[Viewpoint] Schools are victims of populism

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[Viewpoint] Schools are victims of populism

The writer is a professor of education at Chung-Ang University
Controversy rages as the Education Ministry’s plan to reform foreign language high schools has been revealed. The association of principals of the 30 foreign language high schools nationwide made clear that it will not accept the ministry’s reform measure and threatened to take legal action against it.

It will take some time before the ministry makes its final decision, but the two proposals presented at public discussion sessions by the ministry’s research team both called for foreign language high schools to be scrapped or to wither away slowly.

The first proposal would adjust the number of students and facilities at foreign language high schools to match those of science schools. Under that plan, the number of students would drop to less than half the current number. Private foreign language high schools that are dependent upon students’ tuitions would have to shut down.

The second proposal would shut down all foreign language high schools and reform them into one of three categories: international schools, self-regulated schools or ordinary high schools. This plan does not even deserve a second look.

Until now, the controversy surrounding foreign language high schools was focused on shutting them down or reforming them. Those who no longer wanted the schools said they were the root cause of the expensive private tutoring in Korean society. Those who wanted to keep them said it was necessary to change the admissions process of the foreign language high schools, while giving high points to the educational programs provided by the schools.

The recent public discussion session, however, gave the impression that the Education Ministry will side with the former group. The official in charge of the matter already made it clear that foreign language high schools cannot just change their titles and carry out minor reforms. The ministry probably feels uneasy because the ruling party lawmaker who prompted this controversy has called the research team’s proposals “stopgap measures” and warned that the National Assembly would have to take decisive action.

It is not necessary to discuss the foreign language high schools’ contributions to the nation’s rigid framework for standardized education, with their elite students and flexible curriculums. Explaining those contributions would fall on deaf ears for those who want to shut the schools down.

I just want to point out that the controversy has become too political. The concerned ruling party lawmaker called the foreign language high schools an evil of our society and wants to seem like a hero by eradicating them. Opposition lawmakers who have insisted on shutting down the schools since the last administration are probably enjoying the situation in silence.

Are foreign language high schools really the root cause of the expensive private tutoring in our society? If the fate of a certain school will be determined solely based on whether it encourages private education, then Seoul National University must be the first to be shut down. Not only foreign language high schools, but also self-regulated schools and science schools give reasons for private education - and that is a widely accepted view.

Those who are against the foreign language high schools have also complained that not many of the students actually major in languages at universities. That’s another absurd argument. Why should foreign language high school graduates be limited to language-related fields? That is an enormous restriction on the students’ freedom. Furthermore, excellent foreign language abilities are critical for other fields such as foreign affairs, trade and international law.

In the end, politicians who hope to bring about the end of the foreign language high schools have problems with the schools because they send more students to prestigious universities. They appear to think their campaign against the foreign language high schools will be a good way to earn votes from parents who are jealous of others whose children attend elite schools.

The campaign may work for populist politicians. It is, however, not the right thing to do for a fair politician to take advantage of the people’s jealousy. What we want from them are not populist education policies, but a vision for the country’s future and a plan to nurture talent. Politicians who are campaigning against the foreign language high schools must remember that.

Complaints have also grown that critics of the foreign language high schools were included on the research team commissioned by the Education Ministry. The fairness of the research can be questioned in the future. It would have been better for the Education Ministry to look into the matter directly and try to come up with solutions rather than commission an outside institute to deal with this sensitive issue.

*The writer is a professor of education at Chung-Ang University
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Sung-ho
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