Education Realities in the Republic of Korea

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 11, 2010 - Pages 39-64

Education deals with the “ultimate concern” of many people: their children. Because children are a source of great joy and pride of all parents, it would make sense that education should be a source of inspiration and hope. In Korea, on the contrary, education issues seem continually to bring many people into a state of frustration or even despair. Parents, teachers, university professors, educational planners, government functionaries, and politicians engage in acrimonious debate on how to best teach and prepare next generation for the future. Every nation has its education debates, and many countries are in the process of transforming their education system. But in few countries do educational discussions reach such a feverish pitch as in Korea.

This paper surveys and discusses the problematic elements of Korean education. It also points out some valuable aspects of Korean education, rooted in the nation’s culture, which could benefit from reform rather than wholesale rejection in favor of Western methods.[1]


The Korean Education Crisis

In 2001, in a nationwide survey, 93 percent of the adult respondents said that the public education system is “in crisis.” Few substantial improvements have been made since that time, and to compensate for the shortcomings of schools, parents now spend more than 15 trillion won (14 billion dollars) per year on private English tutoring alone. Ever increasing numbers of parents give up on the system altogether and send their children abroad.[2]

Educational pressures are a major cause of difficulties in the lives of Korean children. In 2002, more than half of secondary school students occasionally felt tempted to run away from home, and more than a quarter at least fleetingly considered killing themselves. In 2007, the number of potential adolescent suicides increased to 30 percent. Educational stress, compounded by parental pressures to perform well academically, was cited as a main source for these suicidal impulses.[3]

Pressured by the public outcry over educational inadequacies, successive Korean governments embarked on one reform project after another. Such overhauls are, in Korean style, very ambitious but short on research and planning. Therefore they usually are short-lived, with new reforms often canceling out previous ones. To emphasize the importance of the problem, 2001 the Ministry of Education was renamed Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development and the position of its head elevated to that of a deputy prime minister. Nevertheless, the road is littered with ill-conceived, aborted, and half-completed reform experiments.

In this state of affairs, the good points of the Korean approach to education are easily lost from view. This is unfortunate, because good qualities are easily dismissed and eliminated along with the problem points in poorly-planned education reform projects. When fixing a problem, it is important to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. Past Korean governments took quick glances at what governments of other countries were doing and mimicked them in haphazardly instituted education reforms. They imitated educational approaches from the United States or Europe without reviewing, first, whether these systems are actually effective in their countries of origin, and, second, if and how they can be successfully used in the unique Korean context.

However, there are many problems in Western educational reality. The crime and drug epidemics in American schools and failing academic standards in some European education systems are serious issues. Potential Korean “education émigrés” to the United States or EU nations should recon­sider their uncritical acceptance of anything “Western.”[4] Korean reformers should avoid simply copying Western educational values and methods for use in Korea .

Education is not something that happens in isolation. It is a summary of a nation’s cultural norms and social priorities. It is the most concentrated form of what really matters to people in a certain society. Thus, there is a living interaction between society as a whole and the narrower educational enter­prise: Society feeds its values, ideas, customs, and fashions into the national education system. Conversely the “educational product,” the students that have passed through the education system, reaffirm the social and cultural notions they have absorbed during their days in school, university, and extracurricular study.

In this brief review of education, I will therefore not focus narrowly on educational theory and practice, but will also deal with the ideas and habits of the adult population, whose thinking fundamentally shapes education pattern. As a result, my analysis of educational problems and their social causes and my suggestions on how to produce solutions may seem rather broad in scope. But this is unavoidable: Reforming education and social reevaluation must go hand in hand.


The Kosaeng of Korean Education

In Korea , success in middle school and especially high school studies is considered a matter of the gravest concern. As a justification for the mushroom cloud of doom which generally seems to hang over secondary school, people say that the notorious KSAT, the suneung examination, is to blame.[5] Most of the high school years are overshadowed by apprehension over the approaching college entrance examination: “Suneung is coming.” Critics allege that high school children are taught little more than test-taking skills and that the actual acquisition of knowledge, at least during these years, is on the back burner.

But in Korea things are rarely as simple as they seem on the surface. At a deeper level, almost all Koreans seem to believe that because study falls in the category of vital concerns, it should be accompanied by suffering and cannot possibly be pleasurable.

History has taught the nation’s sons and daughters that life is no laughing matter. The historical suffering, particularly at the hands of foreign invaders, has created han, “pain, grief,” something that is not always easy to grasp for non-Koreans.[6] Peoples with similarly tortured national histories come closest to understanding this complex emotion because they can empathize with the Korean experience. Comparisons have been made to the Jewish experience with Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman oppression, and with the ordeal of Blacks in America . Some of the elder Korean generation complain that young people do not understand han because they grew up in an affluent democracy. Still, this historical weight continues to burden the national collective consciousness.

If this has been Korea ’s historic experience, how then can education, which is meant to provide the bedrock upon which to build a solid human existence, be anything less than tasking, difficult, and unpleasant? This has been the unspoken and to a large degree unconscious idea about the nature of education. The use of the Korean word kosaeng is very instructive in this context. It describes the arduous labor, the joyless ordeal, that Koreans believe must precede any type of meaningful accomplishment. This is a fundamental stumbling block preventing genuine reform of the Korean education system.

In Korean education “suffering” is everywhere. And when it is in insufficient supply, the education taskmasters are on hand to make the life of primary and secondary school students more difficult. Elementary and junior high school students are required to participate in so-called survival games. These are military-style boot camps at which children are expected to repeatedly race through obstacle courses, climb through tunnels, leap over pits, and swing over water-filled ditches—all under the awe-inspiring leader­ship of a drill sergeant of the Korean Marine Corps. During these exercise the children are often required to wear military uniforms. At one such training camp I was a personal witness to how a group of junior high school students was confined for two days to an ugly complex next to a local highway and required to continue exercises even in a downpour that made the soaked army fatigues stick to the youngsters’ bodies.

This is not to suggest that physical and mental challenge is not beneficial even to children. Such experiences can help young people along the road of self-improvement. However, many adult Koreans still seems to assume that training for life or “LT” (leadership training)[7] should invariably be tasking and cannot be enjoyable. In many cases there is a lack of vision, imagination, creativity, and perhaps more than anything else, hope. This applies to both extracurricular activities and academic programs.

Consequently, education comes to be associated with negative images and emotions at all levels of society. This is confirmed by the lack of interest in continuing education among adults. Other than showing interest in some remedial and recreational learning, most adult Koreans lack appetite for further voluntary study. Unlike people in many Western countries, who try to improve their quality of life through voluntary continued study or who take some evening classes at a college or institute for the sheer joy of learning, few Koreans, once they are employed, are motivated to learn something new. Once a person graduates from college and finds a good job, study more or less comes to a halt. The notable exception is when a person is required to pass a test administered to prove his qualifications for a job or a promotion. These tests are inescapable for anyone who wants to move up the conventional career ladder.

The purpose of study in Korea is not learning. The purpose is, almost exclusively, social advancement. In its 2001 Education Policy Analysis, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) declared that “learning should not be tied to age, gender, profession, or social status, as the needs of today’s knowledge economy transcend such barriers.” According to the report, Korea is not doing well: The nation was at the bottom of the list of OECD member nations in terms of the percentage of adults that continued their education after graduation from high school or college.[8] This not only deprives individuals of opportunities for further self-development but also is a problem for an advanced economy in the infor­mation age. If Korea is to break through to new levels of accomplish­ment, young people need to be helped to cultivate their liking, their taste, for learning from an early age. So fundamentally, education should be enjoyable.


“East Is East, and West Is West…”[9]

The enduring Korean trauma with English study illustrates another problem with the current educational methodology in that country. In the field of language education generally there is new emphasis is the role of motivation in learning. Two types of motivation have been identified: “instrumental motivation”—wanting to learn a language for the practical benefits it brings, and “integrative motivation”—wanting to learn a language in order to interact with and become similar to members of the target-language community. Also recognized is the distinction between “intrinsic motiva­tion”—enjoyment of language learning itself, and “extrinsic motivation”—being driven by external factors such as parental pressure, societal expectations, academic requirements, or other sources of reward or punishment. Language educators also recognize the importance of individual differences among learners, the learner’s role in determining the goals of language learning, the kind of effort he might commit to language learning, and the need to find ways of creating positive motivational conditions in the classroom.[10]

It is not difficult to see that extrinsic motivation and instrumental motivation can never be as powerful as intrinsic motivation and integrative motivation, the love of the language and the desire to interact in a meaningful way with the international community. However, most Koreans see English learning merely as a tool, an instrument for furthering personal, narrowly-defined goals, which often include outrivaling competitors for educational opportunities or professional positions. This is a self-defeating strategy when it comes to language acquisition. Hence, most adult Koreans are not competent to have a simple conversation in English even after ten or more years of study.

In order for motivation to be intrinsic and integrative, it is essential that the learner reflects on his or her educational objectives. Such reflection is not only a motor that drives the learner, but also a source of creativity to devise strategies to best fit his or her needs. In the absence of such self-analysis, there is no alternative to blindly accepting the current methodology and adopting the reigning one-size-fits-all approach.

In light of this, it is important to reflect upon Korea ’s educational heritage. The father of the prevailing customs in Korean education is Confucius. He always insisted that he was no original genius but that he simply attempted to revive study of “the classics,” referring to the Book of History, the Book of Rites, the Book of Poetry, the Book of Changes, the Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Book of Music. Although some have argued that Confucius was their author, it is more likely that he compiled and revised an existing body of literature to make it more accessible to his con­temporaries. His role as editor would be in line with his own assertion that he was “a transmitter and not a creator, a believer in and lover of antiquity.”[11] This helps explain the deference to the teacher’s authority and the focus on memorization of sources, two essential principles of East Asian education.

The father of Western thought is Socrates. Whereas Confucius studied and transcribed older Chinese sources, Socrates never penned a line himself. While he did the thinking, Plato presumably doubled as his student and secretary. Socrates is the main character in the Platonic dialogues, asking seemingly naïve questions that gradually undermine the interlocutor’s case and trap him into seeing the truth. In keeping with this Socratic Method, the most concise expression of argument in the Greek philosophical tradition is the syllogism. It is the logical form of every argument consisting of three propositions, of which the first two are the premises and the last the conclusion. A simple example: “All humans are mortal. John is human. Therefore, John is mortal.” This formula is the basis for Western reasoning and explains much of the West’s preoccupation with intellectually verifiable argumentation and logical proof. Also in the tradition of Socrates, in the West knowledge is developed dialectically, and education takes place through the dialogue between teacher and student.

In Korea and in much of the Far East, knowledge always was, and in many ways still is, an inheritance received from the teacher, imparted to the student through the monologue. Thus, the relationship between teacher and student has been more “vertical” than in the West.

An exclusive reliance upon either the lecture format or the discussion format can never guarantee that a student will receive a well-rounded educa­tion. Both formats are needed. Tradition, social responsibility, and virtue, as originally emphasized in the East, and innovation, individual freedom, and creativity, as championed in the West, are equally important. Neither Western nor Eastern tradition should set the boundaries of modern education. Education systems exist for people, not the other way around. Unfortunately, in today’s Korea , students are squeezed into an outmoded and inflexible structure. No system and structure have been devised that fulfill the real educational needs of contemporary Korean young people. The approach to education is reminiscent of a technique applied by the Greek mythological figure Procrustes. The giant would capture people and tie them to an iron bed, either stretching them out or hacking off their legs to make them fit.

Educational methodology in Korea has a thousand-year-long tradition. The Confucian tradition upon which Korea ’s education is based has not gone through any significant transformation. There are no Korean Deweys or Piagets. Though educators, students, and schools have gone through alterations in appearance, most fundamental assumptions about education have remained unchanged. The basic approach can be summarized thus: The teacher speaks and the student listens; the lesson material is presented and the student is expected to absorb it; the monologue rules and dialogue is at best a fashionable accessory; the sections from the textbook that are “important” (for the exam) are memorized and others are ignored; the test is passed and the (good) grade is secured. The essential educational model is still based on rote learning and memorization. Korean students are good at basics such as math, science, and grammar exactly because the disciplined repetition and the standardized format of classes give them a distinct advantage in areas that require clear structure and organization. They routinely outperform their Western peers in these areas. Consequently, many Westerners fear their Korean counterparts when they have to compete with them for math and science department slots in universities in the West.

However, this technical literacy comes at a considerable price. Monotonous repetition of textbook content is the standard practice when teaching all subjects, and it conditions Korean students to a particular uniform and linear way of thinking. Hence, even when educators feel they can afford the “luxury” of a more varied approach at a higher level of education—including question and answer sessions, group discussions, student presentations, and essay writing—they find that many students get stuck. The damage has already been done and is very hard to undo. In other words, once the brain has been wired a certain way, it takes much extra effort to reroute the circuits. Thus teachers simply continue the rote-learning method at higher levels of education and in subjects for which this approach is not suitable. Meanwhile, the students are more and more alienated from the learning process and from their own original potential. This approach is a death sentence for both the student’s creativity and any joy that might have been derived over personal new discoveries.


The Joy of Learning

Learning is the development of understanding and hence a creative process. Creativity includes the experience of joy.[12] Thus, authentic study should be a joyous experience; otherwise, no learning is taking place. We can see this in the educational realities of young children. Children have an inborn, insatiable curiosity. They are the most eager and easily motivated learners imaginable. Children love surprises, adventures, trips, and new discoveries. To witness a preschooler’s delight when he is able, under mother’s loving care, to read his first few words correctly, is to see the sheer joy of learning. Albert Einstein, who Koreans consider the paragon of intellectual achievement, put it succinctly:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.[13]

In many ways, kindergarten is the model for education at later stages, or at least should be. In kindergarten, children are allowed a considerable degree of freedom to experiment. They manipulate their natural environment, see how it responds to them, and thus naturally discover their own areas of interest. Of course all life is not kids-play, and certain basics need to be mastered in order to successfully navigate life’s realities. However, children do not need to be force-fed to learn to appreciate kimchi or spinach. These items on the menu are an acquired taste, which takes time to develop. Korean mothers understand this, and that is why they feed white kimchi to their small children first. Good educational habits are no different. A more flexible, imaginative, and varied approach could yield the desired results.

The seventeenth education thinker Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670) understood what many modern-day teachers, even in the West, seem to have forgotten:

  1. Class instruction should be curtailed as much as possible, namely to four hours, and the same length of time be left for private study.
  2. The pupil should be forced to memorize as little as possible, that is to say, only the most important things; of the rest they need to grasp the general meaning.
  3. Everything should be arranged to suit the capacity of the pupil, which increases naturally with study and age.[14]

Considering that many Korean students are confined in hagwon, the ubiquitous after-school, private tutoring institute, until 11 p.m. or 1 a.m.,[15] parents might be horrified at the idea that their children would receive only four hours of formal education. While one could argue about the exact number of hours of class instruction that would best fit the needs of students in the 21st century, the important point is that children should not be forced to sit at school desks hour after hour, expected to regurgitate what their teachers pour upon them. There should be much opportunity for students to do their own experimenting, analyzing, and discovering.

Students need to have the freedom to play around with subjects in order to discover their own learning potential. According to Comenius,

Craftsmen do not hold their apprentices down to theories; they put them to work without delay so that they may learn to forge metal by forging, to carve by carving, to paint by painting, to leap by leaping. Therefore in schools let the pupils learn to write by writing, to speak by speaking, to sing by singing, to reason by reasoning, etc., so that schools may simply be workshops in which work is done eagerly.[16]

He emphasizes that this principle also applies to language learning, an important point to remember for parents and teachers baffled by the slow English-language progress of their children.

Most teachers, motivational speakers, and church ministers know that students much more easily remember a colorful story than an abstract concept or a theory. Thus, paradoxically, examples must precede rules. This is also how science advances: Newton first watched the apple fall before he came to his conclusions about gravity. There is no reason to believe that students’ knowledge would advance otherwise. Spontaneous, functional practice is an essential source of knowledge. Comenius calls for activity based on interest: “Always offer something which will be both agreeable and useful; the students’ minds will thus be primed and they will come forward eagerly, with ever-ready attention.”

There may be instances when a subject or a topic taught does not meet an immediate and obvious need. In such circumstances Comenius suggests beginning to teach something and then interrupting it in order to create a gap. This does not necessarily create an actual learning need, but something that the German psychologist Kurt Lewin calls a “quasi-need.”[17] This suspense-creating device is successfully employed by the creators of TV series and fiction writers. They break off the narrative at a strategic moment. The audience has already been hooked by the plot and thus is very eager to find out what comes next. This method was used successfully by Dan Brown in his bestseller The Da Vinci Code. A professor of theology might have encountered resistance in priming his students in the dull details of Christology, but Brown created a page-turner and “educated” millions. The interest is aroused, the “need” is created, the motivation awakened, and so the teaching can advance.

This may sound simplistic and may get a skeptical response from parents and teachers. They may wonder how studying algebraic functions or English grammar rules can ever be made interesting. The point is that many purely academic exercises can be made unnecessary by naturally incorporating information into natural observation and practice. This is the power of the so-called object lesson. Rather than forcing students to absorb dull abstractions, which seem useless to them, teachers can present them with engaging, imaginative real-life situations. Rules can be derived retroactively from observations and experiences gathered in spontaneous practice. Of course, such practice is not really “spontaneous” but requires careful and deliberate design by an experienced and creative teacher. Next, the abstracted rules can be applied to more complex varieties of the same problems. An outdoors class is a better way to introduce children to biology or chemistry than a lecture on the importance of the Periodic Table.

Unfortunately, Korean parents and teachers conspire to get children “through the system” as fast as possible. They make elementary school students struggle with middle and high school math problems in hope of boosting their college entrance chances. When a thirteen-year-old boy enters medical school, this is applauded by society as an extraordinary educational accomplishment. “Genius education” in Korea is a thriving industry. But few people question whether forcing such intellectual precociousness truly is in the best interest of the child’s long-term human development.

Joy and learning are a natural pair. That does not mean there are no challenges involved in learning. A person who learns to ride a bicycle may suffer some bruises on his knees. Someone studying the piano may dislike practicing the scales and get a cramp in his hands. Mastering a language involves dealing with a few unpleasant grammar rules and humbling oneself to a little teacher correction. Still, the joy of new discovery, new acquisition, and new capabilities should outweigh the struggle involved in passing the hurdles; otherwise, the student is on a dead-end street. “Joyless learning” is an oxymoron: If there is no joy, there will be no learning. If there is real learning, there automatically will be joy.


Who Is the Student?

Students in medical school first study the healthy human body, then human pathology, and finally they learn to prescribe adequate cures – step one, two, and three. The Korean education system could be compared to a patient with a serious illness. In order for an effective cure to be prescribed there must be, first of all, a model of a healthy system, and secondly, a proper diagnosis of the illness. Under the present circumstances developing a good education program is impossible because the people in charge do not have a clear idea of what the standard of good education is (Step One). Hence, they cannot determine what the fundamental problems are (Step Two). And conse­quent­ly, the “painkillers” given to the patient, the education system, fail to produce a cure (Step Three).[18]

To understand how we can offer a complete and suitable education to children, we need to first understand the nature of a human being. Every person consists of mind and body. The mind, in turn, is made up of intellect, emotion, and will.[19] All of these four dimensions of the human being need to be nurtured and developed. An effective educational program is a balanced program where each of these dimensions is fully engaged. This is not the case with the current educational approach. The intellectual aspect has predominance, and the other three are almost entirely ignored. It is an unhealthy situation that inevitably leads to frustration and human failure.

If the emotions of a child are suppressed, and his will and motivation are not engaged, his educational accomplishments will be very limited. Under such circumstances, the feelings of a sensitive and impressionable child will not be cultivated and allowed to blossom into fullness. Repressed emotions will constantly surface at unexpected and inconvenient times and places and distract the child from the focus of his study. Also, the student’s willpower is not strengthened and used as an asset in the academic study program. On the contrary, the student’s will may turn into an adversary and, particularly in boys, be transformed into resistance and rebellion. Thought, feeling, and will are a trinity—they cannot exist and function independently. Joined together they become powerful allies that mutually reinforce each other.

The body should be regarded as an asset in the learning process, not a source of trouble and distractions. This is far from the present reality as well. Children are mostly confined to the same classroom throughout the day and condemned to a largely sedentary lifestyle in small, uncomfortable desks. This is very unsuitable for young people with a lot of energy and need for movement, particularly for boys.

Aristotle said that students should be educated in four main areas: reading and writing—which he believed were “useful” for business and household management; gymnastics—to promote health, physical strength, and endurance; music—essential for the development of the character and the soul; and drawing—to make the student a better judge of art and more appreciative of the natural beauty of the human being.[20] These four dealt with, in a well-balanced way, the intellect, the body, the will, and the emotions, respectively. Of course, the variety of subjects in modern education has increased, while the importance of physical strength has decreased. Still, the balance and harmony proposed by the Greek master-teacher offer a good alternative to today’s singular intellectual obsession.

Yet to make a shift toward authentic whole person education requires the genuine and wholehearted support of parents and government because such education cannot be contradicted at home, at school, or in the larger society, but must be powerfully reinforced at each level. It cannot take place in an isolated school environment. The family, school, and larger community must work together to help young people manifest their full human potential.

Underlying the attributes of intellect, emotion, will, and body of each human being is the fundamental quality called heart. Heart is the essence of human nature to such an extent that the other attributes are what they are and do what they do solely because of heart. Heart is the impulse to love and be united with one’s object of love.[21] The nurturing and development of heart is more fundamental than any other form of self-cultivation, and all further educational and social accomplishments are built upon this foundation. Heart is primarily developed in the family and secondarily in school. As such, the existence of a strong, healthy, and happy family environment is an indispensable basis for individual health, happiness, and success.

The Korean concept of shimjeong, “heart,” refers to a tremendously powerful source of spiritual energy and social integrity.[22] It is a great, and nowadays much underestimated, spring of spiritual development for young people. Within the family it is the children’s respect for their parents that holds the key. Children show reverence to their elders through what Koreans have traditionally emphasized in hyoshim.[23] When written in Chinese characters, hyoshim is made up of the characters for “old” and “son” with the latter supporting the former, thus depicting a son carrying his parent on his back. Hyoshim is the devotion, loyalty, and love that children demonstrate to their parents and it is probably the core value of the entire Korean ethical system. Parental love and hyoshim, and the ensuing intense bond between parents and children, are powerful motivational forces in achieving academic and career excellence. Though this bond is now increasingly under attack from various angles, it is, even now, powerfully conducive to student advancement up the educational ladder.

The potential of Korean students to excel, at the elementary, middle, high school and university levels, is great. But it is also greatly unfulfilled. The primary problems besieging Korean education are relational in nature. The widening “generation gap,” the misunderstanding and lack of order between parents and children in the family, is exported to the school where it affects the relations between teachers and students and among students themselves. Outrages involving bullying, juvenile violence, and male students gang-raping female students have become so regular that they can no longer be ignored by the media.[24] Parents and educators in Korea are aware of the problems, but most of the debate about fixing the education system is still misguided and gets lost in technical details of university entrance examinations.

One point that should be particularly emphasized is that emotional education, better named “education of the heart,” and character education must be the foundation for academic education, not the other way around. This is something that can be appreciated by parents who give much emotional space to their younger children at home and give them plenty of opportunity to play and experiment with their environment to find out what it is made of. Through this natural interaction the children can also begin to learn who they are themselves. Sadly, this kind of freedom comes to a sudden halt when the children enter elementary school.


Education Ethics[25]

Every person is trying to find happiness and avoid unhappiness. According to Aristotle, in the hierarchy of human goals, happiness, eudaimonia[26] is the highest, most complete end. Lasting happiness is found, according to Aristotle, not by gaining honor, wealth, power, but through virtuous activity throughout one’s entire lifetime. Such activity requires character qualities such as honesty, kindness and good humor; and intellectual qualities such as rational judgment and scientific knowledge.[27]

Man’s individual purpose is to preserve his existence and advance his goals. On the other hand, he has a larger purpose in life: to make a meaningful contribution to his family, society, nation, and the world. The purpose of the whole should be primary and the individual purpose secondary. However, people put the individual purpose of their existence—their short-term goals, ambitions, and interests, the well-being of spouses and children—before the purpose of the whole—their fellow citizens, their society and humanity as a whole. This egoism is the fundamental cause of breakdown at all levels. Collectively it leads to divorce and family break­down, to injustice, crime, poverty, and war. Individually it leads to moral failure, adultery, corruption, depression, despair, addiction, and suicide.

One of the most common misconceptions—in both East and West—is that money brings happiness. Poverty certainly is not a source of happiness. But one of the early revelations of “happiness research” was that the happiness derived from increased material prosperity is ephemeral: People get used to being richer very rapidly, take their affluence for granted, and compare it to what others have, not to what they themselves had earlier. David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative Party, believes that a nation’s GDP is a rather inadequate measurement of its citizen’s happiness:

Today, we need to be… revolutionary to put us back on track to social prosperity: to respond to that yearning for happiness. That is why I have been arguing in Britain that we need to refocus our energies on “GWB” – general well-being. It means recognizing the social, cultural, and moral factors that give true meaning to our lives. In particular, it means focusing on a sustainable environment and building stronger societies. And yes, it also means that there is more to life than money: Indeed, that quality of life means more than the quantity of money.[28]

Children need to absorb these lessons early in life. While students need to be stimulated on the path of personal educational discovery, they need to learn to understand that their learning, growing, and maturing, their creations, accomplishments, and career progress is part of a larger, human growth—a collective knowledge called “science,” a collective wisdom called “culture,” a collective spirit called “humaneness.” This blends well with traditional Korean views on civic virtue.

Though some believe that the homogeneity of Korean society hinders globalization, this is not necessarily so. The ancient philosophical concept of hongik ingan, meaning promotion of general welfare, dedication to public service or devotion to the good of humankind, is illustrative. This kind of ethic clearly has applications well beyond the national boundaries. With its unique blend of spiritual culture and technological advancement, Korea has much to offer to the world. Nevertheless, if Koreans are to make such a meaningful contribution, they will have to transcend a rather ingrained “us and them” mentality, as well as a propensity to copy the latest foreign business models and educational trends for short-term, national interest. On the one hand, they will need to build confidence in the value of their own social and cultural contributions to the world. On the other hand, they will have to learn to see other nations not only as lucrative markets for Korean exports but as places inhabited by human beings who deserve and require constructive international and intercultural engagement.

In front of almost every Korean elementary school there are statues of three great national heroes: King Sejong, Yi Sun Shin, and Yu Kwan Sun.[29] Of these three, only the first can be said to have made a direct contribution to education through his creation of Hun-min-jeong-eum, the original version of Hangeul, the modern Korean script. Nevertheless, all three are upheld as role models for Korean children because they are exemplars of goodness: They put the well-being of others, the interests of the nation, before that of their own self-interest even to the point of sacrificing their lives.

The more people give, the more they receive. Giving creates a vacuum, space to receive qi, the primal energy of the universe, God’s grace. Just as a low pressure area in the atmosphere will be naturally filled up by the flow of air streaming in from a high pressure area, so the vacuum created by a person’s giving will be naturally filled up by this flow of spiritual energy, power, and good fortune. To be treated well, a person must first treat others well. Our human concern should be how to give and how to give well, to give the best. As for the return to us, we must have confidence, trust, faith that we will receive. In today’s society of cynicism and selfishness it may seem to people that such a route would lead to ruin, but it will not. Giving is the way to happiness, prosperity, and success because it is the way of the universe.[30]

The conscience knows best. It knows better than teachers, better than parents what is right. It knows the truth, the best course of action, just like the needle of a compass always points north.[31] This is why even highly educated adults are attracted to the innocent beauty and the spontaneous generosity of small children. However, in order to function fully, the con­science must be freed from any friction and turbulence. It is a tragedy that in modern Korean education, parents and teachers often, rather than enhancing this quiet inner voice of truth, occupy a position contradicting the dictates of their children’s, their students’, consciences. Often they amplify the voice of materialism, selfishness and greed rather than the voice of truth, beauty and goodness.


Love, Marriage, and Sex Education

A retrospective on marriage may be included in the current Korean social science or dodeok (ethics) curriculum,[32] while sex education merits but a few hours of instruction in a student’s school career. Love fares even worse: the topic is considered so abstract and elusive that it is not even considered a topic worth educational attention at all, other than perhaps in a college class dealing with Shakespearean sonnets. Yet few people would say that mathe­matics or English play a more significant role in their lives than does love. People live and die for love and family, but these topics are not deeply and seriously addressed in the contemporary Korean school or university curriculum.

There are several causes for this glaring omission. First, in the traditional culture these issues were largely dealt with in the home and family environ­ment. Children learned implicit lessons about love and family from the example of their elders. However, the security of the three-generation family is mostly a thing of the past, and even the nuclear family is an institution under threat. The skyrocketing divorce rate, domestic violence, the widening generation gap, the immorality and violence of youth, and alcohol abuse are having a tremendous impact. Due to the current disintegration of family life, coupled with new social and economic pressures, the social and moral safety net once provided for both young and old by the home is now full of holes, and many are falling through. The gaps left by the fraying of Korean family culture urgently need to be filled by a new educational approach.

Second, in contemporary Korea , with a hitherto unknown emphasis on individualism and self-gratification, many believe that love and relationship issues can only be “sensed” by individuals. In other words, they are subjec­tive, vary too much from person to person, and are too mysterious to be described systematically. This leads to the conclusions that love eludes definition, that there are no objective standards or measurements for love, and that “love cannot be taught.” Hence, young people are left to their own devices, trying to figure out the dynamics of love and what “works” in relationships and what does not through trial and error. Comparable experiments in the West, predating those currently underway in Korea , have already taught that this is an irresponsible, risky, and costly approach.

Third, many adults think that children are too busy to deal with the pressures of yet one more subject. This argument may seem justified in the current state of educational affairs. However, love, marriage, and family are not “just another subject”; they are the very foundations for both a happy and successful personal life and the preservation of human civilization. Hence, many university graduates who are highly skilled in money-making are poorly equipped to make a marriage work, because they never received any instruction in the delicate art of relationship building.

Finally, there is the argument that adolescents are too young to be able to deal intelligently with such complex topics. However, before an infant understands arithmetic or even speech, he responds to the language of motherly love. One of Freud’s greatest contributions to psychology was his discov­ery of the high level of sexual awareness in even very young children.[33] Clearly, children are much more conscious of the various manifestations of love than many parents suspect. In an age of easy access to information, an educational vacuum in this area will be quickly filled up. If parents and teachers do not teach children about love, children may acquire ideas about love and relationships from less reliable sources.

Korean culture is full of beautiful and powerfully descriptive sexual imagery and symbols. The mugunghwa flower is a temptingly beautiful example from the natural world of the perfectly harmonious union of the male and female.[34] At the heart of the flower, the male stamens surround the female pistil with adoration, amidst an explosion of color and fragrance. Taegeuk, the “Great Absolute,” the origin of the universal polarity of yang and eum,[35] is depicted in the center of taegeukgi, the Korean national flag, as two interpenetrating red and blue commas. In this cosmology the unity of a true man and woman is the unity of heaven and earth, and the embrace of man and woman in love symbolizes the oneness of the whole universe. This implies that a husband cannot exist without his wife or a wife without her husband. They are a pair whose bond is as unbreakable as that of the oppositely charged particles of the atom.

The blessings of a happy husband-wife relationship are profound and go well beyond the immediate emotional benefits now acknowledged in the West. That “opposites attract” also can mean that character strengths in husband or wife may compensate for some character weaknesses of the partner. Thus they can be of great mutual support, and their good qualities can reinforce each other. These character traits will also blend into oneness in well-balanced and gifted children, like the way the recessive genes of two people may combine to create outstanding features in their offspring. Therefore, the destiny of a couple is like leveling the land, raising up the valleys and bringing down the mountains. On that fertile ground, the couple can plant trees of their common ideal. If the love of a husband and wife follows a true course, their mutual reliance is total and their relationship becomes the bedrock foundation for the happiness and prosperity of their descendants. Under such ideal circumstances, filial sons and daughters will have the natural desire to emulate the example of love they witness in the conjugal relationship of their parents. Parents who themselves have successful marriages regard the marriage of their adult children and the birth of their grandchildren as the pinnacle of their parental fulfillment and joy.[36]

Teachers should educate their students with parental love; they should teach their students as they would their own sons and daughters. Professors should have a real commitment to their students and convey clear values.[37] Most people forget much that they were taught in school and university. But few people forget how it was taught and by whom it was taught—particularly if the subject was taught by an exceptionally wise, kind, patient, creative, energetic, inspirational, or humorous teacher; or by an extraordi­nar­ily boring, indifferent, unkind, or aggressive teacher. Whether children learn to love or hate math, value or despise English, appreciate or dismiss the social sciences, depends mostly on their relationship with the teacher who taught the subject. More importantly, they develop a love of learning, they absorb wisdom necessary to live life well, and they become men and women of integrity and responsibility partly due to their relationship with good teachers.


Creativity and Individuation

Creativity is another fashionable buzzword of the Korean educational vocab­ulary. Yet, few educators in the country understand how to build it up in their students. A student’s higher thinking system activates whenever he or she encounters information or challenges whose meanings and circumstances are not immediately obvious. Not all children are equally adept at spontaneous problem-solving and the exercise of personal creative initiative. Some students should be dealt with patiently and with understanding, and receive sufficient teacher attention and guidance. There are several elements that are essential to engaging in such high-level thinking activity.[38]

Students must be allowed to develop divergent thinking. They must have a willingness and ability to free-associate, to allow the mind to wander off into interesting and unconventional directions, often without knowing where they will end up. Particularly in a society were social conventions are as rigid and narrowly defined as in Korea , maintaining a considerable degree of autonomy from social pressures and standards may be a serious challenge. Cultivating a willingness to think and produce in a manner that runs the risk of deviating from accepted norms among a student’s peer group is no small matter. A person who is “different” in Korea easily runs the risk of becoming wangtta, an “outcast.” He may be shut out from the all-important social structure of the Korean school class and, not infrequently, be physically mistreated.[39] In my years as a teacher in Korea , I have seen too many teen­agers whose creativity was stifled because they were anxious to please their friends. Yet, a highly creative person is probably unwilling to alter his work significantly just to conform to the opinions of his colleagues.

Great thinkers and artists are distinctive rather than imitative. A Rembrandt or a Monet stands out among hundreds of paintings through its unique use of light, shading, and contrasts. We immediately recognize a painting by Chagall through the presence of certain distinctive features, even though we may never have seen that particular canvas before. Successful marketers find their niche and create a unique image. Howard Schultz catapulted Starbucks Coffee to international fame and fortune through innovative and daring business strategies. Sadly but typically, the green, circular company logo has imitations on many Seoul streets.

Creative students are a nuisance to uncreative teachers, yet eventually they will be the ones that shape the future. Thus, a wise and open-minded teacher will create room for his gifted students to shine, and so nurture the next generation of Yahoo!, iPod, and Google creators to greatness. No matter what stage of relative maturity or immaturity a student may be at, he must be helped, assisted, supported to find his niche, an authentic outlet for his creativity. Not all students have a Eureka ! moment during their middle or high school years. Some may make unique self-discoveries in university, and some may know their destiny as early as elementary school. But once they do, their whole outlook on life and school changes dramatically.

Developing creativity rarely is a conscious policy decision of children. Many children are spontaneously creative without any adult prompting. In fact, quite often the best thing adults can do is limit their interference with the child’s natural development. As American education expert Mel Levine puts it, “Limits should be placed on heavily structured activities such as soccer on Monday, clarinet on Tuesday, kung fu on Wednesday, and so on, so that children get a chance to brainstorm, exercise creativity, and engage in imaginary play.”[40] At home and at school it is important to foster a climate of opportunity where creative tendencies are stimulated and cultivated.

The English word “education” comes from the Latin verb educere, which means “to lead out.” This word describes the subjective dimension traditionally emphasized in Western education. It speaks to students developing their natural abilities and talents and expanding their personal horizons. A good education program should help each student to both discover and fulfill his original human potential. Education should be a path of self-discovery and self-cultivation, not just meeting the demands of a standardized curriculum.

Some people say that it is impossible to accommodate the needs of every individual child entering the national education system because every child is different; hence, it is impossible to devise an individualized education program. However, the differences separating people from each other are not total but limited. Particularly at the younger ages, there is sufficient overlap of educational needs to develop an approach that will work for every student. As children grow and develop, educational content and methodology can increasingly be differentiated. The work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences would be helpful here.[41]


Dreams and Goals

Few people will disagree with the idea that it is important for a child to have a dream, some beautiful, inspiring, and motivating vision for his life. Indeed, the word “dream” is now so popular in the Korean vocabulary that it is frequently used in advertising by marketers of products and services. The first step in attaining excellence—educational and otherwise—is self-discovery and the formulation of certain personal long-term goals.

Children must be given space to do this. They should not be confined to a narrow educational space, but should be given ample opportunity to explore the material and cultural realities that surround them. They should not be permanently confined to classrooms, hagwon study rooms, and be limited to “textbook processing” 24-7. They should be able to move around and not only visit museums, libraries, and sites of natural, cultural, and historic interest, but also company offices, factories, government agencies, NGO offices, hospitals, laboratories, and movie studios. They should be surrounded by stories—in books, newspapers, and magazines, preferably in several languages—and do their own reading. They should have the oppor­tu­nity to meet people: accomplished Koreans and intriguing foreigners, men of character and women with vision, writers, politicians, businessmen, doctors, professors, priests, and actors. If financially possible, they should travel internationally and experience different people, languages, foods and cultures firsthand. But even local travel and adventures open young minds to new vistas and feed students’ imagination.

In the “First Student Survey” I give to my new students at Cheongshim International Academy ,[42] I ask, “What is your career goal? What kind of job would you like to have in the future?” Essentially, this question yields three types of answers. First, there are a large numbers of aspiring doctors, lawyers, and diplomats. In fact, about half of all the students fall in this category. Probably few children dream of passing the bar exam and occupy­ing a leather office chair at Kim and Chang’s, Korea ’s most prestigious law firm. However, lawyers and doctors are at the top of the pay-scale, a reality that is not lost on most students and even less on their parents.

The second type are answers of students who have thought seriously about the question, come to some kind of personal decision, and hence, speak with conviction. These responses are fascinating and colorful; there are idealism, hope, and creativity aplenty. There are aspiring astronomers and actresses, architects and pilots among their ranks. And yes, there are also those who want to become doctors, teachers, and lawyers, but for the “right” (i.e., personal) reasons. They explain their thinking and have clear and definite motives to select these fields.

The third answer is of the “I am not sure yet” type. This should be a completely legitimate and acceptable response. Many 13 to 16-year-olds just don’t know yet what they would like to do for the rest of their lives. Even more interestingly, in this category are students who do have some sense of direction but who feel they don’t really fit into an existing field or job. These people could very well be the truly creative minds of the future. Without encouraging them to give up on higher education, I remind such students that digital geniuses such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell were college dropouts. They were ahead of their time and did not fit well within the existing educational framework.

Children must also be given time. I am not advocating that students ignore the wisdom and guidance of their elders or that they give up on the established education system. But being patient with them may prevent future disillusionment and help them continue a well-considered course of education. Thus, parents, teachers, and counselors should resist the temptation of forcing their teenage students into premature and ill-conceived decisions they may regret for the rest of their lives. If a young person is not given room to dream a great dream and work to fulfill it, he loses hope and may become indifferent and unmotivated. If a nation’s younger generation is not allowed to dream, the future of that nation indeed looks bleak.

To translate a dream into reality is difficult. Even adults become discouraged when their cherished hopes seem unattainable at times. Children do not have the same capacity as adults to patiently endure dull activities that appear to have little relationship to their ultimate goal. In order to reinforce the vision, to not give up, build confidence that the ideal can be reached, children have to learn what educators refer to as “previewing.” Whenever possible, children must make a blueprint of what something will look like when it is finished. This is something that should be practiced daily at school. Students should submit work plans which teachers evaluate. Just like a landscape designer prepares a sketch of a proposed garden, language students should be required to write the last paragraph of a report first, and then keep that paragraph in front of them while writing the report. The final paragraph is the destination they are navigating toward. When reading, in the middle of a story children should be given the opportunity to predict how it will end. When Michelangelo set eyes on the block of marble that would eventually become his David, he presumably “saw” a man struggling to come out of the unhewn rock. This is world-class previewing.[43]

Of course, very few children naturally have such awareness and imagination. Thus, they need to be taught the skill of incrementally realizing their ultimate vision through the step by step accomplishment of goals. Goals and dreams are related to each other as the steps of a stairway and the top floor of a building. Goals are not only important for the attainment of a dream, but they are an important cross-check to see whether a dream is viable or just some blurry mirage. Many “dreams” aren’t realistic visions at all, exactly because they cannot be broken down in concrete steps. If, for example, someone has the dream to become a professional singer, the goals the person could set to achieve that final objective could include: 1) Join the choir at school or church; 2) Talk to people who know the singing profession and ask them for advice; 3) Learn to read notes and take voice lessons; 4) Learn to speak German or Italian (the “operatic” languages) in addition to English; 5) Compete in singing competitions; 6) Enroll in a special arts school; 7) Enter a conservatory.[44]

After every effort has been made and every plan has been carefully reexamined, children and their parents need to have two more things: open-mindedness and optimism: Open-mindedness to recognize new and unexpected opportunities or setbacks and respond to them by being flexible and adjusting the earlier planned course of action. And faith in God or Heaven or good fortune or a blessed destiny or grace or good ancestors—in some good force helping them move forward, urging them on to a happy and bright future; in other words, optimism that it will all work out.



Even recently, Korea was an isolated, agricultural, and autocratically gov­erned country. The nation has risen as a phoenix from colonial domination and the ashes of war. It has economically leapt forward onto the world stage and is now a thriving democracy. As a result, the citizens of today’s Korea have opportunities their ancestors could not even have dreamed of. At the same time, those of the younger generation do not have the same cultural and emotional securities as people who lived in a quieter past. Their futures are full of risks and uncertainties as well as promise and opportunity. And the realities of democratization and globalization are making demands of the education system that it is not meeting.

Real change is needed. In the era of globalization, it will take some discussion among all concerned and interested parties to determine which are the “Korean elements” to maintain and which are the “foreign elements” to add to the Korean education system. This should neither be a source of wounded national pride nor a cause for conflict between traditionalists and modernizers, or Koreans and foreigners. A new approach must be carefully formulated to eliminate some of the old enemies that continue to plague Korean young people and sabotage their educational and social success.

Because the social environment of Korea is still comparatively pure, the conditions and atmosphere for children’s spiritual, intellectual, and emotional development are very good. I believe that Korea , without compromising its meaningful and beneficial cultural heritage, can offer an education to the young that is authentically global and fulfills all the requirements of international society. Korea can give its children an education that will allow each boy and girl to fulfill his or her full human potential and be happy and hopeful in childhood, and happy, successful, and proud throughout life.



[1] This article is an adapted extensive excerpt from my book Education War, which was published in the Korean language in South Korea in 2009.

[2] Lee, Sun Kyung, “Why Koreans Can’t Speak English,” JoongAng Ilbo, December 14, 2006.

[3] Jin, Dae Woong, “Three out of Ten Teens Tempted by Suicide,” Korea Herald, June 11, 2007. Korea ’s suicide rate is the highest among OECD countries, with 24.7 out of every 100,000 people committing suicide in 2005.

[4] Onishi, Norimitsu, “For Studies in English, Koreans Learn to Say Goodbye to Dad,” International Herald Tribune, June 8, 2008.

[5] Cf. Maarten Meijer, What’s So Good about Korea, Maarten? ( Seoul : Hyeonamsa, 2005), 174.

[6] Han has been variously translated as repressed anger, unmitigated resentment, rancor, sorrow, grief, or bitterness. Han may describe a sense of loss and general hardship, stifled passion and love, or the frustrations of the oppressed and downtrodden, depending on the situation.

[7] Koreans are fond of using English vocabulary to refer to certain educational requirements, albeit in a context unknown to native English speakers, to lend an air of professionalism to these programs. To avoid embarrassment when trying to pronounce these words, they use acronyms: LT is one; MT, “membership training,” OT, “orientation,” and SR, “subject research,” are some others.


[9] Rudyard Kipling once famously asserted in “The Ballad of East and West” that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat.”


[11] Feng Youlan and Derk Bodde, History of Chinese Philosophy, vol.1: The Period of the Philosophers (Princeton: Princeton, 1983), 56.

[12] Cf. Exposition of the Divine Principle [EDP] (New York: HSA-UWC, 1996), 33.

[13] George Thomas White-Patrick and Frank Miller-Chapman, Introduction to Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1936), 44.

[14] Quoted from Jean Piaget, “Jean Amos Comenius,” Prospects, Paris : UNESCO Interna­tional Bureau of Education, vol. XXIII, no. 1-2 (1993): 176.

[15] The Myung Bak Lee administration has made more or less futile attempts to curtail the operations of these notorious “cram schools” by legally requiring them to shut their doors at 10 pm. But the voracious appetite of Korean parents for test-prep drills for their children seems something no legal restriction is able to control. Hagwon teachers furtively relocate their charges to their apartments after the official closing hour.

[16] Piaget, 177.

[17] Ibid., 178.

[18] Cf. the creation-fall-restoration matrix in EDP as a way to understand and elevate the human condition.

[19] EDP, 17, 37.

[20] Allan C. Ornstein and Daniel U. Levine, An Introduction to the Foundations of Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 112.

[21] Essentials of Unification Thought (Seoul: Unification Thought Institute, 1992), 21.

[22] The combination of the two Chinese characters composing the term is most aptly trans­lated as “feeling with the heart.”

[23] In English usually and rather awkwardly translated as “filial piety.”

[24] Hae In Shin, “Juvenile Crimes Shock the Nation,” Korea Herald, April 5, 2005.

[25] The three following sections: Education Ethics, Love, Marriage, and Sex Education, and Creativity and Individuation, are patterned after the Divine Principle interpretation of Genesis 1:28, God’s “three blessings,” the purpose of God’s creation of man. See EDP, 32-36.

[26] Eudaimonia is a classical Greek word commonly translated as “happiness.” It is composed of “eu,” good or well-being, and “daimon,” spirit or deity.

[27] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, book I, viii-ix (Ware, England: Wordsworth, 1996), 14-17.

[28] Cameron, David, “Speech to Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006,” The Guardian, May 22, 2006

[29] Sejong the Great, the 15th century scholar-king of the Joseon Dynasty; Admiral Yi, “the Lord of Loyalty,” whose heroic leadership was instrumental in thwarting the late 16th century Japanese invasion of Korea; Yu Gwan Sun, a teenage leader in the March 1st 1919 Independence Movement who lost her life in the process of opposing the Japanese occupation of Korea.

[30] Sun Myung Moon, “God’s Hope for Man,” God’s Will and the World (New York: HSA-UWC, 1985), 172-73.

[31] Sun Myung Moon, Sun Myung Moon’s Philosophy of Education ( Seoul : FFWPU, 2002), 86.

[32] The student is required to gradually increase his intellectual and moral grasp from the stage of the individual through the stages of the family, clan, school, and society to ultimately encompass the nation. The understanding of reality as a series of concentric circles, expanding from the individual to the world, is a quintessentially Confucian worldview. However, in the aftermath of the Korean War, the teaching of dodeok was complicated as a result of the North-South division of the Korean peninsula. Thus dodeok came to embody two distinct subject areas: traditional morality and family ethics, and highly politicized civics dealing with the peculiar challenges involved in the national reunification process.

[33] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality ( New York : Basic Books, 2000).

[34] Hibiscus syriacus, the national flower of Korea, in North America is also known as the Rose of Sharon.

[35] The Korean derivative of the better known Chinese terms, yang and yin.

[36] Sun Myung Moon, Blessing and Ideal Family (New York: HSA-UWC, 1993), 498.

[37] Moon, Sun Myung Moon’s Philosophy of Education, 21-22.

[38] Mel Levine, A Mind at a Time ( New York : Simon and Schuster, 2002), 209.

[39] Cf. Meijer, 98.

[40] Levine, 218.

[41] Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

[42] This coeducational boarding school for junior high and high school students in the moun­tains of South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province was founded by Sun Myung Moon in 2006.

[43] Levine, 77-78.

[44] Dorothy Kolomeisky, William Haines and Myra Stanecki-Kozlowski, All about You: A Course in Character for Teens ( Gaithersburg, MD : The Whole Person Project, 2001), 59.