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Saturday, March 15, 2014

No Country for Young Men


I was on a harmless jaunt last semester, teaching the use of adjectives, when I turned a corner and suddenly collided with history. It was standing there quite alone, in the shadows, withering, collecting dust.

The drill focused on the correct use of adjectives (blue, red, black, beautiful, white) to describe the Korean flag. Then I asked my students to explain the meaning of the black lines that lie in the corners of the flag. In one class, not a single student could explain the lines. My casual curiosity led to more serious research. Partnering with a Korean professor of history, we found that an overwhelming majority of students, even when asked in Korean, couldn’t explain that aspect of their national flag.

The national flag of the Republic of Korea

I shared my observations with colleagues. The protestations of skeptics were loud and numerous, ranging from “No kids anywhere know the details of their native flags,” to “So what?” Other individuals, however, are far less sanguine. What with the pressure to learn math, science and English, Korean society has relegated their history to the dung heap. Like the old buildings in Singapore, Korea’s past has been swept away by the bulldozers of “progress.”

Korean students studying history in the "old days" (photo courtesy of Koreabridges.net)

Recently a number of concerned Korean leaders have taken a stand. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, putting the weight of her office behind the issue said, “The history of a country is like the soul of the people.” President Park and her administration want to return Korean history to the list of required subjects students must study. Kim Tae Won, a professor of history at Seoul National University, also weighed in on the issue. He noted that students, in general, lack knowledge of Korean history due to the current design of school curricula.

A recent editorial in The Korea Times declared “We can’t over-emphasize the importance of history education.” Further buttressing the issue, the Chosun Ilbo reported that a recent survey found that most Korean teens didn't know when the Korean War started (1950-1953). I find this troubling. Six decades ago the entire Korean peninsula lay in rubble. Nothing short of one of the world’s most amazing economic miracles brought South Korea back from the abyss to where it is today. That story and how it happened, starting with when the war began and why, should be emblazoned on every Korean student’s awareness.

Philosopher George Santayana famously noted, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Alas, only one Korean institution of higher learning (and there are hundreds) requires applicants to take a Korean history test as part of the nationwide state administered test--Seoul National University.

I think the next time I do my adjective drill, I’ll throw in a little history lesson, just for good measure.