True aim of education

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True aim of education

In the United States, Ivy League campuses are changing. The new buildings going up are almost always for science, engineering and convergence studies. The student bodies resemble multinational science fairs rather than the well-rounded, athletic, white American student bodies of the past. Ivy League schools - which for decades proselytized educations in the humanities, the pride of Western academic tradition - are transforming into science and technology meccas. In the past ten years, the number of students studying science and engineering has grown drastically.

Interestingly, the scene at average colleges and universities in the United States is a bit different. The share of science and engineering majors actually decreased a bit in the last decade. More students give up STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies after taking a course or two, and more students drop out of college altogether. Some data shows that students from underprivileged families are not getting the kind of STEM educations they should.

We are witnessing a polarization. Unbalanced access to science and technology education will only aggravate wealth inequalities, as technology is a key factor in getting ahead. A gap in productivity between the elite with access to advanced technologies and a broader general public without access will only grow. The income gap will surely widen as well.

The situation in Korea is different. Students at top universities - most notably Seoul, Yonsei and Korea - avoid science and technology fields. The shrinking of engineering and science majors at the top three universities is greater than the nationwide average. Does that mean Korean elite students are voluntarily working to resolve the conundrum of income polarization? Not really. The reality is that “smart” Koreans prefer the “safe” majors in business, social sciences or pre-med, which lead to government positions or medical profession. Studying the challenging fields of science and engineering brings no guarantee of success.

Under such circumstances, do our young leaders intend to run our country based on a future created by Silicon Valley? Without knowledge of science and technology, it will be impossible to understand the 21st century, much less lead it. Among the 295 members of the National Assembly, only 16 have science and technology backgrounds. Unless science and technology subjects are reinforced in the civil servants examination, the future of Korea is bleak.

My view on the leaders of the future has changed. The days when handsome young people with superior intellectual, physical and social traits became leaders are over. The leaders of the 21st century will be prodigies familiar with computers, who excel in science and mathematics. It does not matter if they are not sociable or lack communication skills, as they can invent new ways of communication. That’s what Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs did.

But there’s a problem. Future leaders have no time to ask fundamental questions about themselves or the world in their early 20s. Not with so much science and technology to learn. New things are invented overnight, and new majors are created every year. The risk is that they will become Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs-wannabes without asking themselves who they are, what they live for, what an ideal world is like and what social justice means.

The world revolves around Silicon Valley. Money goes after technology, and technology is dominated by a handful of technology elite. Prestigious universities around the world are fiercely competing to recruit and educate the elite. When they graduate, they pay back with hefty donations, thus guaranteeing a future for their schools. Higher education aimed at nurturing well-rounded leaders may be a nostalgic memory of the past.

Of course, it is hard to say that global leaders focused on science and technology and young Korean leaders busy making attractive resumes get balanced and healthy educations. We need science and technology talents, and they certainly play a role in our society. But at the same time, higher education offers more than just a background for them. These tech elites, too, need to get education in the ethics of a society based on technology. Only then, will they be able to display true leadership.

We need higher education for 99 percent of us, not the 1 percent who are science and technology geniuses. The curriculum needs to be restructured to help average students who are not science and math geniuses understand basic science and technology. Learning should be focused on real life problems rather than pure academic exploration. Rather than solving given problems, students must be allowed to search for solutions to real problems. That search would be a search for the self in the end.

Higher education will continue to experience major changes. No one can be sure what the establishment must offer the young, with their varied desires and aptitudes, amid such a flood of fast changing technology. I would like to propose an education in search for self. Knowing your true self is the biggest asset as one wades through the uncertainties of the future. The early 20s is a golden time to get out of the shadows of your parents and build your own vessel. A solid vessel can contain anything. Before trying to force anything on our next generation, we must provide them with the precious opportunity to build their own vessels. Let them dream, think and learn from trial and errors.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The author is the director of the Art Center Nabi.

by Roh Soh-yeong
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