[Viewpoint] A warning for President Obama

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[Viewpoint] A warning for President Obama

Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
Dear President Obama, I am writing to express my gratitude and concerns with regard to your continued praise for Korean education. I am one of the teachers instructing students in that field here.

In March, you urged American educators to work harder, noting that Korean children are in school for over a month longer than American children each year. You said that Americans should use the Korean educational system as a model, and students should also work to get their television viewing and Internet use under control.

In the last 15 days, you have made three comments on education here. You might have heard from the Korean president about the country’s educational system during your visit last month, and you said that you envied local parents’ passion for education when you announced your education reform program at the White House.

At the jobs summit and the Pennsylvania town hall meeting on economic recovery, you constantly mentioned the educational enthusiasm of Korea as you discussed your administration’s reforms to schools, which you called more intense than those of previous presidents.

First of all, I greatly appreciate your positive evaluation of Korean education.

At the same time, I feel embarrassed and awkward about the reality here, which does not exactly deserve your praise.

It is hard to decide if we should smile or cry at your comments. It just confirms that education is one of the most challenging national tasks in the United States and Korea alike.

Instead of debating whether the comments of the U.S. president are an expression of friendliness toward Korea or political rhetoric, as some political commentators here have argued, it would be more beneficial to take your praise as an opportunity for retrospection and improvement, by calmly reviewing whether Korean education is indeed worthy of benchmarking by the United States and our other neighbors.

As is widely known, American missionaries came to this country 125 years ago and established the foundation for the modern Korean educational system, along with the introduction of Western medicine.

A public advertising campaign for medical insurance reads, “In 1885, Americans founded the Western medical center called Gwanghyewon. A century later, the Western world is paying attention to Korea’s medical insurance system.” It is an expression of pride about our advances in health care - but health care is not the only field in which this country has made great progress.

The times have changed, and the president of the country that introduced modern education to Korea is now trying to inspire its citizens to learn from Korean education.

However, we have yet to express our sincere gratitude to the United States for making such a critical contribution to the enlightenment of Korea so many years ago. Koreans are forever indebted to your country for coming here as a part of the United Nations forces and making countless sacrifices to defend us.

Mr. President, you said there was so much to learn from Korean education, but I beg you not to emulate unhealthy organizations like the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union.

It is true that the fierce educational passion and devotion of parents here have been the driving forces for Korea’s transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world - after the disgraceful experience of Japanese occupation and the tragedy of the Korean War - into a model country that has successfully instituted both liberal democracy and a market economy in only half a century.

However, please do not attempt to replicate our educational system, which only emphasizes professional education and neglects character education.

I also have a favor to ask you. You might cross paths with the president of Korea again this week at the Copenhagen climate conference.

If you two meet, please discuss the inclusion of “green education” in the main agenda at the G-20 summit meeting scheduled to be held in Korea next year.

After all, education is the engine of the economy, and the global challenge of green economic growth in particular will not be possible without green education.

You successfully instructed your two daughters not to be addicted to the Internet, so please give President Lee Myung-bak a few tips on your methods of character education.

This month we celebrate the beautiful season when the true teacher of humankind was born. I wish you happy holidays.


*The writer, a former president of Sungkyul University, is a poet.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Seong-yeong

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