Happy New Year to all! January is a time when we anticipate what’s ahead of us but our minds are still in December. Even some Christmas trees are still lit, reminding us that the holidays aren’t quite over yet.
My column in this space on Dec. 10, “Some Lack Gift of Education,” received comments from readers, all positive except one from a medical doctor, James R. Elliott. In my column, I wrote about how my father said learning can happen anywhere, but as a child I complained about the conditions of my schooling in South Korea after the invasion by North Korea.
Elliott wrote: “I must admit that I’m in agreement with your father; that you can learn anywhere and anytime, and that you must learn the lessons of today, because you may not have the opportunity again tomorrow. Your father was a wise man. … In my work in international health, I have seen many schools with a dirt floor, no desks, and the blackboard simply a black square painted on the wall. Yet many of these students outperform our (American) children who attend school in $100 million facilities modeled after shopping malls! Learning is easier in quiet, comfortable surroundings; but it can occur anywhere.
“I hope you will consider a follow-up. … People in this country have forgotten that a free public education is an incredible gift, one that is denied to most of the world’s children.”
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I agree that a free public education is an incredible gift. As such, “learning” demands a high price called “will” from the learner. And the will must come from the learners themselves. When “will” is forced onto the learners by adults, it can harm young minds.
A while ago, I read an article in the New York Times criticizing South Korea’s forceful education system. The article was written by a Korean-American journalist named Se-Woong Koo. He wrote that South Korean students rank among the best on international education tests, but in reality it hurts students’ natural creative forces and robs them of health and happiness due to “Tiger Moms” and authoritarian teachers. The entire program amounts to child abuse, Koo wrote, describing crowded hagwon (meaning Study Haven), overly zealous parents single-mindedly want their children to be “best” on every subject in the curriculum, and the poor condition of the places with classrooms divided by thin walls and lit by dim fluorescent lights, and students forced to memorize whatever is thrown at them, staying after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later.
The epidemic of “Education Fever” began when I was in the first year of an all-girls middle school in 1953, the year the Korean War ended with the armistice. Teachers and parents lectured us whenever they had a chance, saying, “We’re free now, but we can’t remain poor and helpless! Only education will allow us to put our foot in the door of the real world.”
They did more than just lecture: Our teachers and the city officials used our physical labor for two projects — to plant trees on our bald mountain and to build an auditorium in the school property for Monday morning assembly. For more than a month that spring we were mobilized to plant trees. Instead of carrying our book bag, we carried a lunch box and farming tool — a hand shovel or spade. And when the planting season ended, we, the seventh-graders, were ordered to bring dirt from the mountain to the construction site where our assembly hall, which would hold more than 500 students, would be erected. It was hard labor, carrying buckets of dirt 10 times a day for each student.
Did the teachers work, too?
No. Each homeroom teacher stood at the gate holding a chart, making sure no student in his/her class escaped the labor, and every student completed the 10-round bucket-carrying foot trip from school to mountain, marking on his/her pad. When a girl’s bucket wasn’t filled to the rim, the teacher ordered her to bring an extra bucket as punishment. Older students actually did construction work, along with hired hands and volunteers — hammering nails into walls, mixing concrete and pouring and plastering, too. But when the building was erected that fall, the school invited city officials, parents and grantors and had a dedication party in the auditorium, in which they used us students, who sweated and whose hands blistered, as servers. In Korea, there were no child protection laws then, and I hope there are now.
Education must serve mankind. When too many young people are feverish with education by external forces and abandon their god-given creativity, something must give. Although industrialization has its place in the world we live in, so do other aspects of life. A farmland needs farmers, a fishing village needs fishermen, and the rest of the world needs happy and willing laborers who appreciate their god-given gifts of creativity, as it does professors, engineers and medical doctors.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.