[Viewpoint] Should universities serve mammon?

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[Viewpoint] Should universities serve mammon?

I have been writing columns in this space for a while and there are several subjects which I refrain from talking about. One of them is the status of universities in Korea. I thought it was difficult for me to be objective in discussing an area to which I belong, and that I had to be careful in dealing with the issue. However, a series of recent cases made me think seriously about where our universities are standing right now and where they are heading.

Three particular events drew my attention. The first one is about Kim Ye-seul, a former Korea University student who voluntarily quit school. She confessed: “At the university I could not ask who I was or what the meaning of life was. I could not even think about protesting against injustice.” As my calling is teaching students, I cannot freely endorse her decision as an act of courage. She criticized campus life, saying, “There was no friendship, no idealism and no trust between professors and students.” But as a sociologist I cannot dismiss her criticism merely as immature bravado either.

Contrast her attitude with that of a person, quoted on the Internet news site Pressian, who did not graduate from high school but passed an equivalent qualifying exam to get a diploma. “I would do absolutely anything to go to university, the very place that Kim has decided to leave,” he said. His words made me feel sad about the reality faced by some. Even though capitalism causes inequality in society, one can move up the rungs of society depending on one’s capability. However, one is expected to acquire academic credentials, which serve as an intangible asset in life, in one’s late teens. If one fails to do it at the right time, one is hardly given a second chance.

The case of Chung-Ang University is also hard to ignore. The university has been trying to change its curriculum to include a wider range of practical subjects, causing serious conflict on campus. The other day two students of the school climbed up on the Han River bridge in protest against the school’s move. One of the students shouted that he did not want his school to become a place where students would have to think only about credits to get good jobs after graduation. His opinion is perhaps not shared by a majority. Nevertheless, the value of diversity must be respected at universities whether their opinion is shared by a majority or not.

A third incident that prompted my attention was a conversation I had with a Yonhap News reporter over the phone about university culture which was described as a culture of “voluntary outsiders.” I told my assistant afterwards that students seemed to study very hard these days. He gave me a response to my explanation that surprised me. He said students stay in the library until late hours because otherwise they feel they would be left behind in competition against other students. It may look like they study hard because they want to, but they feel forced to do so because they are deeply worried about their future. Such anxiety prevails across the campus, my assistant added. While parents today worry about the threat of being fired at work, children are constantly worried about whether they can even get jobs after graduation. That is the true portrait of universities in Korea.

If we look overseas, we are not alone either. I studied at a university in Germany for five years and German universities have been restructuring themselves in order to boost their competitiveness. German universities tried for a long time to resist the values of capitalism, but the spirit of egalitarianism is being eroded. That made me realize the power of neoliberalism. In the meantime, universities in the United States, where I worked as a researcher for two years, have long been familiar with competition and now they are working even harder to enhance their competitiveness.

Enhancing the commercial competitiveness of universities is a global trend. Nonetheless, universities in Germany or the United States do not neglect basic academic fields, including humanities. Enhancing competitiveness is a requirement for universities today and searching for the truth is their primary duty. The two tasks are equally important and universities should not choose one while abandoning the other. Some may criticize my argument as being a compromise. But it isn’t. If practical subjects do not have firm academic grounds, they will soon reveal their limits. If universities attempt to search for the truth while disregarding its practical values, they will most certainly be isolated in society.

The birth of universities dates back to the late phase of the Middle Ages in the Western world. At that time even popes and kings acknowledged universities’ extraterritoriality and universities were free communities of those who searched for the truth.

I disagree with an argument that universities must remain unchanged. As knowledge exists in the context of society, the content of knowledge and the methods to acquire it must be sensitive to changes in society. However, the eternal values of universities such as truth, liberty and community must be respected at least inside campuses, and ways to reform universities to meet the changing times must also be openly and actively discussed.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Ho-ki
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