[Viewpoint] How ivory towers start crumbling

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[Viewpoint] How ivory towers start crumbling

The fate of a country depends on its leaders. If the leaders are honest and vigorous, their country prospers; when leaders are complacent with their wealth and privileges, their country falls. The Roman Empire dominated all of Europe but ultimately receded to the Italian peninsula because its leaders indulged in luxury and dissipated lifestyles. Both the Mongol Empire, which ran across the Asian continent, and the Ming Dynasty, which ruled mainland China, collapsed because their leaders became loose mentally and morally. This rule applies across longitudes, latitudes and centuries.

During the Joseon Dynasty, noblemen were leaders of the country and their full-time occupation was studying and ruling the country. These noblemen dedicated themselves to learning, as Confucianism required them to do, and served the subjects as statesmen. They developed politics along ethical lines. Apprehensive that leaders such as kings or that royal family members may become corrupt, the Joseon Dynasty had three special bodies: the Office of the Inspector General, the Office of the Censor General and the Office of Special Advisers. Those who worked at these agencies were not high-ranking officials but even senior officials were afraid of them because these institutions had the power to impeach or fire. Those offices were the pillars that supported noblemen of high integrity.

Translated into today’s terms, such officials are prosecutors and professors. In the Joseon Dynasty, officials tried to enhance justice in society by preventing wrongdoing, keeping public morals and helping those who were falsely accused. Scholars sought the truth in both heaven and earth and tried to attain purity of mind. Even though these occupations were not lucrative in the least, talented minds with integrity pursued such careers because it was a noble occupation to seek justice and truth.

Recently, it was revealed that some prosecutors received bribes from a “sponsor” and some professors lied about their theses. MBC producers investigated prosecutors at the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office and KBS aired an in-depth expose on professors at Seoul National University. Their reports unveiled some shocking truths. It was as if the officers at the Joseon Dynasty’s Office of the Inspector General were so corrupt that they became the objects of impeachment, and that the Office of Special Advisers plagiarized. It is only natural and right that the entire population condemn these officials vehemently.

There is no hope for the country when an endless line of prosecutors accepts bribes and professors plagiarize. These practices continue on and on probably because they are so deep-rooted in the system. Any chief of an organization or a department knows how difficult it is to boost the morale of the people under him. If a boss only pushes his employees and doesn’t treat them to meals or drinks, it is quite unlikely that the people who report to him actually listen to him or work hard for him.

Some prosecutors need to confront brutal criminals and gang members, and they need to become just as tough. These prosecutors might need strong alcohol to soften their own temperaments. This makes it easy for someone to penetrate the system and offer bribes. The prominent Joseon-era thinker Jeong Yak-yong wrote “Mokminsimseo,” or “Criticisms and Advice on Governing the People,” which explained how magistrates should not get too close to the people of their county or petty officials there.

Meanwhile, professors compete in the realm of knowledge and truth. If a professor’s ideas get mixed with parts of a pupil’s dissertation, it is unclear whose thesis it is. Professors often plagiarize or report that they wrote several theses when they only completed one. As this malpractice has not been strictly controlled nor prohibited, one wonders how many professors have been able to remain honest. I once quoted writing by Jeong In-ji, a scholar in the late Joseon Dynasty: “Even the sound of wind, a crane, a hen and a dog can be written with letters.” The scholar, however, plagiarized this from Zheng Qiao, a historian during the Song Dynasty of China.

Such practices among professors and prosecutors may go back a long time. But it doesn’t mean they should get away with it. Principles and the truth are fundamentals for these occupations, and if they fall from grace, it’s only a matter of time before not only the leadership but the entire society becomes corrupt. A prosecutor whispered to his sponsor that their bond was strong, making us all shiver. A professor says in self-defense that there is no one who can be truly free from this accusation if rules are strictly applied. This is truly shameful. How can this vicious cycle be broken? Just as it has been for all of civilization, having individuals live up to strict standards is the most effective measure. Prosecutors and professors must have the capacity to inspect themselves. As they have failed to do so, they have to bow to the people to seek forgiveness.

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

By Song Ho-keun
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