Back to Incheon airport this morning, waiting to board en route to Bangkok. I have seen some novel and interesting things in the last few days, as one would hope and expect when visiting a country for the first time. But a few minutes catching up on the news from home via dear old Granny Herald online made me think I had fallen down the rabbit hole in a way that nothing in Korea managed. Does Gerry Brownlee really believe that mining is or can be seen as a ‘green’ activity. And does Paula Bennett really think that ‘most’ New Zealanders will accept that breaches of the Bill of Rights can be ‘fair and reasonable’?
Having got that bit of madness off my chest, I am now free to reflect a bit on impressions gained from our very short snapshot tour of Korean life and politics.
One of the ministers we spoke to had an interesting take on Korea’s situation in relation to the US, China, and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Japan. He suggested that at one time Korea was the prawn amongst the whales, but that now Korea could see itself as a dolphin. Still smaller, but also perhaps more agile, able to change direction more quickly, and certainly not short of intelligence.
The people we have spoken to – business people, politicians, various aides – all seem to display a considerable capacity for strategic thinking, a tendency to take the long view. This is balanced by an equally strong tendency to pragmatism, to do what is needed for the moment. One dramatic representation of that was the guy we saw ducking and swerving through the always lively Seoul traffic with a large pane of glass, perhaps 2 metres wide by 2.5 meters tall, strapped to the side of his small motorcycle.
We have talked a lot about education, and also in passing about research and development. There seems to be a general mood for major educational reform, at both a ‘policy’ level, and beyond that, a proposition that there ought to be a fundamental change in pedagogy.
Traditionally the Confucian practice has held sway, which means that education is seen as the passing on of a body of knowledge from one generation to the next. Teachers have been and still are highly respected as repositories and disseminators of knowledge.
The education system in Korea is also highly competitive, with students being required to pass through many examined ‘gates’ in order to progress through ‘mandatory’ education (from age 6 to age 18) and then a remarkable 85% of young people go to some form of tertiary study. Combine that with the obligation for every young man to do two years of military service, and young people may not enter the work force until they are well into their twenties or beyond.
Meeting the cost of tertiary education falls heavily on families, and puts many under considerable financial pressure. There is also concern that young people are spending too much time studying, attending ‘cram schools’, engaging in prescribed extra-curricular activities (always with a view to improving the all important CV) and along the way missing out on opportunities to enjoy their youth or to explore more ‘random’ pursuits.
The weakness of the ‘banking’ model of education, where the all knowing teacher deposits knowledge into the ‘empty vessel’ student, was eloquently expressed by Paulo Freire in the 1970s. Freire saw how this model could prevent intellectual (and by extension social and political) challenge or critical thinking. Korean policy makers seem to be arriving at a similar conclusion, and thinking that a more liberal, more autonomous practice might actually serve their social and especially their economic needs better.
Korea’s economic strategy of building a massive capacity to manufacture high quality goods, from ships to cars to electronics, has been highly successful. There is a realisation however that wealth of the future is more likely to come from innovation, creativity and adaptability, and the emerging consensus seems to be that this is precisely what the country’s education system may not be well geared to deliver.