[Viewpoint] Universities should redefine role

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[Viewpoint] Universities should redefine role

College application season arrives with the cold spell in Korea. Korean students recorded the highest rate - 58 percent - among members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in getting into colleges or universities.

There is a college applicant in every other house every year. The topic of which college a child applied to and attended dominates conversation. Higher education becomes the center of the universe for all parents with high school students during the winter season.

But the problem is that colleges are under the spotlight only during the application and admission periods. Once students make it into college, parents pay little attention to higher-education institutions despite paying the world’s fourth-highest private tutorial costs to prepare their children for admission.

It doesn’t matter what colleges can do for students and society as long as our children can set foot on their campuses. Our people are obsessed with the status and the name of universities, not the essence and content of higher education.

The faculty agonizes over their lectures and what students should learn at university. I experimented with free-response essays instead of question-and-answer term exams. Students were asked to choose a topic among the themes they learned over the term and study on their own. Graduates students were encouraged to pick the theme for their thesis.

Obviously, my students weren’t happy and gave their lecturer a poor evaluation. Few graduate students were able to finish their paper and graduate on time.

Students are skilled in summarizing and memorizing what their teachers teach, but they are unaccustomed to taking the initiative in forming and building on their own ideas. But slowly and gradually, my students are making progress.

Universities must set the direction and impetus for secondary education. The popular education of today won’t do. In medieval times, children under 12 years learned primarily grammar lessons that incorporated history, social studies, philosophy, science, technology and the liberal arts. In secondary academies, students from 13 to 17 years of age studied logic to form arguments based on what they learned in the lower division. In higher-education institutions, students over 18 entered the stage of rhetoric where they trained to recreate and challenge teachings in their specialized field.

Creativity sprouts from self-introspection and gaining a distinctive individual voice and can contribute to setting the direction and providing the answers to science and technology, social systems, governance and human relations. Modern European society flourished based on such an in-depth education system.

Some argue that universities must train and turn out talents fit for the corporate environment. But universities should not become training centers to supply manpower to the corporate sector. They must be learning grounds to nurture innovation, which can later be applied by graduates in their chosen career fields.

The corporate future would be bright if universities could teach and foster talent who can see beyond the trees to see the forest of society and industry.

People inside and outside universities must seriously ruminate on the role of higher education, which serves as the bridge between protected secondary learning and the realm of real application in society, the corporate sector and the nation.

Universities must take the initiative in developing creative education programs that can inspire and shake up the nation’s moribund secondary education system as well as society and the corporate world, which have for too long been accustomed to rote, quantitative learning. The government and corporate sector must applaud and support colleges in their efforts to foster innovative future-oriented talent.

I sincerely hope the day will come when universities are envied and adored by the entire population throughout the year.

*The writer is a professor of mass communications at Korea University.

By Ma Dong-hoon
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