The eyes of hundreds of innovators changing the world were on a single young man. He seemed shy at first, but couldn’t hide his passion to improve Korean education. He won my heart in 90 seconds. Jin-woo was a high school senior giving a presentation in last year’s “15 Minutes: Time to Change the World,” the Korean equivalent of TED.
This year, Jin-woo became a college freshman. In late February, even before freshmen orientation, he began carrying out the promises he made. He hosted an education conference titled “Wigi,” a homophone for crisis and “know thyself.” While acknowledging the crisis in education, he wanted to emphasize that education is the process of seeking what one truly is.
I hadn’t expected a 19-year-old man, as opposed to an octogenarian sage, to discuss “knowing thyself.” Does he even know what it means? In fact, Jin-woo and his friends knew exactly what it was to know oneself. They were thirsty for education to learn about what they are rather than education that enhances competitiveness or makes the world a better place. They were faced with the problem of understanding less about what they are, what they want and what they like the more they study.
This was surprising. Even before they entered college, these young men knew precisely what the problems were and where education should be headed in the future. In fact, it is not news that education has become so removed from the pupils it is intended for. Both Confucius and Socrates said we should know ourselves before trying to save the world. Perhaps knowing oneself is the only real substance of education.
When did knowing oneself become so irrelevant in education? Ironically, the subject began to disappear in learning in the modern period. Kant, the father of modern studies, limited the world of learning and intelligence into areas that can be objectified. What cannot be proven or measured are no longer areas of learning. Even I exist as objective data. I am equal to my body.
But most of the things important to human beings cannot be proven or measured. Love, liberty, happiness, justice, human dignity, beauty and a sense of humor are intangible and invisible. They cannot be formulated, and therefore are not topics of learning. They are considered taste or sensibility or some vague part of the humanities. In the postmodern world, humans have accumulated tremendous amounts of knowledge about the external world but are clueless about what we really are.
Schools are not places to learn values or seek the substance of humanity and understand the self. It is hard to find a student asking, “What is a human?” Everyone is busy acquiring up-to-date knowledge. Schools are places where we learn necessary tools and knowledge to live. This is the reality of academia composed of departments and majors.
But that’s where the problem arises. The “intelligence as a tool” that we have imbibed for over a decade instead of understanding the purpose and value of life cannot protect us any longer. We are asking the fundamental questions of the effect of education because no mere tactic can resolve youth unemployment or make up for the fact that actual wage levels have been constantly falling for the last few decades. We have to admit that education is losing its competition against technology.
According to research, 47 percent of American workers are in danger of losing their jobs to automation. Other OECD member countries are in similar situations. Big data and artificial intelligence have warned that not just the rule-based routine works but also jobs that require advanced cognitive capacity will be replaced by machines. For example, computers can replace considerable parts of the jobs performed by doctors and lawyers.
Now, it is clear that education should focus on enhancing human capacities that cannot be automated. It should teach creativity and originality. However, it is too much to ask of existing educational institutions, whose mission is teaching instrumental intelligence. Learning from conventional institutions is acquiring knowledge from outside, not studying the inner world, getting inspiration or realization from within.
For the last decade, I’ve been watching artists, the most creative group, closely. I studied what makes them creative and what they have in common. First of all, they have strong senses of self. They are very much into themselves and are honest about that. Works of artists without honesty lack originality. In other words, they are not good creators. Looking into themselves and being honest are the bases of creativity. Next is expression, but schools only teach techniques of expression.
If you ask Confucius why we need to know what we are, he would say, “When you know thyself, you will understand humans. When you understand humans, you will see the world.” When you see the world, you will see what you can do for the world and what you can offer the world. Before we teach this to our children, they may already know the truth.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is the director of the Art Center Nabi.
by Roh Soh-yeong