[Viewpoint] Listen to pleas of the studentsThree decades ago, when Korea’s military dictatorship was cut short, some professors sat down with their students in a campus room. My peers and I were bold and angry. One of us asked the teaching staff, “Where were you when young students engulfed themselves in flames in protest at the dictatorship?”
The second one was more straightforward. “Weren’t you playing baduk (Korean chess)?” he asked looking pointedly at a professor known for his passion for the game. The professor murmured with his eyes down, “I won’t play anymore.” The third asked, “What should we do in order not to make sure our friends did not die in vain?” A senior professor finally answered: “Make history.” Upon this comment, we all decided that we needed a drink.
University campuses 30 years later are far more sophisticated and colorful, though devoid of the pain and rage that typically encompassed young intellectuals in the past. I have joined the near-senior group of lecturers and every time I advise students against fretting too much over how to make a living after graduation, they give me that look - “It’s easy for you to say. You’ve made it.”
That zeitgeist has long gone out of fashion on college campuses. A book by one of my university colleague’s was motivated by concerns for students missing out on the prerogatives of the young age. His words of wisdom and comfort reach out to the restless young people who are in agony not because of existential rumination or satirical questioning about life’s hypocrisy and paradoxes, but because of the fear of being left behind on the social ladder or not making it in the cutthroat social jungle.
I do not want to speak for Suh Nam-pyo, president of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, currently in hot water over a series of suicides on his campus. If his notorious punitive policy of penalizing poor academic performance with higher tuition fees was adopted in other top-tier schools in Seoul, we would have had a dozen student deaths in our hand. To today’s young people who have not learned to stand up to defeat and disgrace, such a humiliating stigma sent them to self-pity and the grave.
In the days ripe with that zeitgeist - spirit of the time - and rebellious pursuit for a higher goal, personal worries had been a luxury. The young mind and spirit had been too engrossed with the quest for light to prevail over the darkness in society. Today’s young intellectuals should recall the cries of past martyrs of historical purpose and eschew the pitfall of degeneration and weakness while serving the vain prizes of the time.
To Kaist students’ outcry that their school lacks philosophy and only demands factory-like efficiency, their president responded with a no-nonsense textbook theory.
Suh was of the generation who believed strong mind and labor could conquer any stress and challenge.
But such youthful fortitude has long expired and Suh’s words are no more than nagging from the old school. The young people need a new, higher goal to fulfill their spiritual void.
To a domineering and result-obsessed university president, the needs and calls from the students and lecturing faculty may be insignificant.
The teaching staff have no voice at Kaist, where a council of professors does not exist. Some have left, appalled by the top-down administrative system and a popular biology professor hanged himself due to frustration and stress.
It remains questionable how creativeness and innovation can spring from lectures taught in English and how shoving unilateral yardsticks to special talents in robot technology and math can help hone the science and technology standards of this country.
Students would have desired a dean who mourned for the dead and offered words of comfort instead of advice for strong wills.
The spate of student deaths at Kaist underscores the crime that the generation that prides itself as the hero of the rags-to-riches miracle has committed upon the younger generation. We may have pushed and drove the young to the prison of obsession over high performance with a nothing-comes-free-philosophy from the impoverished days. We may have whipped them to climb over high social barriers and looked away when they fell down from the social ladder.
The bitter pill to swallow is that we adults have failed in teaching our younger generation to challenge and endeavor to make their world better. We, as the generation who raged against the injustice of the time, floundered in leaving behind a better legacy. The future of today’s young generation is up to those who now dominate power, riches and intelligence. But to our chagrin, we have done little to fill up the spiritual reserves for our later generation. There are none among us who can spur inspiration and hope for the young.
If we have any respect for the dead, we should look upon ourselves for our part in the insensitivity, selfishness and negligence in failing to show the younger generation what the common goodness is, how to share the burden of duress and how to embrace the weaker.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun