Turn page on time-worn systemLet us open the book of history on Korean education. The first chapter starts with the days under the Japanese colonial rule. The concept of imperial higher education stood at the forefront of the aggressive modernization and militarization campaign in modern Japan. People were used as agents to achieve the national goal of turning the country strong and powerful in the Meiji period. Students were grouped into liberal arts or natural sciences categories for the convenience of education administration, a model that was directly implanted in the Korean colony. The Kyungsung Imperial University, now Seoul National University, for its first admitted class in 1924, selected 90 applicants for the liberal arts department and 80 for the natural sciences. Among them, 29 and 16 Korean nationals were accepted in the respective departments.
Following liberation in 1945, the American education system was mixed into the Japanese model. Thus, the Korean education system is a fossil engraved with marks of modern history. It is a rock that survived after being reshaped and transformed numerous times from the tumultuous winds and storms that swept the nation. That is how we arrived at today’s tragic deformed shape.
The legacy of the colonization days, when people merely served as agents for the national goal, poses a tough question for young and immature students fresh in high schools - what are you better at and what do you want to do with your life? Students without time to contemplate on their talents and future must decide whether they fit into the liberal arts or natural sciences. Once separated, they cannot cross over to the other side. They are stamped forever - as either a liberal arts or natural sciences student. Instead of opening up a wide range of opportunities in academic and career pursuits, this type of education system sets boundaries and triggers intense rivalry between the two sections.
During liberal arts class early in the semester, I ask students why they chose their major. Their answers make my heart burn. One said he wanted to study history but could not because he was in the natural sciences division and had to settle for engineering. Another said he was more of a natural sciences character, but chose liberal arts and inevitably had to apply for any major his scores allowed.
These young students have yet to step into the journey of their adult life. This is why they are called students. How many high school students are sure about their future and ready to take the responsibility for their choices? What makes us restrict and define their destiny at such an age? Why do we cut out half of their world so early on? Why steal their rights to pursue individuality and happiness when they are too young to decide?
In Korea, civilians are not agents for national prosperity, but active members of the country entitled with constitutional rights. Education therefore must be open and fair to allow individuals to competitively pursue self-interests and dreams to allow them to each contribute to a healthy society.
Life only begins after college. It is too big a punishment to make young students make a choice that can follow and weigh on them for the rest of their lives.
Many say there should not be boundaries but convergence in academic studies. Studies should not be restricted to a department. But no matter how universities encourage and endeavor to break barriers among studies, nothing would be of use if segregation remains in high schools. The most effective convergence and interactivity can only happen when there is no division in the first place.
The foundation of education must be based on social direction, as well as philosophy and principles of a national future. The current education system is a by product of rigid colonial days. We will never move forward as long as we uphold legacy of that period. If we keep worrying about intense competition among students and rampant private education, we will never get ahead. If we linger and hesitate because the road is bumpy, even though the direction is right, we will still be wondering in the next generation about which path to choose. We have done away with the male-dominant family head system and left-traffic system of the Japanese. We have pushed ahead with our individual systems, like a real-name financial transaction system and a standard garbage disposal system. The decisions proved to be right.
We ask a neighboring country if the future is possible without examining history. But we ourselves have not wiped out a time-worn educational system. How long do our children have to be victimized by the tyrannical chain? We have no future unless our children are free from the cave of the dark days.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of architecture at Hanyang University.
By Seo Hyun