce. To produce more competitive talent we need to take a longer time and put in more effort than elite schools in other countries. That is why practical liberal arts subjects are important. Students might as well play ball or make cocktails at clubs. Universities must focus on enhancing students’ competitiveness so that they can compete on the global stage. That is the right way to help our university students win the competition against elite graduates from other countries.

*The writer is the president of the Korea Sports Council and the chief director of the Chung-Ang University Foundation.

by Park Yong-sung
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