[Column] Changing the purveyors of knowledge

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[Column] Changing the purveyors of knowledge

Chung Un-chan
The author, a former prime minister and former president of Seoul National University, is the chairman of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth.

After President Yoon Suk Yeol recently vowed to reform the labor, education and pension sectors, I would like to present my personal views on education reform.

Education aims to help individuals develop themselves and raise talent to lead a country. The remarkable success of the Korean economy in the past could be achieved by people educated for the industrialization period. But a major engine for a better future of the country will be individuals with flexibility and creativity. How should we reform our primary, secondary and college educations to breed such talent?

One of the answers to that question can be found in the transformation of the current knowledge-focused education into a so-called sound body-focused education in our primary and secondary educational systems. In a 1693 treatise entitled “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” English philosopher John Locke wrote, “A sound mind in a sound body, is a short but full description of a happy state in this world.” Elementary, middle and high schools in the United States cherish the values of health and safety, as seen in the prevalence of sports in after-school activities. Korea was no exception in the past. In a February 1908 editorial, the Korea Daily News wrote, “If we should choose one among the three goals of education — sound body, virtue, and wisdom — we would rather choose sound body.”

Education authorities must set the foundation for students to raise their physical strength early on and grow into creative people and leaders of society through an epochal transformation of our educational system. At the same time, they must help students meet the challenges of the times by strengthening their ability to cope with unfamiliar situations.

The most powerful means to foster such talent is language. Schools must teach students’ mother tongue to the highest-possible level so that they can use it just as carpenters use their tool boxes. Clear thinking is only possible when you have a clear understanding of language. Clear thinking also leads to a convincing inference, a formation of a school of thought, and eventually to the establishment of culture. Without a culture full of vitality, no society can create top-caliber culture and prosper.

University education must change to meet the demand of the times for new knowledge and technology. Colleges are required to reinforce their education of basic sciences so that students can build professional knowledge on their own to deal with new environments even after the merits of their specialties wear out. But that does not mean universities can ignore the importance of rote learning, as memorization of concepts and formulas is the very stepping stone for all studies. In addition to creativity, colleges must nurture a sense of responsibility, compassion and humanity of diverse values, as well as a broader perspective on the world.

Open-mindedness is a prerequisite to creative thinking. Universities must transform themselves from purveyors of knowledge to creators of new knowledge. This shift can be achieved partly by broadening indirect experiences. Over the past 19 years, Seoul National University has recruited a third of all freshmen from across the country to achieve a regional balance. That can help enrich the indirect experiences of students and teachers to meet the requirements for harmony and balance as members of our society — and eventually help spur their creativity. As in the cases of a number of universities in the U.S., Korea also needs to consider admitting students based on regional and class backgrounds. That will help restore the broken “education ladder” in Korea by easing inequality in educational opportunities.

The number of college students must decrease. If we have too many students, universities cannot but deliver knowledge one-sidedly and will deprive students of their chance to raise creativity. Students who received passive education cannot effectively respond to dynamic changes in society after graduation. Harvard, Princeton and Yale admit only 1,500 to 2,000 students each year. In contrast, Korean universities admit 3,000 to 4,000 students per year and the number once soared up to 7,000. Major universities must cut their numbers drastically.

College reforms also call for financial support from the government and elsewhere. For universities in dire financial conditions — most of them in provinces — government-sponsored programs for regional development are needed to survive. Last but not least, universities must have autonomy on whom to select and what to teach. Without it, our colleges cannot advance.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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