A minister’s education

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A minister’s education

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Yang Young-yu

It was a typical example of giving special and speedy treatment to a powerful incumbent official. Hwang Woo-yea, the newly appointed minister of education, was sworn in only a day after his confirmation hearing.

During the hearing, members of the National Assembly’s Education, Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee treated the five-term Saenuri Party lawmaker with special respect. For example, Hwang was exempt from scrutiny of his research papers, an obstacle for many nominees.

Some Saenuri lawmakers even referred to him as “chairman,” since Hwang was formerly chairman of the party. Even opposition lawmakers questioned him about less important issues such as his retainer fees as a law practioner and missing information on his immediate family.

There appeared to be no concerns. Hwang, who has served on the education committee of the legislature for 13 years, is a veteran. He avoided definitive answers on sensitive issues such as the creation of a multilateral consultation body and autonomous private high schools.

It was a clear contrast to the case of Kim Myung-soo, a scholar who preceded Hwang as a nominee for the education post. During his hearing, Kim begged for “just 30 seconds to breathe.”

Hwang now faces grave and sensitive issues on subjects such as history textbooks, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, newly appointed education office heads with a progressive philosophy, autonomous private high schools, university restructuring, tuitions and laws governing private schools.

As a lawmaker, Hwang actually fueled various debates on private school laws and half-price tuition.

During his 13 years on the education committee, Hwang proposed 12 bills, with only the revision bill on school cafeteria lunch passing in 2002.

Since 1996, 2,352 bills have been submitted to the National Assembly from the committee - and Hwang has sponsored the fewest.

Having often been described as irresolute, he was sometimes compared to Hwang Hui, who served as prime minister during the Joseon period (1392-1910). “When I listen to this person, I think he is right, but when I listen to the other person, I think he is right,” said the ancient politician, and Hwang has a similar political style.

If the bill to revise government organization is approved, Hwang would also serve as deputy prime minister of social issues, whereby his political style could be advantageous, since the very basis of communication is listening to different opinions.

The key is resolution and principle. He must listen to other people’s opinions, but he will need to make a balanced judgment and have a clear identity.

He has, in some ways, brought it upon himself. When he was serving as the Saenuri Party floor leader in 2011, he used the half-price tuition issue bluntly for political gain, which was lethal. He must understand that he should never make another populist remark from now on. A politician’s empty words and a minister’s remarks are different since the latter comes with responsibility.

Hwang has made various pledges. He has promised to visit schools every month, to meet with education office heads, to carefully handle the issue of autonomous private high schools, to consider ending the direct election of education office heads, to meet with the students of Danwon High School who survived the Sewol ferry sinking, to redefine the direction of university restructuring and to complete the half-price tuition system by linking it to income. His pledges are welcomed.

Reality and direction are the key for education, but his pledges are ambiguous. It is unclear what he will actually do. The education community is protected by strong barriers of established people and officials. To resist their protests, Hwang must have a clear direction. Only then will he be respected and his promises carried out.

Hwang now faces a test. Korea has had about 50 education ministers in its history, each serving about a year on average in the post. Will he be able to last for more than two years? The April 2016 elections are coming and it won’t be easy. He must work hard to remove the perception that he is a politician with neither principles nor resolve. He must use his background and experience as a five-term lawmaker wisely. This can be an opportunity for him.

Most of all, he will need passion, determination, vision and leadership for education. He must not try to please the president by making political calculations. He must use his true talents. If the minister is not determined, Korea could face educational mayhem. The people do not want Hwang to become a troubled minister.

There is only one thing that he must remember. The heart of the education minister must serve students and their parents, not the president. This is Hwang’s homework.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 11, Page 28

*The author is the editor of social affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Yang Young-yu
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