Excellence without a soul

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Excellence without a soul


Oh Se-jung

“Soulless bureaucrat” used to be a common epithet because Korea’s civil servants did whatever those in power ordered them to do without exercising or even consulting their own convictions. The country’s elite didn’t bother contemplating what they should do for the country or why. Instead, they became simpleminded technicians who only sought how to do what they were ordered as painlessly as possible.

But it seems like public servants aren’t the only ones denying their own souls.

The latest doctors’ strike made me wonder whether the doctors are faithful to their original duty of saving lives or whether they’ve become mere medical technicians. Considering the recent controversy over a judge allowing a corrupt chaebol boss to get out of a massive fine by doing a few day’s labor making tofu and paper shopping bags, legal professionals are also choosing to be mere technicians rather than to work to defend social justice.

It goes beyond doctors and lawyers. The best students in the country are educated at top universities, but they are focusing on studying for state exams or preparing to find jobs rather than thinking about making the world a better place. Universities aren’t making much of an effort to return to the basics. In fact, universities are focusing on expansions to heighten their prestige. Universities are competing to build fancy buildings and care most about getting a higher place in the university rankings, which are drawn up by outside organizations that often use inconsistent standards.

Meanwhile, the professors and university authorities care less for students, and the true imparting of education has lost its priority. As university rankings often put more weight on publication of research, professors who are busy preparing their own research have less contact with undergraduate students and cannot afford much time to listen to their students. The curriculum is programmed mostly with courses professors prefer rather than what students actually need. So the students don’t get a chance to seriously contemplate and plan for their futures. They choose the safest courses they can find and focus on building up their resumes. That is a shortcut to become a “soulless elite.”

In fact, other countries are also concerned about the diminishing emphasis on undergraduate education. The former dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis, vividly documented this in his 2006 book, “Excellence Without a Soul.” In the book, he frankly wrote, “I have heard many discussions about teaching, about curriculum, about grading, about athletics, and about responding to student misdeeds. I have almost never heard discussions among professors about making students better people.” What’s important is that the prestigious universities in other countries are aware of the problem and constantly ask themselves, “What is the essence of college education?” They contemplate how a college education, especially a liberal education, should change along with the times. Korean universities lack that kind of introspection entirely. Korean students have been deprived of an opportunity to become balanced, civilized citizens as their secondary educations are driven by college entrance exams. When they are not provided with a proper education in college, they turn into the “soulless elite.”

When the young generation becomes the soulless elite without dreams of their own, the future of Korea is hopeless. In 1990, University of Tokyo President Akito Arima visited Korea to sign an international academic exchange agreement with Seoul National University. He said, “I could see the spirit in the eyes of the students at Seoul National University. It is a sign that the future of Korea is bright. Regrettably, the students at the University of Tokyo have lost their vigor.” Japan was entering its “lost decades.” We, too, have to worry about the future of Korea when students become “soulless technicians.”

Colleges and universities need to bear Professor Lewis’s words in mind and ponder their roles for the future: “The educational mission is to transform teenagers, whose lives have been structured by their families and their high schools, into adults with the learning and wisdom to take responsibilities for their own lives and for civil society.”

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 27, Page 31

*The author is a professor of physics at Seoul National University.

By Oh Se-jung

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