[Viewpoint] Competition is not the goalYoung students took their own lives. They were loved and were the pride of their parents and relatives. They were especially talented with numbers and physics. They were expected to make headway in the fields of science and technology. Each one had been a valuable child and life on this earth.
No human has the right to decide or the ability to predict the beginning and end of one’s life. Suicide, therefore, goes against nature. Yet, unnatural events are happening among us.
An e-mail message sent to students and staff members of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology by its president Suh Nam-pyo has raised a rumpus. He wrote that nothing can be earned in the world without paying a price and that all solutions to problems can be reached by the way one sets his or her mind and attitude.
We cannot always win, he continued, but in order to ultimately triumph, we sometimes must accept today’s defeat. There is nothing that cannot be overcome with such a determined and positive mind-set, he added.
His words are wise and proverbial. But why they came up at this particular stage, when a fourth student suicide has been reported on his campus in the first four months of this year, is questionable. Students are understandably appalled by his words of insensitivity instead of comfort. Their hearts sank when the head of their school blamed the suicides on individual weaknesses that can be conquered with strength and determination instead of trying to dissect the environmental causes.
My eyes wandered toward a book on my bookshelf, “Suicide” by French sociologist David Emile Durkheim, that has been gathering dust. The book, published in the late 1990s, saw suicides as social fallout rather than from individual perspective and was criticized by some for insensitivity and generalization.
Personally, I believe his study of suicides in social context by parsing the phenomenon’s connections between people and behavior to be refreshingly inspiring. According to Durkheim, suicides can break down to four types depending on the degree of social integration and moral regulation - egoistic, altruistic, alienation and fatalistic suicide.
All of the following can lead to the extreme measure of ending one’s life: a sense of not belonging to a community, of being overwhelmed by society’s goals and beliefs, of having moral deregulation and a lack of direction and pressure from oppressive discipline and obligation.
The recent spate of student deaths could fall into the egoistic and fatalistic suicide categories. Today’s young generation feels less connected and responsible as a member of a family, school, community and society due to the weakening of social bonds and integration. They can feel outlandish, with no one to turn to in times of darkness. They can feel abandoned, detached and resentful.
But such an extreme action can also happen when the circumstances are the opposite - in a highly motivated and group- and goal-obsessed community and a society that demands and imposes restraint and strength of mind and action. In a winner-takes-all society, losers can become whiners and feel meaningless. One can feel it is better to die than lose in such an oppressive environment.
The problem lies in the system. The system is not just the penalty of higher tuition for low academic performance. It refers to the broader social context that encompasses and dominates the life of these children. They must feel needed and feel like an indispensable part of the family, school and neighborhood.
We need a new psychological norm to replace the cliche of success and the cutthroat urban jungle survival stories. Our children must be able to grow up with a myriad of paths for happiness and self-gratification ahead of them.
Children want to talk to their parents even though it may not appear so. Their hearts yearn for parents. And, teachers should stop believing their role is limited to the elaboration of textbooks. Their pupils need teaching from the heart not the head. In a small-family society, community adults should be ready to lend an ear and help to the children. Young people must feel wanted, respected and loved. They must feel like precious and proud members of the community and society.
Our children should not be pushed and victimized in the competitive mill. They do not need to know the crude worldly rules of triumph and defeat ahead of their time in society. That can come later and naturally, when age and experience arm them with more resilience.
Teenagers step onto university campuses to broaden their mind and their perspective to become mature members of society.
Competition and winning should be the process, not the goal. This is no time for logic and lecture. We need to come down from our high horses, reach out and embrace our children. We need to take their hands tightly and tell them we are here.
*The writer is a professor of mass communication at Korea University.
By Ma Dong-hoon