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The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education

edited by
Young-Key Kim-Renaud
R. Richard Grinker
Kirk W. Larsen
Previous Issues
24. Korean Education 11. The Political Economy of the Asian Financial Crisis
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, R. Richard Grinker, and Kirk W. Stephen Haggard, 2001
Larsen, eds., 2005 10. The US Factor in Cross-Straits Relations
23.The 2004 Tsunami: Six Month Report Conference Report, 2000
Karl F. Inderfurth, David Fabrycky, Stephen Cohen, 2005 9. The International Relations Theoretical Discourse in
22.U.S.-India Relations: Ties That Bind? China: A Preliminary Analysis
Deepa Ollapally, 2005 Ren Xiao, 2000
21. India-China Relations in the Context of Vajpayees 8. Creation and Re-Creation: Modern Korean Fiction and
2003 Visit Its Translation
Surjit Mansingh, 2005 Young-Key Kim-Renaud, and R. Richard Grinker, eds.,
20. Korean American Literature 2000
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, R. Richard Grinker, and Kirk W. 7. Trends in China Watching: Observing the PRC at 50
Larsen, eds., 2004 Bruce Dickson, ed., 1999
19. Sorrows of Empire: Imperialism, Militarism, and the 6. US-Japan Relations in an Era of Globalization
End of the Republic Mike M. Mochizuki, 1999
Chalmers Johnson, 2004 5. Southeast Asian Countries Perceptions of Chinas
18. Europe and America in Asia: Dierent Beds, Same Military Modernization
Dreams Koong Pai Ching, 1999
Michael Yahuda, 2004 4. Enhancing Sino-American Military Relations
17. Text and Context of Korean Cinema: Crossing Borders David Shambaugh, 1998
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, R. Richard Grinker, and Kirk W. 3. The Redenition of the US-Japan Security Alliance and
Larsen, eds., 2003 Its Implications for China
16. Korean Music Xu Heming, 1998
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, R. Richard Grinker, and Kirk W. 2. Is China Unstable? Assessing the Factors*
Larsen, eds., 2002 David Shambaugh, ed., 1998
15. European and American Approaches Toward China: 1. International Relations in Asia: Culture, Nation, and
Dierent Beds, Same Dreams? State
David Shambaugh, 2002 Lucian W. Pye, 1998
14. Assessing Chen Shui-bians First Year: The Domestic &
International Agenda
Conference Report, 2001
13. Reections of Misunderstanding in China
Allen S. Whiting, 2001
12. Christianity in Korea
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, and R. Richard Grinker, eds., Single issues are complimentary; additional copies are $5.00.
2001 *available through M.E. Sharpe

About The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Sigur Center Asia Papers are occasional publications written by the faculty, visiting scholars, and aliates of The Sigur Center for
Asian Studies. The series provides the informed public and policy community with engaging analysis and context for issues of Asian Aairs
and US-Asian relations. The views expressed herein are solely that of the authors.

The Sigur Center for Asian Studies is an international research center of The Elliott School of International Aairs at The George
Washington University. The Centers institutional goals include increasing the quality and scope of scholarly research and publication on
Asian aairs; promoting US-Asian interaction; and preparing a new generation of Asia students, scholars, analysts, and policy makers to
assume leadership positions in a world in which Asia and the Pacic Rim is of ever increasing importance.

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among the strongest in the United States thanks in large part to the world-class Asian Studies faculty of The George Washington University.
The Centers programs include research projects, study groups, conferences, and lectures concerning Asian political, economic, and security
issues. In addition, The Center coordinates a Visiting Scholar/Visiting Research Associate Program, which brings eminent scholars and top
policy planners to The Center from universities and government organizations around the world.

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Table of Contents
Introduction.................................................................................................................................. v
Young-Key Kim-Renaud

Acknowldegements..................................................................................................................... ix
Young-Key Kim-Renaud, R. Richard Grinker, and Kirk W. Larsen

Congratulatory Remarks........................................................................................................... 1
Kiwon Jang

Korean Education: A Philosophical and Historical Perspective................................... 3

Michael J. Seth

Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies in Korean K-12 Education:

A Critical Discourse Analysis on School Collapse Between 1999 and 2001............ 17
Jae Hoon Lim

The Uneven Burden of Vitality:

College Rank, Neoliberalism, and South Koreas New Generation........................... 33
Nancy Abelmann, Hyunhee Kim, and So Jin Park

Commentary: Korean Education............................................................................................. 53

Gregg Brazinsky

Profiles.......................................................................................................................................... 57

ne of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Korean people is their passion for educa-
tion, a passion that is arguably unmatched in the world. This fervor for learning, often labeled
the education syndrome, has deep roots in Koreas traditional respect for knowledge and
deep belief in continuous, life-long human development. This emphasis on learning derives largely
from the age-old Confucian belief that man is perfectible through education and that only the most
learned should govern the country and society.
For more than a millennium major positions of power were allocated by civil service examina-
tions, although the social structure was such that only the privileged class and its male members could
take them. Success in the examinations determined a familys fame and fortune. For Koreans, the ideal
leader was a scholar-ocial, which explains why King Sejong, sage king and inventor of the Korean
alphabet, is revered to this day.
Originally intended by the elite for its own edication and culture, education was at rst provided
to prospective leaders from aristocratic families to ensure high quality leadership. The Korean elite also
believed knowledge enhanced moral governance. Education thus served as a check against incompe-
tent or cruel government. At the same time, education also served to perpetuate the elites exclusive ac-
cess to power through self-improvement, allowing them to claim their special heaven-mandated status
even more convincingly.
Modern education, born at a time of great inux of Western democratic ideals ostensibly accepted
by all Koreans, has become accessible to everyone. Ironically, however, democratic education has now
become a mechanism for the formation and legitimation of new social classes, albeit oering some
chance of upward mobility even for people of the humblest origin. Even in the modern era, educational
attainment is accepted as one of the fairest measures of a persons worth, and scholars are still called
upon to ll some of the highest government positions. Education is also seen as an eective, fundamen-
tal instrument for nurturing national strength. The South Korean government emphasizes the countrys
education, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) is one of the most important executive branches of
government, in an interesting contrast with the equivalent body in the U.S. federal government.1
Koreans have achieved phenomenal progress in making education available to all citizens, and by
2000 South Koreas literacy rate was nearly one hundred percent. Koreans are among the most educated
people in the world. In step with the remarkable economic growth, which has made the South Korean
economy the 11th largest in the world, South Korean students have consistently achieved the highest
math, science, and problem-solving scores in international aptitude tests. This was not, however, always
the case. Merely sixty years ago, after Koreas liberation from 35 years of Japanese domination in 1945,
three out of four Koreans were illiterate, and fewer than ve percent of Korean schoolchildren contin-
ued their schooling after elementary school.
As soon as the Koreans regained their independence, they committed their wealth and soul to edu-
cating their children. Unlike in traditional Korea, total upward mobility was possible for many people
through educational attainment, and many dragons emerged from the sewage, as the Korean saying
goes. Koreans became obsessed with obtaining diplomastickets to a brighter world. Today, many
Koreans are active on the world stage, be it an academic, cultural, technical, medical, commercial, or
sports arena. Much of their success came with the help of their education, enhanced with other traits
such as entrepreneurial spirit, diligence, and a renewed sense of self-condence, and optimism.
2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities
Any obsession, of course, has a price. There are endless stories of the absurd measures people take
to send even very young children to the best schools including those in foreign countries. However,
what has impressed education specialists around the world is the rather exceptional fact that the South
Korean education system has been tailored to the needs of growth and structural change in the econo-
my. A decade ago, the World Bank had already produced a training video for the leaders of developing
countries entitled Global Lessons: Korean Education Reform, A Training Video for Policymakers
(1997). Another point of interest to the World Bank team was the fact that Koreans themselves were ex-
tremely critical of their own educational policies and practices in spite of the conspicuous, remarkable
progress they had made and the general respect they had received from foreign education specialists.
For the 2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium, we invited three experts who looked at the current sta-
tus of South Korean education system from dierent angles. Michael J. Seth, a historian, sees the Exam
Hell syndrome as very tightly related to the traditional meritocratic system, where passing civil service
examinations guaranteed social status and very comfortable economic power throughout a persons
life. In contrast with traditional educations emphasis on cultivating a moral being with good judgment,
however, the modern exam-driven society demands much sacrice on the part of the parents and of-
ten of the extended family and community. The modern measure of education seems, unfortunately,
to be in quantity and labels, rather than the formation and quality of a character grounded in shared
Jae Hoon Lim, an education specialist, analyzes the turn of the 20th century discourse on the so-
called school collapse voiced by many South Koreans who are feeling a sense of urgency. The tradi-
tionalist discourse reects a long-held view of education based on Confucian philosophy and practice.
In addition, there are others whom she calls democratic reformists, neo-liberalists, and de-school-
ing advocates. Such responses may be attributed to class aliation, but an even more critical deter-
minant in the debate is the ideological understanding of the purpose of education as perceived and
promoted by each of these dierent discourses. While the traditionalists and democratic reformists
share a commitment to a common goal of education for the entire community, neoliberalists and de-
schooling groups share a strong belief in individual choice, competition, and excellence. These broad
groups represent, of course, a vast array of opinions across all echelons of society. What seems clear
is that the South Korean educational system will break with tradition and no longer be of the same,
uniform mold.
Anthropologist Nancy Abelmann and her graduate students, Hyunhee Kim and So Jin Park, pres-
ent a fresh analysis of South Korean college students of dierent prestige and of various family back-
grounds. What emerges from every interview is the image of a new persona person who aspires to
the fullest vital human development and accepts the burden of managing that vital personal project.
Todays Korean student is a person who distinguishes her or himself from the past and is committed
to values of democracy, individualism, and cosmopolitanism. This new person is condent, ambitious,
and entrepreneurial. The new person phenomenon is part of the general emphasis on individuality
and the strong and striking creativity manifest in all sections of contemporary South Korean society.
The threat from the North notwithstanding, South Koreans have enjoyed continued peace for half a
century, and todays young people are growing as free agents. There is a clear sense of a renaissance in
South Korea today, and contemporary Koreans idea of education and socialization reects a broader,
richer, multi-faceted, and dynamic culture.

vi The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Koreans, both intellectual leaders and ordinary citizens, have shown disparate reactions to the am-
bitious scope and dizzying speed of recent educational reforms. The current debate centers on the
theme of equity vs. the need for elite education for national competitiveness, which has eectively
created a new ruling class. Some extreme measures have been taken to eliminate elite education by
abolishing the severely stratied secondary-school structure. Students have competed ercely to get
into top-ranked schools whose admission depended wholly on entrance examinations. Now that edu-
cation has become more egalitarian, some have fretted about the lack of elite education, though there
have been only limited attempts to address this perception. While the former system of elite education
through select high schools emphasized general liberal-arts training, the new elite education seems to
be bent on highly specialized skill acquisition, although interdisciplinary work seems to be encouraged
to some extent. Many also fear that, outside the few select schools and programs, the school system at
large will suer from low teacher and student morale, reduced funds, and a general drop in quality in
those institutions not chosen for such privileges.
The South Korean government has eagerly been listening to proposals for education reform from
domestic and international sources like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Develop-
ment (OECD). Some frequently discussed topics are decentralization in higher education, school au-
tonomy, an escape from exam-oriented education, the need for overall-person education, and enhanc-
ing creative thinking in education, as well as addressing the need for practical education for global
competitiveness. All of these issues are interrelated, and various attempts at meeting the current chal-
lenges seem reasonable.
The South Korean education system is still struggling with a thorny structural problemthe ex-
cessive weight it carries in Korean society. Extreme reliance on educational attainment as the sole or
rst criterion of a persons worth is being repudiated but is by no means a thing of the past. Education
reformers are considering measures for promoting a new standard of personal qualication. But with
no major change in perception, children growing up in such an atmosphere cannot avoid concentrat-
ing on means of getting them from one distinguished diploma and certication to the next. Abolishing
the examinations altogether does not seem to be a solution, either. In such a competitive environment,
if the admission process were completely based on overall records, extra-curricular activities, recom-
mendation letters, and personal essays, then the possibility of subjective assessment and the lack of
safeguards against corruption could be major threats to fair evaluation. Even if the selection process
were fair, the nancial burden on individual families would increase even more than the currently dis-
proportionate amount allotted to their childrens informal education.
Promoting creative thinking is, of course, crucial and frequently presented as a problem in Korean
education. However, South Koreans may not even realize it is already happening. Contributing to this
phenomenon is the narrowing of the gender gap. Korea took a long time to provide a public space for
women, but the new person discovered by Abelmann et al is at once a new woman. A new woman
is a harbinger of a new society, where pluralism rather than homogeneity is appreciated, and where
formal education is only a part of the individualized socialization process.

In January 2001 the MOE was restructured and renamed as the Ministry of Education & Human Resources Development
(MOEHRD), indicating its expanded scope ( For simplicity, we will keep referring to the
Ministry as MOE.
The Sigur Center Asia Papers vii

nce again, this years HMS Colloquium proceedings received very professional care from our
book designer and meticulous copy editor, Luke Johnson. Nancy Abelmann has oered valu-
able comments and suggestions to improve the volume, in spite of her new responsibilities as
Director of the Center for East Asian and Pacic Studies of the University of Illinois at Urbana Cham-
paign. Catarina Kim provided signicant and essential assistance, without which everything would
have taken so much more time and eort.
We thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with Lenore Miller, Director of the Luther W. Brady Art Gal-
lery of The George Washington University, for an exhibition of Lawrence M. Rozanski Korean Ceram-
ics collection, entitled Cultural Heritage through Ceramics (October 14, 2004December 10, 2004),
which was presented around the time of our colloquium. Mr. Rozanski allowed us to display selected
ancient Korean ceramics and objects that had never been seen by the general public. The 2004 HMS
Colloquium also beneted from the sponsorship of Mike Mochizuki, Director of the Sigur Center for
Asian Studies and Lenore Miller, Director of the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.
To these individuals and many others including all the participants in the audience, who have
helped us to maintain the ne quality of the colloquium series, we express our heartfelt gratitude and
joy of knowing them all and continuing our very enjoyable dialogue.

The Editors

October 2005
Washington, D.C.

The Sigur Center Asia Papers ix


Kiwon Jang

congratulate The George Washington University on holding the 11th Hahn Moo-sook Colloquium
in the Korean Humanities on behalf of the Korean Embassy. It is my great pleasure to be with you
at this famous academic forum today. I am also very glad to speak a few words of welcome to all
participants. And, special thanks go to Professor Young-Key Kim-Renaud for doing her best to orga-
nize this forum.
The HMS Colloquium has dealt with a variety of elds in Korean Humanities for the past ten years,
for example, arts, history, language, literature, thought, and religion. This year 'Education in Korea' be-
comes the main theme of the Colloquium. The honored speakers invited today will actively touch the
theme from various perspectives. Through a series of presentations and discussions, I hope that we can
nd out some meaningful implications on the future of Korean education.
The modern education system in Korea has a relatively short history. Even so, it can be said that
the system has shown great achievements in both quantitative and qualitative terms. A small example
might be that now educational opportunity is universal, and available to all people who want to take
an education, from primary school to university. Such a quantitative growth of education in Korea has
made signicant contributions to Koreas economic development and political democratization.
With this positive side of Korean education in mind, I would like to mention some issues being
discussed recently. These issues can be easily identied by looking at continuous education reforms.
Since the mid 1980's, large-scale education reforms have been initiated, without exception, by each new
government under strong presidential leadership right after every ve-year presidential election.
Education reforms cover almost every issue in the eld of education. Here I would like to introduce
hot issues being raised in primary, secondary education, and higher education.

Issues in primary and secondary education include:

how to reduce class size and how to build new schools to improve overcrowded schools,
how to increase educational budget up to the average of OECD Member States
how to keep a balance between academic and vocational education
how to lower private cost of education being borne by parents
how to utilize IT in schooling
how to harmonize equity and excellence in the high school system
how to improve the university entrance system and curriculum
2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

how to normalize high school education.

Issues in higher education might be largely concentrated on how to secure quality assurance:

how to dene changing role of colleges and universities in terms of HRD

how to evaluate and accredit university and college education
how to harmonize national and privateeducational institutions
how to downsize and restructure individual institutions to get more competitiveness
how to increase research capacity in postgraduate programs
how to recruit competent students.

Recently, through Korean newspapers and TV news, we can see a serious debate occurring in Korea
regarding whether or not to introduce a high school grading system at the national level,. This debate is
just one example. It shows that any one of issues mentioned above is not so easy to solve.
Today scholars with dierent academic background get together to exchange ideas and informa-
tion. I am sure that this forum will provide all participants with an exciting opportunity to create a
better understanding of Korean education. Please, enjoy todays events. I must wish the best of luck to
the HMS Colloquium and to all of you.

Thank you.

2 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education:
A Philosophical and Historical Perspective

Michael J. Seth

outh Korean education faces a number of private expenditures have grown faster. In 2003,
serious issues. These include: an overem- public spending on secondary education (grades
phasis on examination preparation; the 7-12) came to 4.5 million won per pupil while
high cost of education driven by private tutoring parents spent an average of 3.5 million won on
and cram schools; concerns over inequalities in private after school lessons (Korea Herald, 8 Janu-
educational opportunity as costs rise; overcrowd- ary, 2004). Spending on private after school les-
ed classrooms; pedagogy based on rote memori- sons rose by an estimated eleven percent in 2003,
zation rather than individual creativity; and the greatly outpacing not only the increases in public
belief that nations schoolingespecially at the funding for education, but also private spending
higher education levelis inadequate to meet the on housing, medicine, or any other major sector
requirements of a modernizing nation. of the economy (Korea Herald, 6 April, 2004).
South Koreas education is driven by exami- The percentage of families paying for private les-
nation preparation, particularly for the college sons has increased and children are beginning
entrance exam. While getting into a university such lessons much younger. It is estimated that
is not as dicult as it has been in the past, ad- in 2003, seventy-two percent all children from
missions at prestige universities remain highly grades 1-12 attend private lessons, a gure up
competitive. For this reason 26 percent of the from fty-eight percent in 2000 (Korea Herald,
examination takers in the 5 November 2003 en- 18 February, 2004).
trance exam were repeaters, students who chose Koreans fear that private tutoring undermines
to spend another year preparing to take the exam the egalitarian goals of the education system.
again rather than accept admission to a non- Since independence in 1948, South Koreans have
prestigious school (Korea Herald, 13 November, promoted equal educational opportunity through
2003). This places great pressure on students who a variety of measures, but how can there be equal-
study late into the night. Reports that at least ve ity of opportunity when auent parents spare no
suicides were associated with the November ex- expense on private lessons? The result has been a
ams illustrate the seriousness of this issue. The lack of condence in the educational systema
drive for exam success has, in turn, resulted in belief that classroom instruction alone is not ad-
parents devoting huge sums on private tutoring equate to prepare students. Furthermore, most of
and cram schools. The scale of this private spend- the public regards Korean colleges and universi-
ing is high and becoming higher. The government ties as not up to the highest standards. This has
has sought to counter this problem by signicant- led to an exodus of students to foreign universi-
ly increasing public education expenditures but ties. After suering national economic setbacks

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 3

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998 cational expansion was nothing short of a revolu-
and the devaluation of the won, the numbers of tion. In 1945, when the thirty-ve year Japanese
Korean students going abroad for education has colonial rule in South Korea ended, the majority
risen. Between 2001 and 2003 the expenditure on of adult Koreans were illiterate. At that time, mass
overseas education nearly doubled. This became primary education had only recently begun, and
an economic concern since it threatened to harm less than ve percent of the adult population had
the nations balance of payments. The record more than an elementary school education. There
number of students abroad in 2003 was, accord- was only one university in Korea, and most of its
ing to the director general of the Bank of Korea students were Japanese, not Korean. Five decades
attributable to the fact that Korean parents have later virtually all South Koreans were literate,
scrambled to send their children abroad due to a all young people attended primary and middle
loss of faith in the Korean education system (Ko- schools, and ninety percent graduated from high
rea Times, 30 September, 2003). school. There were over 180 colleges and univer-
To counter these problems the government sities; and the proportion of college age men and
responded with a number of measures. In late women who enrolled in higher education was
2003, the Seoul Metropolitan Oce of Educa- greater than in most European nations. The qual-
tion declared war on expensive tutoring and ity of education was high as well, at least judg-
late night cram schools (Korea Herald, 17 No- ing by comparative international tests. These tests
vember, 2003). In 2004, the Ministry of Educa- usually rate the math and sciences skills of South
tion announced a number of measures including: Korean primary and secondary students among
a plan to revive after-school study hours, so that the highest in the world.1
students would take lessons in school rather than From the 1950s to the 1990s South Korea was
outside of it; reducing class size; providing a wider on the extreme end of the correlation between
choice of schools for students to attend; increas- the general level of education and the level of eco-
ing programs for gifted young people; and con- nomic development, with a higher level of educa-
ducting stricter teacher evaluations that would tional attainment than other nations of compara-
include input from students and parents (Korea ble per capita income.2 As the country developed
Herald, 18 February 2004). The last measure was economically into a major industrial power, the
intended to place pressure on teachers to improve general level of educational attainment remained
the quality of their instruction, thus making cram higher than almost all other nations at similar
schools less appealing. Most of these eorts were levels of per capita GNP. That is, not only did ed-
greeted by public skepticism and rightly so since ucation keep abreast with the nations much ad-
these educational problems have a long history mired rapid economic development, it outpaced
in South Korea and are deeply rooted in the very it. Fascinatingly, this educational expansion was
factors that accounted for the countrys trans- largely paid for by students and their families.
forming itself into a well-schooled nation. During the four decades after 1945 South Korea
spent less of its government revenues of school-
Historical Background ing than the majority of developing countries.
This was because educational development was
The problems of South Korean schooling must driven by social demanda demand so strong
be set against the remarkable national education- that millions of middle class and even poor Ko-
al transformation after 1945. South Koreas edu- reans were willing to make enormous sacrice to

4 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education, Michael J. Seth
attain academic degrees for their children. the reigning orthodoxy in Korea in the four-
The roots of this explosive social demand teenth century and emphasized the perfectibil-
for schooling are found in Koreas centuries-old ity of all men and assumed that each individual
tradition in which formal learning and scholar- was capable of beneting by education and of
ship played a central role in society. This tradition, achieving moral enlightenment. Central to this
usually associated with Confucianism, entered ideology was the concept that society ought to
Korea from China more than fteen centuries be governed by men of talent and virtue, char-
ago. Education in traditional Korea was valued acteristics best demonstrated by mastery of the
both as a means of self-cultivation and as a way classics, self-discipline, and correct personal con-
to achieve status and power. An individual could duct. In conformity with these beliefs the schools
become virtuous through the study of ethically and civil examinations were theoretically opened
oriented Confucian classics. He could then play to all except outcast groups; however, a number
an informal role as a moral exemplar and as a of practices arose that limited access to both state
teacher and advisor to others, thus enhancing his schools and to the exams. In addition, preparing
status and inuence in society. As in other East for the examinations required many years of study,
Asian societies, Koreans highly esteemed the writ- so those whose parents could aord to nance
ten word and accorded great respect to scholars lengthy studies and hire tutors had an enormous
able to accomplish the prodigious task of master- advantage. And, as studies have shown, Korean
ing the accumulated body of literary and schol- society was one in which family lines, along with
arly works. While education was recognized as an rank and hierarchy, were strongly emphasized. In
end in itself, in practice, it was also generally seen reality, therefore, the examination system and the
as a means of social mobility and status selection. schools associated with it primarily served as a
Under the Chosn dynasty (1392-1910), a series means of allocating power, privilege, and status,
of highly competitive examinations served as the among members of the yangban aristocracy. In
means of selection for prestigious government later South Korean society the yangban ideal of
positions. Historians disagree over how open the a rened, elite individual or family whose virtue,
civil exams were to those of commoner status and moral excellence, and right to privilege was peri-
whether or not exams served only to allocate of- odically rearmed through educational achieve-
cial positions among members of the yangban ment would remain a model for aspiring middle
aristocratic elite (See Choe 1974, 1987; Watanabe and even lower class Koreans.
1969). All agree, however, that the examination As a result of the Confucian ideology and the
system acted as the main selection device for the use of examinations as a social selection device,
limited number of government posts and, conse- pre-modern Korea was a society in which formal
quently, the formal education was largely orga- learning, important as a means of acquiring pub-
nized around preparation for the exams. lic oce and for achieving personal moral perfec-
During this period there was an incongru- tion, was a major preoccupation. The rst West-
ity between the meritocratic ideal implied by the ern account of Korea written in the seventeenth
system on the one hand and a society emphasiz- century by a shipwrecked Dutch merchant who
ing bloodlines and kinship and dominated by a spent thirteen years in the country points this
hereditary aristocracy on the other. Korea was out:
the Confucian state par excellence. The Neo-
Confucianism developed in Song China became The nobles and the free men take great care for

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 5

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities
the education of their children. They place their number of higher education institutions, and re-
children under the direction of teachers to learn directed the curriculum away from literary pur-
to read and write. The people of this country suits and towards less prestigious technical edu-
are very enthusiastic about [education] and the
cation and vocational training. As a result, many
method they use is gentle and ingenious. Teach-
ers oer their students the teaching of earlier middle class families became frustrated by the
scholars and constantly cite their example of limited access to educational opportunities. This
those who attained fame through high scholar- unmet demand for educational advancement is a
ship. The boys devote their time to study day key factor in explaining South Koreas education
and night (Choe 1987: 98). fever since the end of the Second World War.
After liberation from Japan in 1945, the pent-
Literacy in Korea among males was probably up demand for education was immediately felt.
high by pre-modern standards and most likely Hundreds of new schools were opened at all lev-
increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centu- els yet were unable to accommodate the sudden
ries. An indication of this is the growth in private increase in enrollments. South Koreans poured
academies that promoted education among the into the schools after 1945 at a rate equaled by
yangban class. There is also some evidence that few other developing countries all despite the
the number of and enrollment in village schools extreme poverty of the late 1940s and 1950s,
expanded in the late Chosn period, but this is an the dislocation caused by the horribly destruc-
area that still awaits investigation. What is clear tive Korean War, and the political instability that
is that the elite families at least, devoted a great bred the popular overthrow of the corrupt Rhee
deal of energy and expense on education and ex- regime in 1960 and the military coup the brought
amination preparation. In this way they behaved Park Chung Hee to power in 1961.
much like modern South Korean families. The South Korean state established two im-
South Koreas social demand for education portant policies in the crucial post-liberation
was also shaped by the four decades of Japanese years that further contributed to the intense drive
rule. The colonial regime sequentially developed for education and its associated problems. The
a modern educational system with a concen- rst was the decision to end the strict tracking
tration on basic education followed by a slow system created by the Japanese. While secondary
growth in secondary and tertiary levels of school- schools remained divided by academic and voca-
ing. While emphasizing the importance of educa- tional focus, neither were terminal and both could
tion at home and creating what would become a lead to higher education. There was no structural
comprehensive system of public education in the winnowing of students, and all could and soon
peninsula, the colonial ocials limited Koreans most did seek to advance to higher levels result-
access to upper levels of schooling and assigned ing in erce competition. Second was the states
them to inferior schools. From the start, the pur- early commitment to universal and uniform ba-
pose was to create a system that was regarded as sic education. This eliminated the sharp dispari-
more appropriate for Koreas level of develop- ties between regions and social classes that often
ment. The dominant view among Japanese poli- characterized developing nations. While this
cymakers was that Korea was a backward society, contributed to social cohesion and provided a lit-
and that this backward society should occupy erate workforce with the skills needed for a newly
a subordinate position in the empire. Japanese industrializing economy, it also generated strains
wartime policies after 1938 further limited the between the demand for higher levels of educa-

6 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education, Michael J. Seth
tion and the states eorts to prevent an over- tion with the use of naesin, but in general, en-
supply of advanced degree holders. This made trance into secondary schools in the late 1940s
competition for entry into the restricted higher and 1950s was determined by written subject
educational tiers ercer, adding to the intensity tests prepared by the schools sta or the provin-
of South Koreas education fever. Taking advan- cial education board (J. Kim 1985: 71). At the
tage of the social demand for education the state university-level, each institution administered
transferred the burden of nancial support to the written entrance exams based on subject areas.
students and their families. Thus the problems as- As in the case of secondary schools, a brief ex-
sociated with contemporary South Korean edu- periment with a national exam in 1954 proved so
cation quickly emerged. unpopular it was discontinued the following year
(Kynghyang sinmun, 27 December 1954).
Emphasis on Examination Preparation The examination system was widely criticized.
It was felt by many educators, journalists, and
Soon after 1945, the social demand for edu- MOE ocials that there was excessive pressure
cation led to what the Korean press referred to on children, and that it led to a situation in which
as examination mania, and this preoccupation teachers too often saw their role as preparing stu-
with entrance examinations emerged as a central dents for the exams. Both charges were well sup-
problem in education. The test-taking ordeal for ported. Some schools oered special classes held
South Korean students began with the middle- in the evenings or weekends and collected tuition
school entry examination that twelve-year olds for them. This was especially common in Seoul
took, and continued with the high school en- and Pusan, which had the greatest concentration
trance exam and culminated in the university en- of students, money, and socially ambitious par-
trance test. Criticism of the emphasis on entrance ents (Tonga ilbo, 20 November 1949).
exams among educators and in the press rst When the military government under Park
appeared shortly after liberation from Japan. As Chung Hee (1961-1979) came to power, it sought
early as 1949, the Ministry of Education (MOE) to control school entry exams by restricting appli-
responded by ordering that the entrance exams cants to middle schools and high schools in their
be replaced by intellectual and physical tests, and resident city or province (Korea Times, 5 August
that admittance to higher-level schools be also 1961). The MOEs purpose in enforcing this regu-
based on naesin, reports by the teacher of a childs lation was to halt the tendency of rural families to
achievement and character (J. Kim 1985:70). This move into the cities before entrance examination
proved dicult to implement. Criteria for intel- registration time in order for their children to
lectual tests could not be agreed upon, and the take exams for higher rated urban schools. Fam-
teachers reports seemed arbitrary and confusing. ily registers were checked to ensure that parents
In 1951, the MOE instituted a National Compre- were in fact residents of the city or province where
hensive Examination System (kukka ynhap ko- their children were applying to schools and that
saje) to provide a uniform entrance exam for all they had not moved to an urban area just prior to
secondary schools. This proved unpopular with registering their children for the exams. In spite
public and private school ocials. Due to wide- of these eorts, most still attempted to get into
spread protests by school principals and educa- the most prestigious schools. December 1961
tors, the MOE abandoned the procedure after proved to be no exception, with competition ra-
only two years. There was further experimenta- tios for desirable secondary schools in Seoul be-

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

ing around two to one, while institutions with tested their ordered transfers out of Pusan (Korea
lower rankings failed to meet their quotas (Korea Times, 28 June 1974). In any case, families contin-
Times, 23 November 1961). Further eorts to re- ued to nd ways to circumvent regulations.
form the college entrance exams in 1962, 1964, When Chun Doo-Hwan came to power in
1969, 1970, and 1972 similarly had little eect. 1980 his administration sought to gain legitima-
The most signicant reform of the exami- cy by carrying out the July 30 Education Reform,
nation system under Park Chung Hee was the so named for the date it was publicly announced.
gradual abolition of the middle school entrance Under the measure, the state transferred adminis-
examination carried out between 1969 and 1971. tration of the college entrance examination from
The abolition of the middle school and the high individual schools to the central government. A
school examination a few years later did not sig- College Entrance Preliminary Qualication Test
nicantly reduce the examination pressure, how- used during the preceding Park regime had not
ever, shifting the entire focus of education to the proven to be an eective screening device since
college entrance examination. Consequently, the number allowed to pass had become, by the
there was no abatement in the heated competi- late 1970s, two-hundred percent of the enroll-
tion for college entrance and its attendant evils. ment quota and because students who failed the
Rather, competition only became more intense. test could repeat it the next year (Yi 1986: 231).
The greatest problem was the varying reputations As a result, the Final Selection Test given by in-
of school districts. For in spite of all the eorts dividual universities was more crucial. The July
at equalization, the reputations of certain school 30 Education Reform abolished both the state
districts for producing the greatest number of suc- sponsored preliminary test and the Final Selec-
cessful exam-takers continued to grow. In Seoul, tion Test, replacing them with a new College
the Eighth School District established in the new Entrance Achievement Test. This was now the
upper middle class section of Apkujng-dong, a sole entrance examination. While the new tests
sea of high-rise apartments constructed in the content was not signicantly dierent from the
1970s, had the greatest reputation for academic earlier state preliminary test, its role was far more
success. It became the most sought after place of important (Kwak 1991: 45-55). The College En-
residence and real estate prices soared. The repu- trance Achievement Test (naesin) was given
tations were, of course, self-fullling; the greater greater weight and colleges could admit up to
the fame of a school district for placing its gradu- thirty percent of students over their quota, but
ates in universities, the more it attracted wealthier they had to graduate only their allotted quota.
residents who could lavish large sums on private This admission over quota, graduation by quota
tutoring, which in turn added to the success rate policy, as it was labeled, meant that institutions of
of its high school students. Students often ille- higher learning had to unk a substantial num-
gally transferred into schools from less reputable ber of students by their senior year. This was a
school districts. Residency could be faked, and new practice, since in South Korea few students
crackdowns occurred regularly. The removal of dropped out of college, and fewer unked out.
illegal transfers could occasionally result in noisy But universities unwilling to lose tuition revenue
protests like those in the spring of 1974, when a or to angry parents saw to it that few students ac-
number of pupils refused to move back to their tually had to withdraw.
own districts (Korea Times, 29 March 1974). In Throughout the 1990s, the MOE endlessly
the same year 500 pupils from rural areas pro- tinkered with the examination system, changing

8 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education, Michael J. Seth
the rules almost annually. Entrance examinations teachers made schooling at all levels a nancial
remained a national obsession, the subject of burden for those of modest means. Gradually the
newspaper articles, books, a number of popular state increased its spending on public education
lms, and countless commissions, public hear- but growth in private lessons meant the nancial
ings, and forums. Attention focused on the dam- burden of schooling did not diminish for most
age the examinations did to mental health, with Korean families. Both the ability of the state to
frequent reports on teenage suicides and the vic- shift the burden of expense on education con-
tims bitter notes complaining of their failure to sumers during the early decades after 1945 and
live up to their parents expectations. Such inci- the costly nature of schooling were the result of
dences became a staple fare for popular movies the publics drive for educational attainment. Ed-
and novels. There were also reports of physical ucational demand was so strong that many fami-
abuse of young people by parents and teachers lies were prepared to make whatever sacrice was
who were, in part, driven by the pressure to see necessary to place their children in school. As a
to it that their charges performed well on exams. result, the cost of education escalated in the 1980s
One 1996 study found that ninety-seven percent and 1990s.
of all children reported being beaten by parents The greatest single factor in the escalating
and/or teachers, many of them frequently. This price of schooling was private tutoring and out-
was attributed primarily to the pressure to do well of-school lessons known as kwaoe. Kwaoe not only
in school (Korea Newsreview, 27 January 1996, placed an enormous burden on Korean families,
34). More ineective reforms were carried out but also accentuated the impact of income among
in the 1990s but brought no fundamental change sectors of society and undermined the policy of
in the use of entrance examinations as the main egalitarian access to education. Furthermore, it
mechanism for deciding who gained access to represented a drain on resources that economic
higher education and were admitted to prestige planners would rather have seen in savings and
institutions. Even if the state chose to abolish the used for capital investment. As early as November
entrance examination, the competition for entry 1955, President Rhee issued a public statement
into the best schools and the best departments ordering all schools to end these extra classes. In
would resurface in some other way since the pur- the same statement he urged all schools and of-
suit of education was about status, with prestige cials to make a maximum eort to combat the
degrees the primary marker of said status. evil practice (The Korean Republic, 14 November
1955). This began a pattern of periodically ban-
Kwaoe Fever ning extra classes and then lifting the bans after
admitting the bans ineectiveness over the next
Parental drive to seek prestige degrees for four decades. An ocial ban on private tutor-
their children created the issue of private lessons, ing in 1980, for example, proved to be ineec-
a problem that has plagued education since the tive, was moderated, and eventually abandoned.
1950s. From 1945 South Korean students and par- The Korean Educational Development Institute
ents largely paid for education themselves, as one in estimated in early 1995 that families paid 17
of the most pronounced features of the Korean trillion wn (US$ 21 billion) on direct educa-
educational system was the states weak scal sup- tional expenditures like tuition, mandatory fees,
port. A variety of school fees, compulsory PTA extracurricular activities sponsored by schools,
dues, fees for exam papers, and informal gifts to transportation, and textbooks. By contrast, total

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

government public expenditure on education in parents began sending children abroad when the
1994 amounted to 16.7 trillion wn. That is, the restrictions on overseas travel eased following the
public paid 51 percent of the total direct cost of 1988 Seoul Olympics. Thousands of families sent
education. In addition, an estimated six trillion children to US high schools where they would pay
wn was spent on private tutoring. According a Korean family in America an average of two or
to the KEDI study, when tutoring was included, three thousand US dollars a month to watch over
parents and students absorbed 69 percent of the their child. By 1995, this practice was growing so
costs of education (Korea Newsreview, 4 February fast that the government enacted restrictions to
1995, 12; Korea Herald, 24 January 1995). State prevent it, citing the drain on the balance of pay-
expenditures on education accounted for about 4 ments.
percent of GNP, somewhat less than in most de- All indicators suggest that educational ex-
veloped countries, but if the total costs were to be penses were rising faster than the cost of living
calculated, Koreans spent as much as 12 percent and the rate of increase was accelerating. A 1999
of their GNP on education, considerably higher study found that costs of education rose 2.5 times
than most other industrialized nations. from 1988 and 1998, outstripping the increase
In reality, the costs of education are really in cost of food, housing, health, transportation,
much greater than even these gures suggest. utilities or any other major category of expenses
First, the cost of private tutoring is very hard to (Korea Times, 19 January 1999). According to a
estimate since a great deal of it lies outside the report of the National Statistical Oce in 1997,
formal economy. Several surveys conducted in urban workers spent 9.8 percent of their income
the mid 1990s came up with varying gures of the on education up from 6.7 percent in 1987, while
average expenditure on after school lessons. One rural families devoted a smaller proportion of
survey undertaken in mid 1993 estimated that their income to education. South Korea, in 1997,
private tutoring for high school students came was eighty-ve percent urban. The magnitude of
to 580,000 wn a month ($465) (Korea Herald, this expenditure can perhaps be understood by
4 June 1993). Although some ocials expressed comparing it with that of Japan, where a similar
private doubts on the accuracy of these gures, it obsession with educational achievement had cre-
was clear that the amounts spent were enormous. ated the same reliance on expenditures on private
Furthermore, while a huge exam cramming in- lessons and tutoring. In Japan, urban workers
dustry had always existed, it continued to grow spent 5.4 percent of their income on education up
in the 1990s. Kwaoe frenzy provided lucrative from 4.7 percent in 1987 (Korea Times, 6 August
economic opportunities, with well-known pri- 1997). While Japanese commentators regarded
vate instructors charging as much as 1,500,000 this as a major economic and social problem, and
wn a month (US $2,100) for lessons at their the juku (cram school) was a ubiquitous feature of
institutes, although the average fee was much life, the economic burden was still modest by Ko-
less. Three quarters of college students engaged rean standards. Despite public awareness of how
in private tutoring with their average income in costly the educational system had become at the
1995 estimated between 300 and 400,000 wn a start of the twentieth century, all trends suggested
month. Parents had always spent large amounts that families spending on education was continu-
on private lessons at hagwns (cram schools), on ing to rise faster than income. The nancial crisis
private tutors, and on special lessons given by of 1997-1998 may have slowed spending a bit, but
teachers after class and during breaks. Wealthier after 2000 spending on private tutoring and cram

10 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education, Michael J. Seth
schools grew at an alarming rate. terized the country until the nineteenth century.
The American missionaries, Japanese colonial
Concern for Equal Opportunity Education rulers, and Korean intellectuals exposed to mod-
ern ideas all preached a sort of democratic ideal
One of the great contradictions of South Ko- of a society based on merit. The concept of equal
rean culture has been the concern for assigning opportunity had some basis in the nations tradi-
rank and status in a society where egalitarian ide- tions as well. Confucianism had always stressed
als were strong. An informal ranking system for the idea of merit as the only valid criterion for
secondary schools has existed since the colonial judging an individual and awarding status. With-
period. At the top, the most prestigious second- in the Confucian school of thought was another
ary schools were (in descending order) Kynggi powerful idea: that each person had the capability
Middle/High School, Seoul Middle/High School, to be a moral exemplar and to provide leadership
and Kyngbok High School. For girls, there was in society. Since education was key to moral per-
Kynggi Girls School and Ewha Girls School. All fection, education was by implication something
save Ewha were public schools, which in gener- that any person could utilize in order to manifest
al had higher prestige than private institutions. his virtue. In practice, access to higher educa-
All schools outside of Seoul were strictly second tional institutions and the civil examinations was
rank, but each region had its own hierarchy. At restricted to members of elite lineages, but with
the top of the university hierarchy the elite school the breakdown of the old order in Korea, a popu-
was Seoul National University (SNU), estab- lar belief that this educational avenue should be
lished by the Japanese in 1925 and known then open to all emerged. Millions of Koreans clung to
as Keij University. No other institution could this idea with great conviction and were intoler-
quite compare in prestige and entry into SNU ant of unfair access to schooling.
was the dream of millions of Korean youths and Another related but somewhat dierent con-
their families. Second in the ranking was Yonsei cept, uniformitya sort of equality of condi-
University, and in third place, Korea University. tionalso had a strong pull on South Koreans.
Both schools are private institutions in Seoul. The It came in part from the socialist conceptions
rankings for other universities have varied some- of a mass society that greatly inuenced Korean
what over time but the rst three institutions have intellectuals and writers in the 1920s and 1930s
remained securely at the pinnacle of the prestige and from the ethnic-racial nationalism derived
hierarchy. from Europe and Japan. It colored the concept
The hierarchy of schools ran counter to the of nationalism in Korea that emphasized a uni-
strong egalitarian strain in South Korean cul- form, homogeneous nation. Korean national-
ture. In public policy this was expressed by the ists of all political stripes were proud of the long
term uniformity of education, which took two unity and ethnic homogeneity of their nation that
forms. One was the idea that educational oppor- gave it uniqueness and a clearly dened identity.
tunity should be open to all. As the debates over Nationalist rhetoric and even textbooks proudly
the Education Law illustrated, there was a strong proclaimed Korea to beTongil minjok (united
belief in universal educational opportunity. This race/nation), a nation of one-people a single
idea stemmed from the spread of egalitarian blood even a single mind.3 The two concepts
and democratic ideas that rejected the rigid and of a socio-economically egalitarian society and
largely hereditary class structure that had charac- the ultra-nationalist ideal for a national, ethnic-

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

racial, and ideological unity together resulted in introduced at the middle school level, a massive
an intolerance of glaring social inequalities. transfer of middle school teachers took place in
In the rhetoric on schooling, uniformity of Seoul with eighty percent reassigned. In the same
education meant that the school system had to year, school buses were acquired to transport stu-
be more than just open to all; it had to be fairly dents to schools too far away to walk to (Korea
open to all and uniform in content and standard. Times, 11 February 1969).
Yet this conicted with a rank-conscious society In 1973, a commission of ocials and private
quick to assign every school and school district a educators drew up the High School Equalization
place in a status hierarchy. The tension between Plan that eliminated the high school entry ex-
education as a grantor of status and Koreas bur- ams, used a lottery to admit new high school stu-
geoning egalitarianism was a reection of a society dents and sought to make sure that facilities and
assimilating new Western ideas while adhering to instruction was uniform in all schools. Worried
traditional Confucian cultural values. The mod- about swelling city populations, the government
ern ideals of democracy and equality had won thought that the policy would also slow down
broad acceptance among a citizenry that simulta- the move into the cities by families seeking bet-
neously continued to view the world in hierarchi- ter educational opportunities (Park 1988: 2-5). In
cal conceptual categories. For post-1945 South the 1990s, the MOE oered special aid and schol-
Korea uniformity of education meant, at the very arships to upgrade all provincial universities, al-
least, that the entrance examination system ought though this did little to change public perception
to be fair. In ocial policy this was often termed that all provincial colleges were second rate. The
the equalization of education. At the time of the state also used school records to give advantage
debates over the Education Law in 1949-1951, to poor rural areas by weighing the scores as if
the idea of early tracking was rejected. Only by all secondary schools were of the same standard.
making no level of education terminal could ac- An armative action policy set a quota for stu-
cess to upper tiers of schooling be assured (Seth dents from shing villages and remote areas that
2002: 866-877). As a result, even vocational high universities were required to fulll, in 1996 this
schools oered college preparatory courses. program was expanded (Korea Times, 12 April
The Korean public remained ever vigilant for 1996).
any attempts to create an elitist school system. Educational ocials often insisted that the
To prevent this, a rigidly uniform curriculum was standards in elementary and secondary schools
introduced in the mid 1950s. In order to prevent be consistent enough to insure fairness in educa-
low-income students from being ghettoized in tional opportunity (Im Hyng and Kim Chingyu,
poor schools, the MOE created a lottery system in Ministry of Education examination ocials, in-
1968 that randomly assigned students to schools terviews by author, Seoul, 1996). But primary
within large school districts designed to include and secondary schools were not completely equal
both wealthy downtown areas and the poorer since those in the better districts outperformed
outskirts of cities. The lottery system, however, other schools. Much of this was due simply to
was not popular with many parent and teachers the fact that parents with greater nancial re-
groups, and was criticized as creating a gambling sources and who were better educated themselves
mentality (Korea Times, 6 June 1966). Nonethe- tended to move into these districts. Uniformity
less, it was enforced in the name of equalization. and equality have also been challenged since the
In 1969, one year after the lottery system was 1990s by the educational reforms intended to

12 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education, Michael J. Seth
give greater autonomy to individual high schools protests by teachers, journalists, civil groups, and
and colleges in their admission processes and angry letters to newspapers against eorts to al-
curricula. Equality has also been threatened by low for modications of standardized school pol-
the rise of free marketers within the bureaucracy, icy in recent years suggests that the South Korean
the academy, and the media who have questioned public is still animated by the same concerns for
the attempts by the state to micro-manage educa- personal advancement, social justice and equal-
tion and have called for the liberation of educa- ity, and the right of families to enhance their ma-
tion from government restrictions. Some provin- terial existence and their social position through
cial boards of education have experimented with hard work and education.
permitting private high schools to recruit fresh-
men from within a certain geographical range. Scaling the Ivy Walls
In 1995, the Seoul Board of Education followed
these initiatives and allowed private high schools The pursuit of status enhancing degrees has
to select freshmen from within ten educational led to great sacrices by Korean families seeking
districts beginning in 1998; admission was to be an advance degree abroad and has been to the
based on middle school records, not on entry ex- detriment of domestic institutes of higher learn-
aminations. This was necessary, board members ing. Throughout their history, Koreans have gone
argued, because the uniform system of admission abroad for education. Tang China had a large
brought down overall quality of education (Ko- number of Korean students. During the Japa-
rea Herald, 27 January 1995). nese colonial rule when opportunities for higher
But these changes brought protests from vari- education at home were limited, thousands of
ous civil groups including the Chngyojo an ac- Koreans studied in Japan while a small trickle at-
tive teachers union that was illegal until 1999. tended universities in Europe and America. US
These groups argued that undermining the prin- economic development programs and the close
ciple of equality of opportunity would give an un- cooperation between some American universi-
fair advantage to those that could aord the ad- ties and schools in Korea aided in the migration
ditional preparations and private tutors for their of students to American universities after 1945. A
middle school children. It was feared that the foreignespecially USuniversity degree gen-
egalitarian education system was being threat- erally held more prestige in South Korea than a
ened, even if only in a limited way (Yu Sang-duk, degree from a local institution. US trained tech-
Vice-President of the Chngyojo, interview by nocrats dominated many government ministries
author, Seoul, June 1996). The plan was conse- and staed the large corporate conglomerates. In
quently delayed. recent years the state has attempted to improve
The popular zeal for educational advance- the quality of research facilities with such pro-
ment had been based on the breakdown of the grams as Brain 2000 that channels government
barriers that had once separated the elite from the funds into universities specializing in research
non-elite. The egalitarian beliefs that surfaced on and development.4 Indeed, by many measures,
the peninsula after 1945 have shaped the educa- the standards at South Korea major graduate
tional system structured to allow for maximum programs have improved although they still lag
social mobility. Faith in social mobility has pro- behind the top universities in the US and West-
pelled educational expansion and provided the ern Europe.
foundation for democracy and prosperity. The While this has beneted Korea in many ways,

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

with professionals trained at the very best schools highly literate society.
abroad, it has also hampered universities at home
with undergraduate students often focused on Works Cited
GRE and TOEFL exams and graduate programs
bereft of the potentially best students. Counter- Choe, Yong-ho. 1987. The Civil Examinations
measures have not only failed to signicantly ad- and the Social Structure in the Yi Dynasty
dress this issue but the drive for prestige degrees Korea, 1392-1600. Seoul: Korean Research
has led to an increasing number of young South Society.
Koreans skipping local colleges and universi- _____. 1974. Commoners in the Yi Dynasty
ties altogether and seeking admission to foreign, Civil Examinations as Aspect of Social Struc-
usually US, undergraduate programs. Instead of ture, Journal of Asian Studies 33 (4): 611-32.
schools such as Seoul National, Yonsei, and Korea Hong, Ung-sn. 1991. Kwangbok hue sin kyo-
University, students are seeking degrees from elite yuk undong 1946-1949: Chosn kyoyuk
schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and ynguhoerl chungsimro (The New Educa-
Yale. This only creates another educational ex- tion Movement after Liberation, 1946-1949,
pense associated with English lessons and US test Centered on the Chosn Educational Re-
preparation companies such as Kaplan and The search Society). Seoul: Taehan Kyogwas.
Princeton Review. States the director of Overseas Kim, Jongchol [Kim Chong-chl]. 1985. Edu-
Education at Kaplan, If you are smart and you cation and development: Some essays and
are rich, you have to have a US diploma, simple as thoughts on Korean education. Seoul: Seoul
that (Korea Herald, 27 December, 2003). National University Press.
Kwak, Byng-sun. 1991. Examination hell in
Conclusion Korea revisited: An external malady in edu-
cation? Koreana 5 (2): 45-55.
South Koreas current educational woes McGraw, Barry. 2005 OECD Perspectives on Ko-
have a long history. For the past fty years edu- rean Educational Achievements in OECD/
cators, parents, and government ocials have World Bank/ KEDI, International Conference
complained about the overemphasis on prepara- on 60 Years of Korean Education: Achieve-
tion for entrance examinations, the enormous ex- ments and Challenges. Seoul, June 2005.
penditures on private tutoring and cram schools, Meyer, John W., Francisco O. Ramirez, Richard
the threat to educational opportunity private les- Robinson, and John Boli-Bennett. 1979. The
sons pose, and the seemingly inadequate state of World Educational Revolution, 1950-1970.
higher education that results in so many to seek In Meyer and Hannan, eds., 37-55.
advance degrees at foreign universities. None of Park, Bu Won. 1988. The state, class and educa-
the attempts to deal with these issues have been tional policy: A study of South Koreas high
very successful because they do not address their school equalization policy. (Ph.D. dissertation,
fundamental cause: the drive by students and University of Wisconsin-Madison.)
their families to enhance or maintain social sta- Republic of Korea, Ministry of Education. 1963.
tus by earning prestige degrees. This is widely Mungyo tonggye yoram (Outline of educa-
recognized in South Korea. The irony is that this tional statistics). Seoul: Mungyobu.
drive was largely the motor the powered the na- Seth, Michael J. 2002. Creating a Korean educa-
tions transformation into a modern, prosperous, tional system, 1945-1951, in Embracing the

14 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education, Michael J. Seth
Other: The Interaction of Korean and Foreign
Cultures, Proceedings of the 1st World Con-
gress of Korean Studies. Seoul: The Korean
Academy of Korean Studies.
Watanabe, Manabu. 1969. Kinsei chsen kyiku
kenky (History of Modern Korean Educa-
tion). Tokyo: Yuzonkaku.
Yi, Chin-jae et al. 1986. Uri nara sihm chedo i
pynchn sa (The History of the Change in Ko-
rean School Entrance Examination Systems).
Seoul: Chungang Kyoyuk Pyngkawn.


1. In the second test of OECD Program for International

Student Assessment in given to upper level secondary
students in 2003 South Korea ranked rst out of 41
in problem solving, second in reading, third in math
and fourth in science. Dropped to fourth from rst
place in science in 2001. Given in near end secondary
school. Barry McGraw, OECD Perspectives on Korean
Educational Achievements in OECD/World Bank/
KEDIs International Conference on 60 Years of Korean
Education: Achievements and Challenges, Seoul, June 2005.
2. The mean primary school enrollment rate for the
fty-six poorest nations measured in 1970 GNP per
capita terms (which includes South Korea) grew from
37 percent to 53 percent in 1960 and 72 percent in 1970.
For secondary school enrollments the gures are 5.3, 9.4
and 17 percent respectively (Meyer et al. 1979: 40). In
the case of South Korea if we start in 1945 (1950 gures
are unreliable) we nd that primary school enrollment
grew from about 37 percent to 96 percent in 1960 and
100 percent by 1965. At the secondary level enrollment
grew from about 4 percent in 1945 to 29 percent in 1960.
Republic of Korea, Ministry of Education. 1963. Mungyo
tonggye yoram (Outline of educational statistics). Seoul:
Mungyobu , 43-44.
3. For examples of the inuence of nationalism on
education thinking see Hong 1991: 45-63.
4. Research facilities at leading South Korean universities
have improved greatly in recent years, enough to draw
some international attention. See Asias New High-Tech
Tiger Chronicle of Higher Education, (23 July, 2004), 34.

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 15

Class Reproduction and Competing
Ideologies In Korean Education:
A Critical Discourse Analysis on School Collapse, 1999-2001

Jae Hoon Lim

outh Koreas educational system has been rather intensied, especially in terms of qualita-
commended for its contribution to the tive dierentiation(Phang 2004: 71).
countrys rapid economic growth during The relationship between class and education
the last four decades. Several Korean and inter- in Korean society is, however, rather complex.
national scholars (Ellinger and Beckham 1997; What is often missing in the majority of the criti-
Han 1994; Y. Kim 2000) have attributed the na- cal research is the comparative nature of this phe-
tions economic success to an educational system nomenon. It is rather ironic that several cross-
that provided the quality workforce required for national analyses and Organization for Economic
economic expansion. Like many other develop- Co-Operation and Development (OECD) reports
ing countries in Southeast Asia, the South Korean actually point out the opposite. South Korea is
government established a strong public school often listed as one of the countries where social
system and used it as the primary tool for the class has a minimal impact on educational success
countrys nation-building project. Schools intro- compared to other countries (Jeong and Armer
duced a new set of values, ideologies, and skills 1994, OECD 2001). Researchers have identied
that support the political-economic structure of various factors and forces that fundamentally af-
the society. Therefore, there has been little doubt fect the nature and degree of educational equality
that the Korean public school system, despite its or inequality in the society. Cultural values and
relatively short history, played a signicant role in beliefs deeply embedded in the societal contexts
the nation building process of South Korea. and discourses are often referred to as critical ele-
With its rapid economic growth and emer- ments shaping the unique characteristics of Ko-
gence of a more democratic civilian government rean education (Lee and Brinton 1996; Sorensen
since the 1990s, education in South Korea has, 1994).
however, faced a new set of challenges. In partic- Korean education, as represented in its K-
ular, issues of educational equity have attracted 12 school system, has exhibited an interesting
great attention from both educational research- mixture of dierent, even conicting, ideologies
ers and the general public who perceived an ed- from its inception. On one hand, the Confucian
ucational system that reected upper or middle philosophy that reigned as the ocial governing
class interests and contributed to the status quo. philosophy of the Chosn Dynasty (1392-1910),
Several research studies on the impact of class on and now stands rm as the foundation of Korean
various aspects of the educational system and so- culture as a whole heavily inuenced the struc-
cietal practice (Robinson 1994) often concluded ture and human relationships in schools. On the
educational inequality between social strata other hand, democratic ideology and individual-

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

ism were constantly introduced in the contents tionwide scope of the phenomenon in May 1999
of the national curriculum. Based on the mixture (M. Kim 2000). However, the school collapse dis-
of Confucian philosophy and education for de- course became part of heated public discourse
mocracy, the intrinsic moral and ethical value of mainly through the mass medias contribution.
learning was emphasized yet the instrumental, In particular, the role of three major newspapers,
extrinsic value of learning to meet the needs of Chosun, DongA, and Joongang Ilbo, was signi-
national economic development was also pre- cant. The most critical contribution was made
sented as one of the primary goals of education. by a series of TV documentary programs by two
During the last four decades, however, the major broadcasting companies, KBS and MBC.
fundamental dierence and potential conict Following the TV programs, many academic so-
among the dierent discourses that coexisted in cieties and research institutions opened up a se-
the educational enterprise in South Korea was ries of discussions on the phenomenon of school
not apparent due to many reasons (e.g., little collapse.
resistance to Confucian relational ethics, the Even though some scholars posed a more
governments strong involvement, etc). This con- skeptical point of view about the very existence
ict became clearly visible during the course of of school collapse as a real social reality (W. Kim
a heated public debate on hakkyobunggoe or 2000; D. Kim 2002), many survey data from a
school collapse1 between 1999 and 2001. I will variety of organizations with contrasting educa-
analyze the four dierent educational discourses tional views seemed to verify that there had been
that were part of the public debate on the school a signicant change in schools, namely the phe-
collapse phenomenon in South Korea between nomenon of school collapse (Chn 1999b; Yun,
1999 and 2001. This analysis will, I believe, illu- Yi and Pak 1999).2 The level of profoundness or
minate the socio-political nature of the debate of seriousness of the change, and possible solutions
school collapse, and its relationship with the fun- to it varied across dierent participants in the
damental purpose of education as adopted and debate. Interestingly enough, the debate on school
promoted by dierent groups based on their class collapse presented at least four dierent groups
and ideological aliation. of unique voicesdiscoursesthat stemmed
from fundamentally dierent social, cultural, and
Origins of the School Collapse Discourse political ideologies and classes.

The school collapse discourse can be traced Theoretical Lens

back to the Korea Educational Research Institutes
winter seminar in January 1999 (Chamgyoyuk A variety of social and cultural phenomena
Silchn Wiwnhoe 1999) and a series of discus- and human experiences exist even before we
sions and technical reports within the Chnguk name them and communicate them in the form
Kyojigwn Nodongjohap (Korean Teachers Union of public discourse. Some of our experiences re-
or KTU) beginning in May 1999 (M. Kim 2000). main unnamed and even unacknowledged with-
The Chamgyoyuk Silchn Wiwnhoe (Committee out the opportunity to integrate them into the
for Praxis for True Education), one of the KTUs public discourse. Others successfully enter the
sub-committees, reported the existence of school realm of public discourse by integrating a vari-
collapse in several city schools and the unions ety of social and cultural phenomena and experi-
national executive committee discussed the na- ences that share similar characteristics, creating

18 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies, Jae Hoon Lim
a category that encompasses such phenomena the social through being the primary domain of
and experiences under a certain name. This pro- ideology and through being both a site of, and a
cess, though seemingly natural and often uncon- stake in, struggles for power" (1989, 15). Based
sciously undertaken by the participants, is a po- on this theoretical lens, I will explain four dier-
litical process, one that creates a new language to ent discourses that competed with one another
describe a social phenomenon, and uses it in a in the appropriation process of the phrase school
particular context with a particular intention al- collapse in South Korea during 1999-2002.
ways implying its political nature.
The phenomenon of school collapse did not
Traditionalists: A Discourse of Confucian
exist in Korean society until early 1999. The term
Ethics of Human Relationship
had primarily used to describe the problems of
school absenteeism in Japan. Few people paid
attention to the term, and the social phenom- Several senior scholars and educators inter-
enon, because it seemed to have little relevance preted the phenomenon of school collapse as a
to Korean society. By the end of 1999, however, disastrous, yet natural, consequence of the moral
the term has gained a powerful social meaning anomie prevalent in contemporary Korean so-
in describing the daunting challenge faced by the ciety. They explained that school collapse was
entire Korean educational system. The phrase largely caused by the two factors; the lack of
was popularized by a series of heated public and proper discipline for children at home, and a se-
academic debates. Multiple, even contradictory, ries of failed educational policies that dissolved
interpretations of the term were provided by vari- teachers authority in educational contexts and
ous groups of people in dierent contexts. They debased the social status of teachers in society
competed with one another to gain overall, or as a whole. Yoon and his associates 1999 survey
partial, hegemony in the use of the term school study showed that 58.3% of teachers attributed
collapse. Naturally, this appropriation process of school collapse to futile educational policies and
the language was not seamless. It was, in fact, a 56.4% believed absence of discipline at home and
compelling example of the political nature of so- moral anomie in the larger society caused school
cial language and ideological undercurrents in the collapse (Yun, Yi and Pak 1999). Many teachers
creation and circulation of language as described who were dissatised with the new educational
by Bakhtin (1981). policies of the Kim administration, particularly
As a whole, this study is indebted to Criti- the early retirement policy for teachers and the
cal Discourse Analysis (CDA), an interdisciplin- illegalization of all types of corporal punishment
ary approach used to examine the sociopolitical at school in 1998, expressed their position in this
nature of language and various texts in society discourse (Park and Kim 2002).
(Fairclough 1989, 1995). CDA views "language The Korean Federation of Teachers Associa-
as a form of social practice" (Fairclough 1989, tions (KFTA) was one of the main agents that
20) and attempts "to unpack the ideological un- actively produced this line of discourse. In their
derpinnings of discourse that have become so ocial documents, the KFTA explained the pri-
naturalized over time that we begin to treat them mary reason for school collapse was the adminis-
as common, acceptable and natural features of trations awed educational policy that dissolved
discourse" (Teo 2000, 36). Fairclough, a CDA the teachers authority in the educational envi-
theorist, argues that language connects with ronment:

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities
Everything was caused by the policy of [en- ocials, despite their being criticized for several
forced] early retirement of teachers. The admin- shortfalls of new educational policy, provided
istration used a means of educational reform a similar suggestion reecting the discourse of
in order to reduce the government workforce.
traditionalists. Lee, a MOE Curriculum Policy
Consequently, the early retirement policy drove
many teachers out of schools. Dismissing so Examiner, argued that schools must provide such
many experienced teachers ultimately resulted basic disciplinary training for students, stating
in the shortage of teachers, increase of class [s]chools should stand rmly in their place as
size, and loss of instructional savoir faire, and the major agent of education by emphasizing the
dropped teachers morality as a whole: This personality education and recovering the instruc-
was the very reason for school collapse (W. tional competency as soon as possible (Yang
Kim 2000: 102).
1999: 26).
Several scholars also took part in the tradi-
The other major factor identied as a cause tionalist discourse in their discussion of school
for school collapse in the traditionalist discourse collapse. For example, W. Kims extensive analysis
was the absence of family education, particularly of school collapse phenomenon partly reected
discipline at home (K. Yim 1999; Park and Kim the traditionalists view (2000). Even though he
2002). K. Yim (1999) argued that contemporary pointed to other factors that contributed to school
parents did not provide proper discipline for collapse, he clearly identied the MOEs decision
their children at home and this hindered the de- to illegalize all forms of corporal punishment
velopment of a sense of control over their own as the main factor triggering school collapse in
behaviors in a group setting like the classroom. 1999. He pointed out that that the MOEs deci-
He deplored that such unself-disciplined children sion failed to see the unique social and cultural
were not able to exhibit a minimal consideration contexts of education in Korean society, and the
for others needs, which was essential to the or- role and meaning of corporal punishment in the
der and maintenance of any school or classroom unique environment.
community. He identied this as one of the major There are at least two essential characteris-
factors that contributed to school collapse. tics that ran through the traditionalist discourse.
Based on this diagnosis, several scholars and First, it asserted that educations core values and
policy makers voiced the need for a strong role relational ethics could not be changed despite the
of school in moral and personal education. For huge societal changes during the last half-century.
example, Yun, president of the Hakkyogyoyuk Naturally, this discourse reected the long-held
Paroseugi Yndae (Alliance for Straightening Korean image of the teaching profession based
up the Schools) that consisted of several major on Confucian philosophy. Confucian philosophy
educational organizations, argued that school cur- advocates a set of fundamental principles in hu-
ricula should emphasize basic etiquette education man relationships. The teacher-student relation-
so that students would abide by school rules. He ship is often compared with that between parent
stressed that the inclusion of a strong disciplinary and child, or the one between ruler and subject.
component in school curriculum would be the As a result, respecting teachers authority was
rst essential step to recover the school commu- an essential virtue for any student; questioning
nity in order to deal with the challenges of school or challenging it was no less than immoral and
collapse (Kim and Ko 2000, 161). unethical. In the past, the teaching profession
Some Korean Ministry of Education (MOE) was respected, despite the governments meager

20 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies, Jae Hoon Lim
monetary compensation, thanks to this unique Teachers Union. Traditionalist and democratic
cultural characteristic. reformists did, however, share a more fundamen-
Many sectors of Korean society still reect a tal common ground because both focused on the
strong Confucian inuence. It is not surprising, public and collective nature of school education
therefore, that this discourse, with its embedded as well as its strong moral and social aspects.
Confucian view of education and its implica- Both discourses, despite their disparate roots in
tions for human relationships in an educational Confucianism and democratic ideology, viewed
setting, is found in the voices of many dierent education, including the role of schools, in light
groups, including those who actually adopted a of societys integrity, and regarded education as
less traditional, even radical, approach to school an intrinsically value-attached, collective enter-
education. For example, elements of the tradition- prise.
alist discourse are found in documents from the Democratic Reformists: A Discourse of
Hakkyogyoyuk Paroseugi Yndae (Alliance for Democratic Schools and Society
Straightening up the Schools), and also in docu-
ments from National Teachers Union. Further- The axis of the second type of discourse,
more, some parents actively participated in this democratic reformism, was the democratization
discourse despite the limits that this discourse ac- of the school environment. The major agent that
tually imposes on parents participation in educa- produced this discourse was the Korean Teach-
tional decision-making. One extreme example of ers Union (Kim and Ko 2000) and a new gen-
parental support for the traditionalist discourse eration of young educational scholars supporting
is the gift of a cane of love that several parents the unions perspective (Hwang 2001). The union
associations ocially delivered to their childrens and its aliated institutes played a signicant role
school in order to announce their opposition to in acknowledging and diagnosing the substantial
the recent MOEs policy regarding the illegaliza- changes in schools nationwide even before the
tion of corporal punishment at school (W. Kim public became aware of the school collapse phe-
2000). It is not, then, accurate to say that this nomenon (M. Kim 2000). For example, M. Kim
discourse was exclusively based on the group of (2000) conrms that the Chamgyoyuk Silchn
teachers who used to enjoy great privilege in the Wiwnhoe (Committee for Praxis for True Edu-
traditional Confucian model of school and soci- cation), one of the unions sub-committees, veri-
ety. Clearly there is population larger than old ed the existence of the school collapse phenom-
fashioned teachers that supported this discourse enon. The unions national executive committee
to some extent, including parents and students then discussed the scope of the phenomenon
(E. Kim 2003; T. Yim 1999; MBC 2000). nation-wide (M. Kim 2000). The union disap-
Interestingly, this discourse also fervently proved, however, of the issues later public devel-
opposed privatization and market-based edu- opment based on the mass medias exaggerated
cational reforms. At the surface level, then, the and disreputable reports of the new educational
traditionalist discourse seemed to share a lot challenge. The KTU asserted that the medias
in common with the neoliberalist view because inaccurate and exaggerated reports actually re-
both criticized the governments educational sulted in mistrust among teachers, patents, and
policies. Similarly, the traditionalists seemed to students, and contributed to the acceleration of
share very little with the democratic reformists school collapse at many institutions across the
coming from their rival organization, the Korean country (Chngyojo Sinmun [Korean Teachers

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

Union Newspaper] 1999). were the factors that amplied the phenom-
The KTUs Policy Research Institute pro- enon of classroom crisis. various irrational
duced a series of publications after public aware- and anti-democratic characteristics, such as un-
realistic, excessive rules, oversized schools that
ness of the school collapse phenomenon emerged
pose a great challenge to communication with
(Chngyojo chngchaek ynguso [KTU Policy students, over-crowded classrooms, mismatch
Research Institute] 1999a; 1999b). While sharing between curriculum and assessment, limited
some commonalities with the traditionalists, the rights and participation of autonomous student
democratic reform discourse presented a dier- self governance, etc., in fact, are the conditions
ent philosophy of education with its aliated po- that contributed to the phenomenon of class-
litical ideology providing dierent guiding prin- room crisis (Chngyojo Kyoukcharyosil [KTU
Center for Educational Materials] 2000, as cited
in Kim and Ko 2000: 165-166).
The democratic reformist discourse assumed
the primary goal of Korean education was to
rmly establish modern rationality and institute The primary reason for teachers failure in edu-
a culture of democracy in every sector of society. cating students with knowledge, skills, values
Democratic reformists viewed the current school and attitudes is the anti-democratic school
management and closed system of communica-
system and its organizational culture as heavily re-
tionno rights [given to teachers], then no re-
ecting an authoritative and bureaucratic model.
sponsibilities (Chngyojo Chngchaek ynguso
This obsolete and inecient system and culture [KTU Policy Research Institute] 1999a: 140).
are the major hurdles to any educational reform.
They prevented teachers and students from play- The democratic reformist discourse was also
ing an active role in the school reform process, reected in several works by a group of scholars
and the actualization of participatory democracy including Hwang (2001) and Sim. Sim, for exam-
in society at large (Kim and Ko 2000). The fol- ple (1999), emphasized that democratic school
lowing three documents illustrate what the union management and the praxis of participatory de-
identied as the primary source of the challenges mocracy in a school context are essential to over-
of school collapse. come the challenges of school collapse (1999).
He suggested three major changes for individual
Our schools have maintained the same infra- schools: the establishment of student self-gover-
structure of curriculum since the liberation nance system; restructuring school rules and reg-
from Japanese Occupation. The central govern- ulations to promote student-self autonomy; and
ment has been controlling the quality, contents,
open communication and democratic, participa-
organizational methods, and evaluation meth-
ods, providing no role for the people in the edu- tory school management.
cational elds who actually produce and con- Democratic reformists did not, however, buy
sume knowledge. This resulted in the alienation into the idea of extreme individualism. Rather,
of students in the very eld of education, and they pursued a balance between the collective na-
prompted the phenomenon of school collapse ture of education in the Korean context and the
(Chn 1999a: 121). individual needs for personal growth through
education (Kim and Ko 2000). Even though they
The remainders of the authoritativeness and paid attention to individual human rights of stu-
oppressiveness in Koran education, and obso- dents (e.g., unlike traditionalists, they opposed
lete and dreadful educational environments corporal punishment in general) democratic re-
22 The Sigur Center Asia Papers
Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies, Jae Hoon Lim
formists appreciated the communitarian nature of the Neoliberalist policy of the Kim Dae-jung
education and its role for political causes like re- administration also played a role in school col-
unication of the Korean peninsula (Chngyojo lapse. Even though he acknowledged the benets
Chngchaek ynguso 1999b). of open education in altering the authoritarian
One of the most severe critiques raised by nature of Korean school culture in general, Sim
the democratic reformist discourse targeted the held that educational policies stressing only in-
neoliberalist discourse that advocated the mar- dividualism and competitiveness weakened the
ketization of the educational system as a whole. communitarian nature of education and reduced
Democratic reformists constantly emphasized the possibility of social and political alliances. Ac-
the dierence between them and the tradition- cording to Sim, such educational policies caused
alists and neoliberalists alike, but their criticism severe damage to the structure of participatory
of the neoliberalists was much more intense than democracy and prompted the collapse of school
those leveled at the traditionalists. The following community as a whole.
KTU document clearly illuminates the point of
the democratic reformist critiques directed at the Neoliberalists: A Discourse of Choice, Com-
neoliberalists. petition, and Excellence

Reckless implementation of individualized The neoliberalist voice is one of the most

instruction represented as open education, and powerful discourses to be found in the school
consumer-based education that put individuals
collapse debate between 1999 and 2001. Sharing
and market principles at the center [of educa-
tional discourse] resulted in the debilitation of
little in common with the previous two aliated
the communitarian function of schools while with teachers organizations, the neoliberalist
amplifying individualism and self-centeredness. discourse presented a relatively clear class-based
It should be acknowledged that there have been interest in education policy. The discourses main
ideological propaganda against teachers, dam- agents were a group of parents, particularly
aging teachers authority, and depriving them those from middle and upper-middle class back-
of any controlling methods in the misguided
grounds, and the conservative mass media that
course of educational reform. This was the
fundamental reason for the rapid spread of the
contributed to the heated discussion of school
phenomenon of school collapse, and teachers collapse (Seo 2003).
inability, almost empty-handed, to nd a solu- The neoliberalist discourse regarded the
tion to it (Chngyojo Kyoukcharyosil [KTU school collapse phenomenon as a natural con-
Center for Educational Materials] 2000). sequence of a school system that was unable to
adapt to a new social and economic environment.
Sim also argued that the competition-based They argued that the entire structure of Korean
educational reform during the last two administra- society had changed from a pre-modern agricul-
tions had actually expedited the process of school tural society to a modern industrial society to a
collapse (1999). He argued that school collapse post-modern technology society but schools pre-
had been caused by the three educational policies paring the next generation had not changed. As
forwarded by the Kim Young-sam administra- a result, the younger generation has little access
tion: Educational Reform for Bolstering Nations to a quality education reecting their individual
Competitiveness, Excellence-based Education, merits and desires. Neoliberalists asserted that
and Open education. Additionally, Sim cites the obsolete system and educational ideas would

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

put the younger generation in great danger as it School collapse was, in part, caused by the sys-
moved toward a global society where unlimited tem itself. The lottery system for high school
competition is encouraged (D. Kim 2002). admission made 90 percent of high school stu-
dents neglected children. There is no eective
Three major newspapers in Seoulthe
method for a teacher to teach a heterogeneous
Chosun, DongA, and Joongang Ilboproduced class with 50 students. Therefore, teachers tend
a great portion of this discourse in their edito- to focus on only the top 20 percent of students
rial sections. Neoliberalists enumerated many in their instruction: The rest, therefore, became
factors that contributed to the school collapse alienated and fell behind (Chosun Ilbo 1999c).
in these newspapers (e.g., Chosun Ilbo 1999b;
1999c; Joongang Ilbo 2001). In general, they Neoliberalists argued that the government
viewed the governments strong control over the should permit more independent private high
schooling system as undesirable or even detri- schools and special purpose high schools serving
mental. Many editorial reviews in the newspapers selective groups like gifted and talented students.
presented such perspectives (Seo 2002). The titles In the same vein, this discourse criticized the
of such editorial reviews included Unshackle governments control over early study abroad as
Universities Admission Process from MOEs an infringement of an individuals right for qual-
Control, (Chosun Ilbo 2001b) and showed ex- ity education.
treme criticism of the governments involvement Neoliberalists proposed a laissez-faire policy
in education, particularly in the high school and in the college admission process as well. They as-
college admission process. serted that college admission should be left to the
Neoliberalists believed the entire public individual college or university so that each in-
schooling system put excessive emphasis on stitution could select the most appropriate group
equality at the expense of excellence (Chosun of students for their particular educational pur-
Ilbo 1999e; 2001a). They asserted that, the gov- poses:
erning principle in our classrooms is nothing but
While the government (MOE) is involved in
an arithmetic view of equality.[a] mechanistic
the admission process of universities, we have
view of equality prevails over all other values experienced all dierent sorts of problems, no
(Chosun Ilbo 2001a). Neoliberalists argued that matter which method was taken. Then, the
school collapse had been caused by the govern- conclusion is clear and simple. Leave it to up
ments ineective educational policies based on to each university, its autonomous decision
this mechanistic view of equality at the expense making. The Scholastic Aptitude Test will be still
used as one source of information available for
of excellence.
universities decision makings in the admission
The neoliberalist discourse attributed the
process; yet, how each university uses the infor-
failure of school education to three factors: the mation will be left to universities themselves.
use of randomization in high school admission, There is no ultimate solution unless the gov-
inconsistent college admission policies, and lack ernment (MOE) unshackles the university
of system-wide competitionincluding among admission process (Chosun Ilbo 2001b).
teachers and individual schools. One of the ma-
jor criticisms in this discourse targeted the lottery Advocating for competition in education
system used in high school admissions in most is another compelling characteristic of this dis-
of large metropolitan school districts, including course. Neoliberalists, in general, argue for com-
Seoul. petition among teachers and schools in order to

24 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies, Jae Hoon Lim
improve performance and eectiveness (D. Kim MOE control is not limited to school administra-
2002). tion with the national curriculum also under its
purview, the MOE establishes all the educational
In any case, we believe that it is time to improve content and processes at schools as well. Nor is
the competitiveness of the teaching profession
higher education an exception. The Korean MOE
as a whole. It was proposed a long time ago
that a more competitive system should be im-
controls SAT and other college admission criteria
plemented in the teaching profession. The even though individual universities and colleges
competitiveness of a nations system is closely have room for exibility within the large frame-
related to the competitiveness of education. work given by MOE guidelines.
Teachers should leave their profession if they More interesting, however, is an analysis of the
neglect their research and instructional respon- nature of the neoliberalist discourse that can be
sibilities. Implementation of competition in the
found in the work of several critical sociologists.
teaching profession is an inevitable trend in the
contemporary era Teachers organizations
Several Korean scholars have noted the stabiliza-
should lead this discussion to nd a way of tion of class structure in South Korea during the
implementing a competition-based system in last two decades (Yang 2002). The emergence of
education in collaboration with the government stable middle and upper-middle class in Korean
(Joongang Ilbo 2001). society has resulted in many interesting social,
cultural, and political phenomena (Yang 2000).
The three major axes of neoliberalist discourse Most of all, this group started to express their
are choice, competition, and excellence. The class interests in various ways including mass me-
ultimate goal of school education embedded in dia and political elections (Chn and Kim 1998).
this discourse was raising an individual who is able Due to the governments strong control over the
to compete in the ever-changing global economy. entire school system, however, the role that au-
Neoliberalists eagerly accepted the marketization ent families could play in their childrens educa-
of education as a way to provide higher quality tional success has been very limited. The quality
and more individualized educational goods for of school facilities and teaching forces remained
students. relatively homogeneous nationwide and largely
What made the neoliberalist discourse t so immune to the wealth of a particular school dis-
powerful in the discussion of school collapse re- trict or individual family. The government has
mains unclear. It seems rather ironic, even contra- not permitted several educational practices (early
dictory, that middle and upper middle class people tracking, dierent curricula, independent private
who beneted most from the strong public school schools, universitys exible admission policy,
system in the past have actually turned into the etc.) that reportedly contributed to the reproduc-
major force criticizing the school system as inef- tion of class through the educational system. As
fective and obsolete. There is no doubt, however, a result, the school systems contribution to class
that the Korean MOE still exerts strong control reproduction has been very minimal (OECD
over every sector of education from elementary 2001). In other words, middle and upper mid-
to higher education. The number of independent dle class families constantly struggle to transmit
private schools at the K-12 level is negligible: their class status to their children because so little
The majority of private middle and high schools space is given to them to control their childrens
also rely on government funding and are there- educational process.
fore under the control of the MOE. Furthermore,

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

De-schooling Advocates: A Discourse of that of a public school education (Chosun Ilbo

Human Rights and Radical Education 1999a).
Many scholars and educators in the previous
The last, and most radical, point of view that three groups also acknowledged that some chang-
participated in the school collapse debate was es had occurred in Korean society during the
that of the de-schooling advocates. They viewed 1990s. Unique to the analysis of de-schooling ad-
the phenomenon of school collapse as a natural vocates was their view that the change was much
consequence of fundamental changes that had more fundamental than others had claimed. De-
occurred in Korean society during the prior two schooling advocates repeatedly pointed out that
decades (Cheong 2000). According to the de- schools failed to meet the challenges from soci-
schoolers, the Korean educational system, like ety because they were based on an old, obsolete
any modern schooling system found in other model of society:
countries, was originally based on the needs of
modern society. The structure of schools and ri- The most fundamental reason [for school col-
lapse] was that the current model of schools
gidity of the entire educational system reected
based on the concept of industrial society is
an old model of society. As society itself trans- no longer eective in our post-industrial soci-
forms into a post-modern, post-industrial, tech- ety represented as information society (Chn
nology-based society, the old school system can- 1999a: 120).
not help but fail to meet the challenges and needs
of the emerging society. The emergent post-mod- m (1999) presented a similar diagnosis. He
ern society presents a dierent economic, social, explained that while a modern schooling system
and cultural infrastructure; its educational de- following the Fordist model of mass production
mands are fundamentally dierent from those of and mass consumption was eective in modern
the modern era. Based on the analysis of societal society, the same schooling system grew too un-
change, from a modern to a post-modern era, wieldy and unnecessarily rigid in a post-indus-
de-schooling advocates assert that the structure trial society that encourages a limited production
of schools and rigidity of the entire educational of variety, and the exible accumulation system
system were the fundamental causes of school of capital.
collapse. De-schooling advocates were not sympathet-
A mixture of various groups, including post- ic to the old system. Rather, they produced a set
modernist scholars, and parents who supported of poignant critiques on the modern schooling
alternative schools and home schooling partici- system. Their analysis of school collapse was of-
pated in the de-schooling discourse. Even though ten accompanied by an extensive critique of the
the boundaries of this group were less clear than modern school system and even modern society
others, the social class background of major par- as a whole.
ticipants tended to be middle or upper-middle
class. This group voiced a more liberal view of Schools developed a variety of methods to con-
trol the bodies of children to fulll its primary
education than any other group described in
goal of control: Most of those methods came
this paper. The majority of de-schoolers were from military training.Didnt politicians who
college educated and able to aord higher quality hoped to have obedient people also want chil-
instruction and educational experiences for their dren to grow like an automatic robot always
children, usually at a cost much greater than compliant with the authority? Didnt society

26 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies, Jae Hoon Lim
want the people who would just obey an order? opinions and desires, and must make the best
Children trained in a school that forced them decision as possible each time. Based on their
to t into one same model, even reciting in pragmatic, process-based approach, de-schooling
line, in line, under the name of order func-
advocates suggested a set of educational contents
tioned properly within the industrial society;
they hardly absconded from their given role/ and methods fundamentally reecting Deweys
position in society (Hyn 1999). progressive educational philosophy. They valued
the natural experiences of children as the funda-
De-schooling advocates presented three mental basis of curriculum, and respected chil-
characteristics that are embedded in the modern drens social and intellectual needs and readiness
schooling system that renders it unable to meet as they organized instructional and learning ac-
the challenges of newly emerging post-modern, tivities (Kim and Ko 2000).
post-industrial society: its oppressiveness, con-
trolling nature, and pursuit of uniformity. They Discussion and Conclusion
dened the institutionalized system of education
called school as nothing more than a structure of The analysis of the school collapse discourse
oppression limiting the freedom, creativity, and oered in this paper illuminates several inter-
individuality of children (Chosun Ilbo 1999d). esting, critical aspects of Korean education as a
The de-schooling discourse advocates whole. The four major discoursestraditional-
emphasized one ultimate goal of educationan ist, democratic reformist, neoliberalist, and de-
individuals right to pursue happiness (Cho- schooling advocateseem to represent the entire
Han 1999). They expressed an optimistic view spectrum of forces in Korean education. They
of human nature and believed that creative and existed prior to the publics awareness of school
free-minded individuals could make positive collapse phenomenon; yet, through the public
contributions to society. It was not surprising that debate on school collapse, the existence of those
their discourse was often based on the concept of four groups and their dierences became much
childrens rightsa call for childrens rights to the more visible. Via the school collapse debate each
full extent (Pae 2000; J. Kim 2001) as well as the group/discourse created their space in social
rights of parents to pursue their own happiness. language and launched a more visible ideologi-
A most unique aspect of this discourse was cal competition in a bid for social and linguistic
its strong sense of agency in dealing with the hegemony.
phenomenon of school collapse. Even though The class or group aliation of each discourse
de-schooling advocates identied several factors was noticeable. It may be shocking to many Ko-
that had prompted school collapse, they basically reans who had hardly observed such clear class
viewed it as an unavoidable consequence of aliations reected in any educational discourse
societal change. They encouraged people to think or debate in the past. This was a quite predict-
and act independently about their childrens ed- able event based on the rise of stable middle and
ucation and not blindly rely on the system. De- upper middle class in society. The relationship
schooling advocates constantly emphasized the between a particular discourse and its class base
importance of agency among the people involved should not, however, be exaggerated. Variations
in the process of education. They argued that existed between the discourses association with
every person, including parents, teachers, and a particular class, such as the middle or upper-
children, should be able to communicate their middle class. The neoliberalist discourse, for ex-

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 27

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

ample, showed a clear class aliation yet a good interest in individuals intellectual capacity and
mixture of people from diverse class backgrounds need for growth. Even though the two discourses
supported the other three discourses. In a similar articulated completely dierent views on ideal
vein, a similar class background did not render society and the goals of education, both relied on
the same discourse. The discourse of de-school- individualism as a method to meet current chal-
ing advocates was a good example The majority lenges. This standpoint is exactly in opposition to
of the group consisted of upper-middle class or at the traditionalist and democratic reformist dis-
least middle class backgrounds but their school courses that prioritize the communitarian goals
collapse solution was radically dierent than that of education over that of the individual. The ten-
of neoliberalists who shared similar class and sion between these two lines of thought will con-
educational backgrounds. What seemed a more tinue even though some participants in the de-
critical determinant in this debate was the ideo- bate may nd both points complementary rather
logical understanding of the educations purpose than contradictory.
as perceived and promoted by each discourse. In The second interesting aspect about the
other words, what people dened and promoted school collapse discourse was its resemblance or
as the fundamental goal of education actually connectedness to the larger international educa-
mediated the relationship between their class tional discourse (e.g., educational discourse in the
background and active participation in a particu- American context.) In particular, the neoliberalist
lar discourse. discourse that advocated market-based education
As Bakhtin (1970) argues, individual or group constantly referred to the American model of ed-
appropriation of a particular discourse within a ucation as an example that successfully achieves
special socio-cultural context is a complicated excellence through choice and competition. It is
process. Various social, cultural, and political clear here that educational debates in South Ko-
ideologies come into play, mediating and com- rea, including those on school collapse, were not
plicating the relationship between the economic isolated social or linguistic events within their
base of the speaker/discourse, and the expressed national contexts any more. The school collapse
position embodied in the discourse. A mechanis- discourse was already rooted in a complex web of
tic view of discourse and its class base may be too ideological discourses in South Korea and the in-
simplistic as we attempt to explain this complex ternational community at large. Therefore, even
process. though the linguistic event is unique and contex-
A variety of interpretations can be made based tual; the embedded power struggles and ideologi-
on the contrasting nature of these four forces in cal competition and alliances are much more far-
Korean education. Some conjectures can be pro- reaching than the Korean context.
jected regarding the possible alliances and con- Many scholars have documented the surge
icts among them in the near future. Two themes of neoliberalist or neo-conservative discourse in
become clear based on this studys analysis. First, many countries during the past two decades (Chn
one of the most compelling changes in South Ko- and Kim 1998). The neoliberalist discourse in the
rean education during the last ten years was the Korean context naturally exhibits some charac-
strong surge of individualism, as is illustrated by teristics similar to discourses in other countries.
the strong presence of individualism in the public One of the most disturbing characteristics of the
debate on school collapse. Neoliberalists and de- neoliberalist discourse on education, both in Ko-
schooling advocates actually shared a common rean context and in other countries, is the lack of

28 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Class Reproduction and Competing Ideologies, Jae Hoon Lim
interest or understanding about the ultimate goal respond and react to the inux of neoliberalist
of education. Even though all the neoliberalists discourse of education will be worth close inves-
ideological terms, like choice, competition, and tigation. The four dierent ideological discourses
excellence, are legitimate methods for achieving presented in this study will form new ideological
the goal of productivity and competitiveness in alliances or draw battle-lines in the process of de-
the global society, they cannot be presented as the veloping new dynamics among themselves as the
ultimate goal of education as a whole. One of the four major ideological stances in the discourse of
most serious defects in this discourse lies in its Korean education.
lack of a value dimensionits dearth of ethical or
moral aspirations that are so essential to human Works Cited
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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

Community). interpretive lens of the people engaged in this social

Yim, To-yk. 1999. "Taejn Tongsanjung 1100 discourse. Yet, the powerful existence of the school
collapse phenomenon as a social reality can be easily
ymyng: Sarang i mae chokkudaehoe yr
found in the reports of several survey research studies
(Taejn Tongsan Middle Schools 1100 plus
conducted from 1999-2002 (e.g., Chn 1999b; Kim, E. J.
Students: Opening a Campaign for Cane of 2003; Yun, Yi, and Pak 1999). These reports examining
Love)." Chosun Ilbo, March 31. the perceptions of various groups of people (e.g., teachers,
Yun, Chl-gyng, Yi In-gu and Pak Chang-nam. students, parents, and the general public) conrmed the
1999. Hakkyo punggoe siltae mit taechaek unprecedented, fundamental changes that had occurred
yngu (A Study of the Current Status of School in school environments, which the respondents eagerly
labeled school collapse. The majority of survey research
Collapse and Strategies for Solutions). Seoul:
respondents and educational researchers indicated that
Korea Institute for Youth Development.
the heart of school collapse lies in the breakdown of
traditional human relationships between the teacher
Endnotes and students that had been the fundamental basis for
all educational activities and didactic interactions in the
In this paper, I used school collapse as the English
Korean context. Major aspects of school collapse included
translation of hakgyobunggoe or kyosilbunggoe
students blatant refusal to follow basic school norms,
(classroom collapse). Even though school collapse sounds
intentional violations of etiquette and school rules, total
awkward in English, I intentionally chose the direct
lack of respect for teachers, disruptive behaviors and
translation rather than other meaning-based translations
verbal abuse during class, and lack of motivation and
(e.g., school crisis, classroom crisis). Even though a
non-participation in instructional activities. The general
few Korean scholars use such meaning-based translations
public and Korean scholars acknowledged that it was
in their English publications, those translations do
very dicult, often impossible, for teachers to initiate and
not convey the shocking image of the phenomenon as
execute educational interactions with their students in the
eectively as school collapse MOEs. Use of gurative
classroom because the most basic, essential conditions for
expressions is a major characteristic in Korean
instruction had been signicantly eroded.
language. Therefore, preserving the image associated
with a controversial term in its English translation is
essential and contributes to readers understanding of
the educational debate. I also believe that the discourse
of school collapse became a heated public debate
because of the shocking image of the term. In addition,
hakgyobunggoe was the most common term used in this
educational debate from 1999-2001. Five dierent Korean
terms and their translations frequently used by Korean
scholars and newspapers as they engaged in the discourse
of school collapse are listed below.
Hakkyobunggoe school collapse.
kyosilbunggoe, classroom collapse.
kyoukbunggoe, education collapse.
hakgyo kyouk wigi, school education crisis.
kyosil wigi, classroom crisis.

Reality is a socially constructed phenomenon reected
in the purpose of the discourse analysis presented in this
paper. From a social constructionists point of view, it is
ironic, even illogical, to argue that such realityschool
collapseactually existed separated from the collective,
32 The Sigur Center Asia Papers
The Uneven Burden of Vitality:
College Rank, Neoliberalism,
and South Koreas New Generation

Nancy Abelmann, Hyunhee Kim, & So Jin Park

his paper is interested in the transformed the past and from pmsaeng-i, a contemporary
ways that contemporary college students in youth slang that mocks yesteryears mobmsaeng,
South Korea envision and narrate human hardworking and conformist model students.
developmentnamely, ideal ways to mature. Both pmsaeng-i and activists are imagined as
Foremost, they are committed to becoming vital collectivistic subjects who were driven by the
people who lead active and enjoyable lives external demands of families and cohort groups
people who live hard and play hard, aim to respectively and who forfeited play. Students
experience the world to its fullest, and are able described earlier student generations who enacted
to circulate in a wide and increasingly global hierarchical social relations, foremost the senior/
arena. This paper employs vitality to capture junior (snhubae) relations of all social groups,
an emergent discourse on personal attributes student groups among them. Where these former
and proclivities and corporal (i.e., bodily) energy. student cohorts were fashioned by external
With vitality we echo the burgeoning literature structures, the image of the vital student today
on biological citizenship that appreciates the life is imagined to fashion herself, to cut her own
force itself, what Ann Anagnost (2004: 201) writes cloth. We do not, however, argue that the lives
of as bare life (cf. Agamben 1998).1 Vitality of the students here are more active than those
does not refer here to an emic construct, namely of yesteryear; indeed, personal development of
to a single term employed by our ethnographic the educated in South Korea has long demanded
respondents. We historicize this discourse at considerable diligence and activity.
the juncture of neoliberal social, economic, and These images of free-formed selves aside,
educational reforms in South Korea. students are well aware that this new mode
Vital students must thus be internally driven of being is at the same time a requirement for
by their own passions and interests, and accrue a productive life in a rapidly transforming and
range of experiences in order to realize an adult globalizing world. In this way, the discourse on
life that is more than a narrow measure of success; human development is a narrative of human
in no way, however, do we assert that these young capital formation, a naked understanding of
people are not interested in success and social what it takes for a person to succeed in the
standing. Further, these students want to be contemporary economy. It is, thus, not lost on
social while maintaining identities independent students that the work of becoming a vital human
of collectivities of any kind. They distinguish being is no simple matter, even if it presents itself
this mode of being in a new and globalizing as more fun than earlier ways of being.
South Korea from student movement activists of Critically, the work of vitality is gendered

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 33

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

as co-educational and public. Many students new economies we are increasingly becoming
asserted that exclusively feminine domains, such self-managers who must produce themselves
as womens colleges and the home, lack vitality. as having the skills and qualities necessary
Such spaces are imagined to be domestic (in both to succeed. (Walkerdine 2003:240). We take
senses of the word), and limited and limiting in particular inspiration from Yan Hairong (2003)
direct contrast with images of free circulation on who coins the term neohumanism to describe,
a global stage. One Ynse University co-ed, for after Marx, how human exchange value in China
exampleherself a transfer from a second-tier today has extended to subjectivity. Specically,
womens collegeasserted the categorical dif- she analyses the Chinese construct of suzhi or
ference of Ynse Universitys extent of activity quality, arguing that Suzhi is the concept of
(hwaltongnyang) and went on to describe the human capital given a neoliberal spin to exceed
large student gatherings on the Ynse grounds in its original meaning of stored value of education
sharp contrast to the eateries, beauty parlors, and and education-based qualications to mean the
beautiful girls that marked her previous college. capitalization of subjectivity itself (2003:511,
These images of free circulation index a cf. Anagnost 2004).3 Of course, post-IMF South
critical feature of this vitalitythe global. Vital Korea and China under market reform present
people must be global or at home in the world entirely distinct historical congurations, but the
(see Anagnost 2000; Park and Abelmann 2004), neoliberal spin Yan describes is one, as others
reecting an imperative already a decade old in have argued, that perhaps unites youth worldwide
South Koreas race to internationalize and now (Comaro and Comaro 2000, 307).
globalize (S. Kim 2000). English mastery is a For the South Korean case, we argue that the
critical piece of this picture (Park and Abelmann mode in which many of todays college students
2004; Crystal 2003) and many students in this distinguish themselves from the past reects the
research described English as a necessary base" contemporary, global, neoliberal turn in which
(peis). individuals take personal responsibility for their
The student generation featured in this paper own development, eectively obscuring the work
spent their childhood in an increasingly prosperous of structural features. The South Korean version
and democratic South Korea. Importantly, of this global turn, which imagines contemporary
however, in their early or late adolescence they individuals against the backdrop of earlier
met the IMF Crisis (1997-2001) that led to a collective subjects is, we assert, a particularly
broad array of social and policy reforms that powerful version because the liberal humanist
were, broadly speaking, neoliberal in character. project of post-authoritarianism coincides with
A concerted critique of South Korean crony the neoliberal transformation and thus the
capitalism led to the call for venture capitalism in requirement for self-development is heralded in
a deregulated market. For some, creative, global, the language of human rights and democratic
high-tech youth were critical to this reform freedoms (Song 2003). In a narrower educational
project (Song 2003). Intensied privatization, context, we nd strange political bedfellows. For
individuation, and globalization are the large example, both progressives and conservatives call
context for the transformations of subjectivity that for reformist education devoted to individual-
have been characterized by numerous scholars friendly creative curricular reform (Lim 2004).
across the humanities and social sciences.2 This As Michael W. Apple (2001, 421) asserts, global
paper builds on the many arguments that in the neoliberal education reforms are nationally and

34 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
historically contingent on the ways progressive women who have long served in South Korea,
tendencies have already been instituted within as in many countries, as a exible labor force
the state. (Song 2003). Intriguing here is the absence of any
In the case of post-authoritarian South worries about gendered constraints in the labor
Korea, neoliberal transformations are easily market, or any hint that exibility itself might be
celebrated in the name of liberal values. In a gendered constraint rather than freedom.
parallel, particular features of the authoritarian This more radically individuated sense of
developmentalist educational systemprimarily personhood (Comaro and Comaro 2000: 305)
its egalitarian ideology and standardizationare thus obscures class and other structural dierences.
easily dismissed as backward historical burdens The machine-like (kigye katn) studentswho
(S. Park 2004). It is in this historical context that lived as they were directed to live (sikinn
this paper examines how contemporary college taero)of todays students imaginings were,
students narrate their human capital development we assert, better able to articulate the structures
to obscure structural workings of family and imposing on them. The burden, then, of living
institutional dierence. Vitality works as a potent as one wants (hago sipn taero) renders invisible
sign precisely because it is so easily foisted on the many constraints that do impinge upon life
the person as an organically conceived human and choices. As Comaro and Comaro (2000:
quality (Comaro and Comaro 2000, 304). In 302) so eloquently note, Complex, poetically
earlier writing on developmentalist sensibilities rich, culturally informed imaginings have
in South Korea, Abelmann has argued that the always come between structural conditions and
discourse on personality was easily understood as subjective perceptionsimaginings that have
social and even political and thus revealed, even waxed more fantastic, as capitalist economies
as it seemed to obscure, the workings of class have enlarged in scale. This paper examines
(Abelmann 1997a; 1997b; 2003). In the case of these complex and poetically rich imaginings for
vitality and its linked constellation of imaginings young South Koreans.
it seems that individual choice and proclivity This paper demonstrates that vitality is shared
are much less clothed in sociological sensibility. by students with vastly dierent class backgrounds
What we might dub the post-collectivistic hubris and at a wide array of institutions of higher
of this new generation works specically against learning. What we analyze specically, however,
a sociological imagination because it proclaims is how to listen to the ways in which this burden
individuals who do not conform to social of vitalityas this paper is titledis borne
demands. As students become the keepers of variously in accordance with South Koreas highly
their own life force, they are also rendered more stratied higher education sector (Seth 2002). Of
exibleliterally, able to move. Many of the course, class and college prestige are sometimes
students we spoke withparticularly women correlated but in no way coterminous with one
spoke about looking forward to exible work another. Although we focus here on dierences in
lives in which they can both make good of their college brand, we appreciate that students class
creativity and passions, and continue to grow and backgrounds are also critical parameters. We
experience. We appreciate, however, that exible contrast students at elite universities for whom
is a fraught idea. It can refer both to bold images the university itself confers vitality in a brand-
of innite choice and to constraints of the labor like manner, from students at third tier colleges
market that demand exibility, particularly of who are keenly aware that they must take on this

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

human development project on their own. This realized in practice, decades of policy reform in
awareness does not, however, easily translate into the past were made in the name of equal access
a sense of structural disadvantage. We do, though, and standardization. Today the debate between
listen carefully for those moments when it does.4 quality education and education equality rages
Before turning to the students themselves, it on. A critical factor is the states recent centralized
is critical to place this new human development higher education transformations, concentrating
or capital narrative in the context of important on the countrys top tier universities. This focused
transformations of higher education in South approach to neoliberal reform intensied the
Korea. South Korean higher education, like already enormous stratication of South Korean
South Korean mainstream K-12 education, has in education (J.H. Lee 2004).7 The complex political
some sense been playing catch-up in responding colors of the current education policy climate are
to social demands. In fact, the argument can easily observed through a recent JoongAng Ilbo
be made that South Korean education has long editorial denouncing South Korean education
been driven by the force of social demand, for as an outdated steam engine that hampers
equal access in early decades and currently the nations competitiveness. The editorial
for neoliberal reform, namely deregulation, continued, Korea is still mired in the age of
privatization, diversication, and globalization. democratization, in which remnants of previous
Although some charge that the state continues authoritarian regimes continue to linger. As
to lag behind consumer demand (Hankook such, the inuence of ideology remains evident
Ilbo 2004; D. Lee 2004), todays South Korea (D. Lee 2004: 39-40). The fascinating logics of
nonetheless oers an interesting case of state- this argument speak, we think, to the complex
managed deregulation of higher education in political colors of the current moment in which
accordance with the neoliberal values of ecient democracy, authoritarian legacies, and
self (i.e., campus) -management, productivity/ ideological remains (coded leftist) are rendered
excellence, diversication, and global competition parallel projects that mediate against neoliberal
(Mok and Welch 2003; Mok, Yoon, and Welch education reform. In a fascinating analysis of
2003; OECD 2000).5 The transformed student South Koreas n-de-sicle discourse about
is portrayed as an autonomous consumer who school collapse, Jae Hoon Lim (2004) argues that
should manage her own lifelong creative capital what she dubs the traditionalist response, for its
development.6 We understand the elite university primary lament over the loss of teachers authority
students discussed in this paper to have most and other ethical protocol (5) and what she calls
beneted from the government distribution of the democratic response share a commitment
national resources because of the very selective to a communitarian model of education. On the
state support of higher education. As such, their other hand, neoliberalists and the de-schoolers,
co-educational campuses most deeply enact the in spite of being quite politically divergent, shared
new global human capital development that all a commitment foremost to the individualand,
these students articulate. by extension, choice, competition, and excellence
These neoliberal education reforms are (15, 22). Societys former radicals are interested
not without their critics, as many understand in various modes of alternative schooling do
that such reforms run against the grain of not, in fact, sound so dierent from the explicit
a longstanding ideological commitment to neoliberalistslike the writer of the above
egalitarian education. Although never entirely editorialwith their objections to the mantle of

36 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
educational equality. and excellence, and in the status that it confers on
The contemporary education moment in herin short, in what we might call her campus
South Korea oers consumers with economic capital. The Myngji University and Inchn City
wherewithal many new arenas for investment, University students, on the other hand, articu-
primarily the option of study abroad prior to late their projects of self-development against the
college. A 550 million dollar venture in the rst grain of their campuses. They understand that
quarter of 2004, doubling the gures from 2002, precisely because their campuses are not brands
the so-called early study abroad (ch'ogi yuhak) of vitality that they must shoulder the burden
is an escalating market (Hankook Ilbo 2004). of their own human development. They thus
Indeed, some argue that in the face of this drain articulate visions of how to inhabit their colleges
of education expenditures South Korea should particularly and in some cases how to exceed the
open its education market entirely (Hankook limits of their campus capital. The conversations
Ilbo 2004). Parents struggle as to how to best featured in this paper took place in groups of
educate their children for a transformed South departmental or club cohorts and friends, and
Korea in a transforming world (S. Park 2004) A in many cases, students staked their positions in
not uncommon question is: which will be more relation to their peers. We thus aim to preserve
valuable into the future, a degree from Harvard this dialogic quality of the conversations.
or from Seoul National [South Koreas premier
university]? Of course, most people struggle not An Elite College Coed
with the contrast between Harvard and Seoul
National but instead with second or third tier It is the feeling of energy, the motivation to
schools in both countries, wondering about the continuously do something
futures they promise. These options present new,
and sometimes risky, human capital development We met Heejin in summer 2003 and again
strategies. In the self-development narratives of in summer 2004, and each time she sported a
students featured in this paper, we will see that baseball cap and sweats. We were struck by Heejins
they enthusiastically embrace these risks. boyish voice, androgynous look, unselfconscious
We now introduce four students in greater mannerisms and laughter, and fast pace. Heejin
detail: one from Kory University, a top tier compared her current boyish, carefree style with
private school; and the others from third tier that of her best friend in high school who ended up
schools, Myngji University in Seoul and Inchn at a womens college and transformed herself into
City University outside of Seoul. The designation a stylish and feminine woman who spends lots of
of university level is complicated. It is hard, for money on shopping and body care. In contrast
example, to put any university in Seoul on a par to her friends feminine consumption, Heejin
with those outside of the city, or even more so with stressed that she would rather spend her money
those in the provinces (chibang); here Inchn City on drinking; we note that with this contrast Heejin
University is somewhat betwixt and between for sketches her friends narrow, consumption world,
it is neither a Seoul school nor a provincial one. with her more gregarious, masculine, and vital
Although the Kory University student we fea- one. This distinction was one enlivened for Heejin
ture here busily distinguishes herself even from by her chosen co-ed campus itself. Each stroll on
her own top tier university peers, she is none- campus with Heejin revealed her popularity and
theless deeply invested in her universitys vitality comfort in the environment. Conversations with

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

Heejin shed light on her cosmopolitan interests who got in here. Dont get me wrong, Im not
in being comfortable in the world at large. It was saying they are bad. They all go to provincial
clear that Heejin was very much at home at Kory colleges orWe all used to hang out together,
but when we parted at 1 a.m. I would go home
University and with todays college scene. After
and study until 3 a.m. before we went to bed.
several hours together in 2004, Heejin took us to They just went to bed since they were tired. So it
the student union president who she praised to was all about self-management [emphasis add-
the sky even as she stood steadfastly against his ed] It isnt that I look down on them. If I was
every political and campus cause. to talk to them like this, they would think I was
Recently, President Roh threatened to repeal a dierent person. But I only talk to them about
the advantages accorded students of special fun stu I have friends that I hang out with,
friends I study with, and friends I consult with
purpose high schools whose graduates gained
about the future.
extra points on their college entrance exams.8
Heejin, a graduate of such a school, called the When we met Heejin a year later as a
potential change a policy to undermine students sophomore, her position on self-management
with high standards and said of her entitlement: had, if anything, hardened. Kory University, she
I worked twice as hard as others to enter that asserted unabashedly, was an elite school that
school, and twice as hard to stay there. Further, should stand for, metonymically, the likes of her:
for Heejin, successful entrance to Kory Univer- self-managers invested in the kinds of new hu-
sity had particular meaning because her parents man development sketched above.
had insisted that if she could not enter a top-tier Heejin described a changed university, a far
co-ed college that she had better attend a wom- cry from the one that her high school teachers
ens school; she had, thus, succeeded in avoiding had described by telling them, hang in there,
a feminized space. hang in there, once you get to college you can
In 2003 we walked away from our meeting do whatever you want. Instead, to her delight,
with Heejin with one of her phrases, self- Heejin found people who studied really hard and
management (chagi kwalli), resonating. We had she described that she had been moved at the
been surprised to hear the phrase so directly, and long line of students waiting to enter the library
to listen that summer to so many other students at 5 a.m. It was clear that for Heejin, competing,
who oered similar narratives of what it takes to self-managing, working hard, and so on made her
succeed in a transformed South Korea. Heejin feel alive and vital. She described the energy that
dwelled on self-management to distinguish herself comes from achievement and activity:
from her close associates during her chaesu year,
the year when some students study to retake the [If you have to study in college] you can feel that
college entrance exams to upgrade their college you have achieved something When I was
choice, or in some cases to secure admission to selected to be an exchange student [she hasnt
gone yet] the feeling was amazingthe sense of
any college.
accomplishment. When I got into college, into
I probably shouldnt say this, but those of us the department I wanted, and It is the feel-
here are at this level [gesturing around her]. ing of energy, the motivation to continuously do
Our society is lead by people at this higher lev- something
el Frankly speaking, among my friends from
my chaesu year [those who attended the same Heejin was unabashed that the quest should
college preparation institute], I am the only one be eternal, and that the point was not to arrive at
38 The Sigur Center Asia Papers
The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
one place or another. In 2004 we were joined by sity graduates were ones that demanded English
a member of the popular music club, Soona, who mastery. In passing she remarked, Last semes-
ended up playing devils advocate to the human ter I saw more English than Korean. Heejin was
capital development extremes that Heejin oered unfazed that the university should want to confer
that day. In the face of Heejins insatiable desire these and many more credentials upon its gradu-
to be credentialized, and for Kory University to ates. She voiced her support for anything that as-
stand for excellence, Soona queried, But does serts that I have achieved to this [indicating the
this leave you any room for self development? campus around her] level. She added later that
Heejins retort was quick and easy: But this is Kory University is her brand (mak) and hence
a part of self development too. Where Soona she wanted the bar to be set high.
reserved some self-development beyond, we Heejin is a great defender of Kory Univer-
might say, the marketplace, Heejin atly rejected sitys global turn from national Kory Univer-
this sort of distinction. Minutes later, Soona sity to global Kory University. She described
pushed her again, You enjoy competition so that the universitys newspaper campaign, Now we
you can realize your dreams, right? It isnt that have turned our back on our homeland and are
you want to compete forever, right? Do you want marching toward the world. She praised the
to agonize yourself with endless competition. universitys eorts to be included in the list of
Soona had eectively asked the same question, the worlds top 100 universities in which cur-
and Heejin oered the same answer: It isnt hard rently there are no South Korean universities, as
for me. When Soona pressed her further that well as the Deans motto, Lets make good on our
she had witnessed Heejin complaining about the [university] pride! For Heejin, the march to the
work at exam time, Heejin admitted that yes world, English, endless credentials, ever-rising
she complains, but that she nonetheless wants to standards, and the like are the registers of vitality,
compete. Where Soona articulated the burden not an end as Soona would have it, but a way.
of vitality, Heejin espoused a willingness to Heejins career goals encompass this sense of vi-
embrace it. tality. She detailed her ever escalating desire for
When we met with Heejin in 2004, we spent foreign languages: My major is English [litera-
quite a bit of time talking about the universitys ture]. But it is unsatisfying to only work on Eng-
recently established English requirements lish. After all, everybody does English Now I
for graduation, namely an 800 or above on am learning Japanese, and I am continuing with
the TOEIC (Test of English for International Spanish too. And I also want to learn Chinese.
Communication).9 At that time, the student She described crafting a career through which
government was busily campaigning against she can contact [in English] foreigners. Heejin
this requirement and other features of Kory thus imagined herself in broad circulation, mov-
Universitys aggressive globalization eortsit ing freely in the world, facilitated by the mastery
was because of our interest in this campaign that of many tongues, and acting as an agent to bring
Heejin lead us to the student union president af- South Korea around the globe. Heejin plans to
ter our meeting. Heejin was matter of fact about become an event director, more specically she
the requirement, which she argued should be hopes to orchestrate public events, circulating
even steeper. When Soona protested the require- foreign culture. Heejins description of the career
ment, Heejin defended that the life or class circles synthesizes her aesthetics of vitality and activity,
(saenghwal hwangyng) of future Kory Univer- as well as her sense of the global.

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities
I like to make plans and to act of them, to bring and make themselves rich too. Here we can recall
them to life. Im the type who initiates getting the highly personalized project of self-realization
together with my friends. I want to develop this in which the individual must tout court fashion
side of me. I also like to deal with people. At one
her own mobility. Heejin charged the state with
point I thought about becoming a producer, but
I sensed that I would be constrained and that downward equalizationdumbing down the
bothered me A producer is conned to this country in a way that it can ill aord in the global
country. Instead, I want to have a hand in circu- race. Soona managed fewer and fewer comments
lating foreign culture. in the torrent of Heejins discourses of the vital.
It is interesting that one little comment she made
On hearing all this, Soona again was not late in our time together baed Heejin. Soona
entirely unconvinced. Soona refused to equate had managed to say that she liked studying
self development with human capital formation Korean literature to which Heejin responded,
and argued for something personal beyond the I dont understand. Although by no means a
instrumental. For Heejin the personal and the coherent political position, Soona had again and
instrumental came together in a vitality that was again spoken about the burden of the very sort of
at once pleasurable and interested. vitality that Heejin championed, and also thought
Throughout our time together, Soona about those people who are shut out of this
spoke again and again on behalf of people left particular sort of human development. To admit
cold by Heejins instrumental vitalityas did to liking Korean literature was, by that point in
the author and her anthropologist colleague the conversation, to admit to hemming oneself
Jinheon Jung. Where Heejin was against every in to, it seemed, a smaller universe, a domestic
education equalization measure of the current scene, lower standards and so on.
administration, Soona wondered about the less Heejin thus poses as a neoliberal paragon, all
fortunate and privileged, a category that Heejin the more so as the graduate of a special purpose
barely allowed for. Heejin argued that in todays high school, one that ran against the long-term
world of nations South Korea cannot aord to policy current of education equalization. As an
equalize, stating its too early, we are still at the elite college student, she enunciated the neoliberal
point where we have to make students study turn, relishing in the project of her own creative
more and more; all we do now is play. Lest the capital formation. This is not, however, to say that
reader imagine that allergies to a particular image the project imposes no burdens. There are cracks
of collectivities preclude national identication, in the armor, found in Heejins admissions of the
comments like these, championing competition diculties of striving. Soona, however, registers
in very nationalistic terms, were not uncommon. the ambivalence more clearly: the burden of
Heejin was not alone in asserting that South vitality sounds much more like thata mode of
Korea could ill-aord equalization measures in being that if idealized, remains a bit unfamiliar
the face of its own race for global standing. and daunting.
As many have argued, nationalism and
cosmopolitanism often go hand in hand (Park A Third-tier College Coed
and Abelmann 2004, Schein 1998). As for
people who cant aord the private after school I cant get anything from this school.
education indispensable to upper tier college
entrance, Heejin oered, they should work hard We met Sori for the rst time in 2004 shortly

40 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
before she was to resume her senior year at Myngji point her familys education investment became
University after a years leave. Myngji University clearly gendered. She described the hapless
had been a disappointment to Sori in every way. library crew, adrift in their private pursuits, many
Having been a hard working high school student of them already years into the project of college
in a peer group headed for greener pastures, Sori entrance or study for one or another state exam.
had a hard time coming to terms with herself at The irony of Soris settling for Myngji Univer-
this third-tier college. What is fascinating, if sity was that her father, the rst in his poor fam-
semi-tragic, about Soris case is that she articu- ily to have attended college, had himself gone to
lated a narrative of personal development not un- Myngji University; it was thus unthinkable that
like Heejins, even as her personal circumstances the daughter, who had been raised with so many
shut her out of the elite college brand that goes more advantages, had not managed to do any
so far to confer vitality. The profound personal better. A year later it turns out that Soris college
costtrauma, evenof Soris college story aside, entrance exam scores actually went down; she ex-
she was nonetheless willing to take on the entire plained that it seems that hers is a personal code
burden of her own human/capital development, (kod) ill-suited to the entrance exams. Further,
holding herself responsible for [her] own regula- she admitted to the senselessness of it all: her best
tion (Walkerdine 2003: 239). We take note of the test scores, for example, were on the third attempt
intermittent moments in which Sori generated when she didnt even study. But even when we
systemic or structural and gendered critiques, pushed, and even with her admission that she is
only to then quickly return to personal respon- not an exam-person, Sori refused any critique of
sibility. With Sori, we continue discussion of the this engine of selection in a highly competitive
profound burden of vitality, of new constructs of South Korea; instead, echoing Heejin, she took
human development. exams and competitive credentialization as par
It is impossible to wrest Soris own college for South Koreas course.
story from her fathers college story; indeed, When Sori took the time to tell us that the
college is always an intergenerational conversation score that it took to enter her major at Myngji
of one kind or another. When Sori ended up at University, the Department of Business Manage-
Myngji University, her father, an import export ment, was no dierent from that required by less
small entrepreneur and a self-made man, let her desirable departments at higher ranked schools, it
know that she had yielded no return on his ex- seemed that she was about to criticize the strati-
penditures and that there was no point to his in- cation of higher education in South Korea, and the
vesting in her any further. Sori had made her way brand capital we have describe above. Instead,
to Myngji University after her chaesu year. Her however, Sori was very critical of the college. She
scores had been so low on the rst round that she detailed the various ways in which Myngji Uni-
ended up not even applying to college because she versity did not live up to her ideal of college, an
had no interest in those schools that her scores image made all the more palpable because the
would have aorded. Unlike most children from vast majority of her high school and after-school
middle class families, which Soris appeared to be, institute friends attended higher ranking schools;
she did not attend a private institute that chaesu indeed, the day we spoke she was accompanied
year, but instead buried herself in a public library by a graduate student friend at prestigious Ynse
because her father had pronounced her, his only University located but minutes from Myngji
child, a hopeless case. We note here, that at this University. She described the hollow Myngji li-

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

brary, completely empty except during exam sea- perience. For her part, she could never imagine
son; here we can recall Heejin who was moved using her parents money without strong deter-
by the students lined up to enter the Kory Uni- mination to really study hard. Here Sori distin-
versity library at dawn. Also lacking for Sori were guished the spirit from the letter; her classmates,
meaningful social relationships: she described she asserted, lacked the spiritthe vitalitythat
that where students at Ynse or Kory Universi- would assure meaningful eects.
ties build relations with their seniors (snbae) Aspiring to follow in her fathers footsteps,
and join clubs or study groups,10 for her there pace on the many observers of neoliberal
is nothing that I can learn from them. Going subjectivity, Sori has taken on the burden of self-
further, Sori said, I cant get anything from this development on her own. Sori admires her father,
school. When we asked her why it is that she a well-traveled and successful exporter, whom she
cant even have a conversation with classmates describes as a self made man who speaks English
at Myngji, she continued: well considering his age. She went on to note that
his English is in fact better than hers. In spite of
To take an example: I am interested in English, admitting to being hurt by him and to the trials
but if I try to talk to them about learning Eng- of never being able to live up to his expectations,
lish, they are clueless. They know nothing about Sori is busily crafting her own parallel track.
what teacher is good at what institute or how to
Foremost, she knows that she will need to identify
prepare for the TOEFL etc. If they even studied
her own import/export item (aitem) if she is to
English a bit they would know that much and I
would at least be able to talk to them about how succeed. Over the course of our conversation, we
hard TOEFL is, but all they can say is I dont began to listen to the phonetic loan word item
know anything about TOEFL or I havent ever more metaphorically, to stand for the stress that
taken the TOEIC. many students put on discovering their own
talent or nurturing their own passion. We are
With these comments, Sori described students struck that Soris itemone that she would
with perhaps little bright futures or, at least, lower market or bring from abroadparallels Heejins
ambitions. We can also consider that Sori was events, both of them self-styled, and both of
remarking on the manqu of network or social them decidedly cosmopolitan for extending
capital at a place like Myngji University; there beyond South Korea and for requiring English.
were neither strategic ties nor helpful information Sori does not want to be merely a part of the
to be garnered there. These very students who machine, aspiring instead to becoming a gure
knew so little about the English exam that Kory in her own right (chudojgin saram).
University was requiring an 800 on for gradua- Like her chaesu year, Soris item is a
tionthe very score that earned Sori a sizable particularly gendered burden. She said: My
merit fellowship at Myngji Universitynone- Dad says that his trade item is too good to let
theless went for stints abroad, but Sori stressed, it die with his generation and that if he had
with no mind of their own. They just head for had a son he could have had him take it over.
China or the United States because their parents To wit, her entrepreneurship is indeed a self-
send them. I dont understand them. They say, entrepreneurship; the matter of fashioning herself
Isnt it a good thing to study abroad? Doesnt it as a woman is tied up in the project of somehow
expand ones horizons? but they have absolutely identifying that perfect trade item (Walkerdine
no plan to make good on their study abroad ex- 2003). Denied her entrepreneurial patrimony,

42 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
Soris dream to circulate on a larger stage becomes must be appreciated in the context of what she
harder to realize. Interestingly, Sori described described as the two things that matter to my
that as a young girl she was indulged by her father: patriarchy and money. Sori is determined
father who at that time still had big dreams for to both marry well and become a classy woman
her. Like Heejin, she thus never even entertained by virtue of making lots of money (sijip chal kago
the possibility of a womans college that would and ton chal pnn mtchin ysng i toemyn) so
somehow hem her horizons. It was as if, in the that her father will approve of her (okei hasil kt
face of her failure, Soris father relegated her to the katayo) in spite of her having attended a third-tier
feminine, as if to say, pull yourself up, if you can, college like he had. We detail the family context
by your own bootstraps. At the risk of making of Soris situation to underscore that her burden
an interpretive gamble, it is likely the family of self-development is intricately stitched into
investments for a wayward son would have only the fabric of conservative family norms and
intensied under similar circumstances. Soris patriarchy. Middle class largesse was in this case
own senses of the gendered realms of her parents withheld along gendered lines.
echo these calculations. She characterized that Although the task of unearthing Soris
while her father moves on the world stage, her item is still a project for the future, she has
mother, the kinder and more empathetic parent, meanwhile been taking a year o to study further
is conned to the domestic. It is telling, if ironic, for the TOEIC as well as to travel and take up
that the masculine signs of vitality are cold and photography. Sori was frustrated by what struck
even cruel, while the sites of feminine kindness her as an irony: although third-tier, Myngjis ten-
are hemmed in and domestic in both senses of dency for constant small exams throughout the
the word. In thinking about her own domestic entire semester worked against her own human
future, Sori spoke of her dilemma and her development desires. In short, she calculated that
confusion. she had better leave campus to be vital. English,
On the one hand, she wants to marry and travel, and photography comprise an easy trio,
have children: I want to have three kids and a for they are all human development assets, assets
harmonious home (hwamokhan kajng) lled that are all the more important for students from
with the sounds of children. I want my kids to Myngji University, where, Sori said the large
have siblings and I want to hear the sounds of rms dont even interview.
people making noise when I enter home. On the In sum, we have introduced Sori as a third
other hand, however, she is aware that to become tier college co-ed who realizes that her human
the savvy entrepreneurial woman (mtchin development, in the sense we have described, is
ysng) that can please her father, this sort of in her own hands. Without the college brand, and
domestic scene is still only the distant future: without the gendered inheritance of her fathers
Honestly, I dont think I can get married before import/export item, Sori is indeed on her own in
my thirties I need to work in a company and the project of self-styling for a transformed world.
start my own business too, but if I get married Although Sori at moments called attention to
and take care of my home and my husband, I matters beyond the boundary of the self-including
wont be able to do anything. She dismissed out personal exam proclivity, the insensitivity of
of hand the possibility of help from her mother college reputations at the departmental level,
who has already, she oered, sacriced too much and inequalities in family contributions to exam
to patriarchal demands. Soris struggles, however, preparationshe nonetheless considered that

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

she is both responsible for ending up at Myngji history distinct from the Seoul megalopolis, it is
University and in turn for the development of her close enough to Seoul to avoid easy classication
own human capital. Hardly unfettered by the as provincial South Korea but is nonetheless
burden, Sori still embraced it. not clearly part of the greater Seoul metropolitan
area. Interestingly, Inchn City University was
Bordering the Megalopolis only recently designated a public university in
the aftermath of a widely publicized corruption
Each of us has to know exactly where we are scandal and this change serves as a beacon of the
headed and then make choices accordingly new democratic era. The institutional history and
character of colleges is one that is worthy of con-
We turn now to two male seniors at Inchn sideration and not suciently developed in this
City University, Min and Kn, both the children paper.
of small entrepreneurs and Min of a single moth- We met Min and Kn in a larger group of
er. Although we foreground university stratica- Communication Department students in 2003
tion here, it is clear that Min and Kn are from and in a smaller group again in 2004. In 2004,
class backgrounds that dier from the students Min was o campus because of an internship that
introduced earlier. Like Sori, Min and Kn simi- had turned into full time employmentalthough
larly take on the burden of human development he still needed to nish up some coursework
beyond the walls of their university. Min argues and he made considerable eort to come and
for the self-management of college in which each meet us because he had an urgent story to share
student decides where college ts in their own (one that follows here). In 2003, Minstylishly
self-development strategy. Kn, having recently dressed in offbeat clothesspoke of his fate to
decided to take the civil service exam, is resigned follow a dierent life course, and of his distinctive
to a rather conventional occupational future, but childhood without a father and with a crazily
holds out for the possibility of personal develop- strong mother. When he introduced himself as
ment beyond the job, as he did throughout his an eclectic philosopher, it was clear that his
college years beyond the university. We under- classmates had heard much of it before, that Min
stand Kn to articulate a somewhat dierent nar- was a frequent performer of his own dierence.
rative of vitalityone that recalls Heejins friend In 2003, Min, establishing himself as a condent
Soona at Kory University who wanted to reserve talker, spoke at great length about South Koreas
some element of human development beyond the impoverished culture of conversation or debate
instrumental. These distinctions aside, however, (toron munhwa). In claiming that English was
we appreciate that even beyond the connes of more comfortable, Min seemed to be saying
the productive realm, vitality can still burden; that, for him, English was somehow unfettered
and further that the distinction between the pro- by South Korean schooling, convention, and
ductive and other realms perhaps makes less and perhaps even social life. With his comments on
less sense. Inchn City University is a third-tier English, Min also highlighted his international
university attended by Seoulites who cannot en- travel and his cosmopolitan anities.
ter colleges in Seoul proper, Inchn locals, and
students from the provinces. Inchn, a sprawling When I speak English, it doesnt seem so hard. It
city neighboring Seoul, presents an interesting is easy and systematic. Speaking English is more
case. Although an independent city with its own comfortable and written English is more precise

44 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
[than Korean]. When I speak Korean, the words the TOEIC exam, but he went to India and tried
seem hard and I feel that in comparison Kore- his English a lot there. In a word, he is talking
an is dicult. People of the Republic of Korea about practical English (silchn yng). We will
learn that dicult Korean and so it is hard for
see below that Kn has only traveled domestically
us to learn that easy English. This shows that we
have a real problem with our education system. and thus has made dierent choices than Min, al-
We begin our schooling learning such strange though we think that their class backgrounds are
things (in English education)and in high not so distinct.
school and middle school too. I dont know why In keeping with his deep-seated criticisms
we learn those kinds of things. We could just go of South Korean English education, Min was
and talk when the situation arises, but instead also an avid critic of South Koreas chronic
we study English this way. Who knows why we
competition and of the connections (school,
cant get out of our books?
region, and kin) that it takes to achieve; in that
Moments later, Min championed survival litany, he included South Koreas Seoul National
English, an English born in real life interactions University sickness, referring to the pathological
and through a more natural process of acquisi- obsession with that one school. Interestingly,
tion: in his excursus on English, Min also asserted
that his English mastery exceeded that of Seoul
If we say, Mom, give me something to eat National University students. Like Myngji Uni-
(mma, pap chw), we dont consciously think versitys Sori, Min makes structural critiques, but
of mma, pap, and chw. We just say it was clear that he was much more deeply em-
mma, pap chw in one phrase. But [in South powered by them, that he resisted personalizing
Korean schooling], we have to memorize the his failure as an Inchn City University student.
English words for mma, pap, and chw While it is hard to generalize from this dierence,
and combine them to make a sentence. If I do
we think that both class and gender do matter
it my own way, English rolls o my tongue easily
(yng ka sulsul nawayo). When I spoke English here. Min was not burdened by Soris sense, as
abroad, I didnt think about it consciouslyI introduced by her father, that in the light of her
just memorized the words and sentences that middle class advantages she had failed by end-
people used and said them that wayIts really ing up at Myngji University; nor did she seem
easy to learn how to just change the ending of quite as empowered to craft her own maverick
sentences and put that into action, but instead way. Where Sori was burdened with the desire to
[people in South Korea] just sit in the library
please her patriarchal father, Min prided himself
ve hours a day studying. Thats meaningless.
We really should change [the education system] on his maverick family background, on being
soon. unfettered by Korean familial convention.
Mins assertion of freedom from patriarchy can
If the English that Min spoke and learned in be considered ironically as a gendered privilege
his trek in India was somehow natural, South itself; a father-less daughter would be very
Korean English was a disaster, held hostage in dierently positioned. In describing the many
South Korean textbooks and classrooms. On ways in which he had self-styled his path, from
hearing Min on English, Kn did not negate what travel in India to side jobs in college, Min detailed
he said, but oered his own take on Mins position: a self-entrepreneurship that had begun early in
Our [i.e., South Korean] criterion for English his life by virtue of his cultural marginality, his
study is the TOEIC exam. He hasnt studied for position outside of the logic of patriarchy that

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

burdened Sorieven as her fathers item could evening. He had come to tell us a love story and
not be passed down. In imagining his future, to share his broken heart. It was a very long story,
Min described his inspiration from Buddhism spoken with almost no interruptions, other than
(following ones heart); indeed, throughout the sympathy pangs from the assembled listeners;
conversation he cited a range of early Korean for Kn and a newcomer to the department also
religious thinkers. In 2003 he also spoke of his there, it was clear that the story was already very
desire to make avant-garde lms. familiar. In a word, Min had fallen in love with an
By 2004, via an internship, Min had landed a Indian woman he had come to know because she
highly desirable job in Seoul as a TV producer in was featured in a TV program that he had spear-
a broadcasting company. Although Min was not headed as part of his internship, and by the time
disparaging of others, the following comments we were speaking, job. It was a fairy tale story
on hoe he landed the job makes clear, however, of true love and of tragic parting: the woman in
that he understands that each person must take question could not marry out. Although a seri-
responsibility for the management of their own ous and at moments melodramatic telling, there
future, a management that is inherently risky, and were humorous asides, mostly about the ways in
driven by many choices. which Min skimped on his work to follow his
heart. We listened to the story intentlyMin was
When I was taking classes, I got many calls skilled at keeping us tuned in. In the midst of it
asking, Min, are you up for some part time we were struck by the way in which Min seemed
work? And I would turn to my friends, Hey, to mobilize the tale as an instance of the way in
lets do it together, but most of the time they which he makes life choicesreminiscent of his
said No, I cant, I have class. But in my case, I description of his management of college. Mins
cut class and did those jobs. Because I skipped
was an instance of living and experiencing in-
many classes, my GPA was between a B and a
C but I learned many skills in the eld. And tensely, vitally. While at rst glance a very far
so I have been able to enter the work world cry from the credential-happy Heejin with her
this quickly. Those students who stuck to their events or from item-seeking Sori, the inten-
classes cant enter society and begin working as sity, the personal air, and the interest in experi-
easily. It was a matter of my personal judgment ence is consistent. That evening, within moments
(chagi pandan); I did what I did because I chose of our meeting Min had rued through his wal-
to do it. Grades are also important, and I did
let to show us something, namely his graduation
fret about my grades. Some of my friends made
that choice [i.e., to secure their grades]Each photo in which, against the grain, Min had decid-
of us has to know exactly where we are headed ed to wear traditional Korean garb. It was a fresh-
and then make choices accordingly. I chose my man in the department, who sat with us quietly
course a long time ago and I have stayed on that and blushed when asked to talk a bit about her-
path without wavering. self, who ipped through her cell phone shots to
produce the desired photo. Min, it was clear, was
Mins thoughts here about learning in the himself a bit of a departmental event or item.
eld echo his earlier pronouncements about Min also talked that evening about an
language learning, and signify his embrace of encounter with a Japanese traveler in India. It was
new modes of human development. It was not, a lovely story about a serendipitous and minimal,
however, to oer these reections that Min but somehow very meaningful, meeting; it
had made considerable eorts to meet us that captured beautifully the allure of travel, the magic

46 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
that it promises the adventuresome. The talk well suited to his studies and passions. This fu-
of travel, yet another instance of experience, ture seemed all the duller against the landscape
recalled the year earlier meeting in which all of of Mins accounts. Kn talked about the naked
the four students who spoke at length devoted realities of contemporary circumstances, for all
much of their talk to travel, but most of all Kn. college students, particularly for ones outside
Born and raised in Inchn, Kn had transferred of Seoul: People say that our economy is get-
from physics to communications, nding it better ting worse and youth employment is becoming
suited to his interests. After uttering this he said, a serious issue. These days there are no college
and I especially like to travel, which prompt- students who are relaxed. We hang out together,
ed the author to ask about the relation between but the moment we are alone again we are over-
travel and his new major (communications) that whelmed with worry, worries about the future.
made everyone chuckle. Kn nonetheless did an- Kn thus described an anxiety that we observed
swer, tellingly: across many of our college student interviews,
especially those at the lower tier universities. It
Well, theres no exact relationship between is interesting that the Kory University students
them, butI think of travel as something that
above did not speak about economic downturns
gives you time to contemplate. The way I think
of travel is that while passing through new en- and the diculty of employment. Kn, however,
vironments, it allows us to think alone and to went so far as to note that these days even Seoul
plunge into our own thoughts. National University students struggle. As with
Min above, we can note the iconic way that Seoul
The connection, we think, was that both the National University is mobilized in student dis-
major and the travel were tailored to personal course. Traveler Kn made peace with his deci-
proclivity. Kn would have liked to travel abroad, sion to take the exam this way:
but limited resources precluded it. Kn described
his lofty goals at the start of each travel, setting If I become a public servant, I will have enough
out for the answers to how I should live, what spare time. WE cant imagine working more
life is and so on, but he continued wistfully, af- than ten hours a day like Min. [As a public ser-
ter all, its the same. Whether I travel or not, life is vant] I will go to work at 9:00 and nish by 5:30.
The rest of the time is my own. And in the near
hard. Even in 2003, Kn went on to say that the
future public servants will have every other
weight of reality had been getting in the way of Saturday o. And somewhere down the line all
his travels. Saturdays will be o. With that time, I can do
Kns comments on his future in 2004 must something for self-development.
be listened to in the context of the evening we
have already described, one in which most of us, In this way, Kn registered or at least per-
Kn included, sat quietly listening to Mins ac- formed his peace with the arrangement: the deci-
count. Kn, conservatively and neatly dressed, sion, born of necessity, to become a public ser-
smiled quietly throughout the telling. It was af- vant. The peace, as he described it, comes from
ter this romp of experienceof adventuresome the self development that he plans for after
travel in India, television, and international ro- hours. It is interesting how Kn even spoke of his
mancethat Kn shared his decision to take the shorter work day, contrasting with Mins, as liber-
civil service exam, a decision that would foreclose ating in its own way. Kns sketch is in accordance
on any opportunity for the boutique employment with widespread images of a changed salaryman

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

who does not forsake his personal life for the people who have made their way to four year
company. Like Soona at Kory University, Kn collegesall aspire to vital human development,
described self-development in the leisure zone. and they all accept the burden of managing
In 2003, however, when still a junior Kn had de- that vital personal formation. This new
scribed his own desires, not unlike Mins, to live personand here we must again caution that
dierently. Dismissing conventional marriage and they are not, after all, entirely new (Song 2003)
family, he had said, Why should I live like that? dierentiates herself from the past and aspires to
And he had added, as if to explain his dierence, realize values of democracy, individualism and
In any case, humans are alone. In 2004, how- cosmopolitanism. This paper has considered how
ever, Kn spoke about the unparalleled benets a small number of students across three campuses
(retirement, etc.) of civil service jobs; he seemed inhabit these discourses of human development
to be sketching a conventional life course. Inter- and how in turn they manage their education
estingly, he described that a future wife would be and chart the course of their future lives. We have
able to bring warmth to his natal familys domes- paid particular attention to dierences according
tic life. He lamented that over time conversations to university prestige and family background. We
with his mother had become increasingly lim- have argued that the burden of vitality is borne
ited, ranging from short reports to perfunctory variously across these campuses and that vitality
queries, for example, Did you eat? Yeah. Kn is often articulated against feminized spaces
spoke of the sadness of his mothers home life and traits. We observed how Heejin occupies
and sought to bring new life to that home with a privileged position where her campus itself
his future wife. Of note are the contours of Kns confers the brand of vitality. We listened to their
lial burden: his concern for his mothers happi- cosmopolitan dreams, like Heejins vision of herself
ness perhaps stands against his own life course as a cosmopolitan event planner. We listened to
freedoms. But, if a civil service career smacked the ways that they understand that vitality as a
of something conventional, Kn nonetheless re- matter of personal responsibility and choice,
served his after hours, and the promise of future entirely unfettered by structure or circumstance.
Saturdays in a transformed South Korean work Similarly we saw how English, a sign of the global,
life, for that refuge that he had soughtif only is a matter for personal conquer. But, we also saw,
half realizedthrough travel in his earlier college with Soona, that not all elite university students
days. Even though life is hard, Kn is holding are enunciators of the neoliberal project to the
rmly to self-expression and development. Kn degree that Heejin does. While Sori of third tier
strikes us as taking on the burden of vitality dif- Myngji University equally embraced the proj-
ferently than the other students featured in this ect of vitality, she was resigned to managing it on
paper. We note that he is distinguished from the her own, o-campus. And we saw that her own
others because of his level of resignation to social cosmopolitan vision of the futurein which she
inequalities, and because he does not personalize secures her itemis a gendered burden that
vitality to the same extent. she shoulders alone, unlike a son who would have
been able to take over her fathers item. Against
Conclusions the backdrop of Heejins triumphant and integrat-
ed projects of personal development, Soris rings
The university students in this paperand it more fraught, raw, and even pained. Finally, Min
is important to underscore that these are all young and Kn of Inchn City University are, like Sori,

48 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
students who gure the project of human devel- Apple, Michael W., 2001. "Comparing Neo-
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The Uneven Burden of Vitality, Nancy Abelmann
Subject." Gender and Education 15 (3):237- Jung was committed to education reform that nurtured
248. autonomous and creative human capital (Mok, Yoon,
and Welch 2003; Song 2003).
Wallulis, Jerald, 1998. The New Insecurity: The 7
Further it is widely understood that with the enormous
End of the Standard Jjob and Family. Albany:
expansion of the private after-school education sector
State University of New York Press. one whose expenditures are nearly commensurate with
Yan, Hairong, 2003. Neoliberal Governmentality state funding for education (J.H. Lee 2004: 223) that family
and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value background makes more and more of a dierence in
Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks. students education chances. By extension and in large part
Cultural Anthropology. 18(4):493-523. because of this private after-school market, many assert
that the so-called high school equalization measures,
Endnotes namely the abolishment of the high school entrance
examinations beginning in 1974, did not level South
See Comaro and Comaro 2000, 304; Ong and Collier Koreas playing eld (J.H. Lee 2004: 228; Seth 2002). In a
2005; Rose and Novas 2005. similar vein, higher education in South Korea is supported
See Anagnost 2004; Apple 2001; Borovoy 2004; Comaro by tuition at a very high rate (approximately80%) (N. Park
and Comaro 2000; Du Gay 1996, 182; Ferguson and 2000: 132). And nally three quarters if South Koreas
Gupta 2002; Fong 2004; Gee 1999; Kingsher 2002; college students attend private sector schools with little
Muraki 2002; Rose 2000; Song 2003; Walkerdine 2003; public support (N. Park 2000: 132).
Wallulis 1998; Yan 2003. Special purpose high schools, which originally started
Comaro and Comaro (2000: 305) similarly write, in the late 1970s only for art and athletics in order to
Neoliberalism aspires, in its ideology and practice, to complement the high school equalization policy, have
intensify the abstractions inherent in capitalism itself: expanded during the mid-1990s in accordance with the
to separate labor power from its human context, to educational reforms, which emphasize diversication,
replace society with the market, to build a universe out of specialization, and autonomy of schools. These schools
aggregated transactions. have special purposes to nurture talents for the new
See Borovoy 2004 for a study of the ambivalence of economy, including technical, science and foreign
Japanese young people as they struggle to meet the language skills. These high schools thus now seem to
newfound requirements of Japans new competitiveness. run entirely against the grain of decades of high school
In parallel with the South Korean case in this paper, equalization measures (Kim Young-Chol 2003; Lee 1998).
these Japanese young people are asked to become a Several universities now have English course and
new generation of individualized and creative workers. examination requirements for graduation. Moreover,
Borovoy analyses both how class works such that some these days TOEFL and TOEIC scores have become
youth are not aorded the opportunity to develop these important even for elementary, middle, or high school
new subjectivities, and how for elite youth these new students. This is related to the signicant changes in the
requirements challenge deeply held values as well as university entrance exam system during the Kim Dae Jung
ambivalences about American-style capitalism. government (1998-2003). The new university entrance
Yoon (2000, in Mok, Yoon, and Welch 2003: 61) exam system emphasizes the "diversication" of ways of
summarizes South Koreas education transformation entering college, which has been popularly labeled a move
in terms of several key shifts: from standardization from a policy of "one entrance (i.e, to universities) (hanjul
to autonomy, diversication, and specialization; from sgi) to that of multiple entrances (yrjul sgi). Thus,
provider to consumer; and from classroom education to the government advertised that a creative student, who
open and life-long learning. is excellent at only one subject (e.g., English, computer,
As Mok, Yoon, and Welch (2003: 62-3) characterize, writing, etc.), can now enter university more easily in
the Korean government openly acknowledges that accordance with more diverse criteria of admissions. There
the existing system has failed to equip the society with is, however, continuous debate about the eectiveness and
autonomous capacity to solve the problems presented by negative byproducts of this change. This change in part
the new knowledge economy. Former President Kim Dae also aects the current English education boom and the

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2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities
private after-school market for childrens preparation for
the TOEFL and TOEIC.
See Borovoy 2004 for a fascinating discussion of college
clubs as a mark of university status in Japan. More broadly,
she takes college clubs as a key element of elite college
socialization that prepares students for elite corporate
work and social life. She considers both what it means that
students at a provincial low-level college participate in
clubs at signicantly lower rates (30%) because many of
them are commuter students; as well as dierences in the
easy come easy go way in which they participate in the
This is a revised version of a paper presented by Nancy
Abelmann at the 11th Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the
Korean Humanities at The George Washington University
on 23 October 2004. We are grateful to generous and
enormously helpful feedback on drafts of this paper from
Amy Borovoy, Ed Bruner, Bong Gun Chung, Noriko
Muraki, Myung-gyu Pak, Cathy Prendergast, and Jesook
Song. Additionally, comments by Fred Carriere, Greg
Brazinsky, and Kirk W. Larsen during the colloquium were
very helpful. This paper was discussed in a Korean Studies
seminar at Stanford University and at Columbia University
that yielded important critical feedback. We also extended
thanks to Jinheon Jung who provided research assistance
during the summer of 2004. Finally, this ethnographic
research was enabled by introductions facilitated by
Byung-ho Chung, Hye-young Jo, Jinehon Jung, Donghu
Lee, Deok-hee Seo and Keehyeung Lee.

52 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Korean Education:

Gregg Brazinsky
Despite the importance of education in Kore- system during the Occupation years immediate-
an society both at present and over the course of ly after the war. In his paper Seth deals with the
Korean history, the topic has not been the subject threat to ideals of educational equality and uni-
of a great deal of research. Much of the scholar- formity created by Korean parents willingness
ship on the topic, especially in the social scienc- to spend millions of dollars annually on private
es, has been fairly simplistic and geared towards tutoring and so-called cram schools. According
demonstrating the obvious point that education to Seth, this contributed to a tension between
in Korea supported the countrys modernization the egalitarian idea that the entire school system
and development. The colloquium presentations should be uniform in content and standard and
have all gone far beyond this showing that educa- the more elitist tendency to assign every school
tion is not just a unifying force that can buttress and school district a place in a hierarchy of sta-
development but also a very divisive and contest- tus. Interestingly, Michael Seth argues on page
ed issue. Students, families, and educators all have that this tension between education as status
deep, vested interests in South Koreas education climbing and egalitarianism reected a society
system and have struggled for the systems soul. assimilating new Western ideals while adhering
I would like to begin by pointing out one to traditional Confucian cultural values. Thus
common theme in these papers in this regard. All the tension between egalitarianism and elitism in
three of the papers reect the critical concern that the South Korean education system can be linked
has existed in Korean history for at least the last more broadly to tensions created by the inux of
century over how foreign inuencesespecially Western ideas.
globalizing discourses about modernity and de- Seth touches on this point more indirectly in
mocracycan be integrated into Korean culture. the closing portions of his paper as well. He points
South Korea, like many post-colonial societies, briey to the problem created by the prestige
has been anxious about how it can absorb mod- South Korean students attach to foreign degrees.
ern social and cultural inuences in a way that Here, however, , Koreans desire for exposure to
will not endanger or destroy its traditional beliefs Western educational methods and institutions
and values. is a cause of inequality rather than a force for
This point comes across in several parts of social equality since only the wealthiest Korean
Michael Seths paper,building on his book that students can generally aord to pursue degrees at
has already shown in great detail some of the con- foreign universities. There are several interesting
icts that occurred when the United States rst possibilities here that Seth might develop more
seriously attempted to transform Koreas school fully. First, how does the great prestige accorded

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 53

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

to American universities hamper and/or contrib- unique cultural context of education in Korean
ute to the quality of education in South Korea? society. The traditionalist discourse on school
On the one hand, as Seth mentions, when the collapse stands in contrast to the neo-liberal dis-
best students go abroad it weakens the caliber of course that has argued in favor of a market-based
graduate programs in Korea. At the same time, educational system that more closely resembles
however, study in the West should theoretically the one that exists in the United States. The de-
contribute to the improvement of education in bate between traditionalists and neo-liberals is
South Korea in the long term since it enables Ko- also interesting because it reects perhaps the
reans to receive the most sophisticated training most recent incarnation of the debates between
possible before returning to their home univer- how to adapt traditional beliefs to modernizing
sities. Additionally, many American universities change in Korea. Specically, how South Korea
are now setting up branches in Korea and other can and should adapt to the post-modern era of
Asian countries, supposedly for Asian students globalization.
who cannot aord to travel abroad. How will this The students discussed in Nancy Abelmanns
aect the overall balance between educational paper also wrestle with the impact of globalizing
equality and access to Western universities? changes on Korean society. At rst blush what
Similar conicts over how to adapt foreign stands out in Abelmanns paper in contrast to the
particularly Western inuencesto traditional other two is the relative absence of a discourse on
Korean ideals can be found in the four discourses Koreanness or traditionalism. The students seem,
analyzed by Jae-Hoon Lim, whose paper examines for the most part, to embrace the idea of trans-
debates over the issue of school collapse in South forming themselves and becoming cosmopolitan
Korea that occurred between 1999 and 2001. Lim in order to manage the demands of globalization.
notes that the Korean educational system was But they tend to approach doing so as an individ-
based from the outset on a mixture of Confucian ual project much more so than as a national proj-
philosophy and democratic ideology. According ect. At the same time, this issue is complicated
to Lim, these two discourses coexisted with each in Abelmanns paper by the state assuming a role
other during most of the last four decades but the in promoting human capital formation through
conict between the two became much more vis- its Brain Korea 21 project. The explicit concern
ible during the school collapse debates that she of the project and an implicit concern of many
describes. This point comes across most strongly of the students is whether South Korea itself will
in the papers discussion of what it terms the tra- be able to keep pace with a rapidly transforming
ditionalist discourse on school collapse. These global environment. They are nationalist but their
traditionalists represent perhaps one extreme on nationalism goes hand in hand with cosmopoli-
the spectrum of opinions on how and whether tanism in a way that is quite dierent from tra-
Western ideas that are associated with modernity ditionalist nationalist discourses with their more
should be adapted and applied. Traditionalists communitarian emphasis.
seem to use the idea of school collapse to argue Another salient theme in all three papers that
for the outright rejection of outside inuence on plays into the conict of the global versus the lo-
the school system. They have opposed privatiza- cal is the issue of class. In some societies global-
tion and market-based reforms while criticizing ization can contribute to the sharpening of class
the Department of Educations decision to ille- dierences because those who are able to learn
galize corporal punishment as a failure to see the about new technologies most eciently gain un-

54 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Commentary, Gregg Brazinsky
precedented opportunity while those who are There are common themes included in all of
not get left behind. In South Korea, where the these papers. But there are also some common
population believes passionately in the ideal of absences. I yearned in reading all three papers
education as a means of achieving social equal- for a sense of what is actually going on in class-
ity this issue is of particular signicance. In all rooms in South Korea. None of the papers really
three of the papers the tensions created by glo- address what and how the teachers are teaching
balization connect to the issue of class in some and how they are interacting with their students.
way. Class issues are plainly delineated in Michael None of the papers deals with what students gain
Seths paper. Seth demonstrates how the expense or believe that they are gaining in the classroom.
of studying abroad and paying for private lessons All three could have beneted from giving their
can serve to perpetuate class inequalities in South readers a greater sense of this. In Seths paper the
Koreas education system because they allow the reasons for kwaoe could be much more clearly
wealthy access to opportunities not available to elucidated against the backdrop of the limitations
the middle or working classes. or at least the perceived limitations of the educa-
Interestingly, both Jae-Hoon Lims and Nan- tional opportunities that are available to all. Abel-
cy Abelmanns papers focus on showing the rel- manns discussion of human capital formation al-
evance of class but also its limitations. Lims paper most begs for some explication of the classroom
argues that class seems to have some eect on the experiences of the students she discusses. Given
ways Koreans perceive their educational system that these students are so interested in equipping
and its failings. The paper nds that a noticeable themselves with skills and experiences that can
class aliation with each of the four key dis- prepare them for a globalizing economy, it would
courses on school collapse existed. At the same be interesting to hear them reect more on what
time, however, Lim notes that class was only one they are actually experiencing in the classroom
of the key determinants of these discourses and and how those experiences can contribute to the
that the determinative inuence of class was me- process of human capital formation. Finally, Lims
diated by ideology. Moreover, she nds that, iron- discussion of school collapse could also have
ically, the middle and upper middle classes that been enriched by greater discussion of classroom
beneted the most from the school system have experiences. Although Lim connes the objective
been the most strident in declaring the system of her paper to discourse analysis, it is neverthe-
obsolete. Nancy Abelmanns paper examines how less dicult to discern why these discourses ex-
class background works in conjunction with col- ist and why they are so prevalent without greater
lege prestige to inuence the processes of human knowledge of what is occurring in South Korean
capital formation. As in Lims paper class is an schools and classrooms.
important but not determining variable. Among Researching classroom experience is obvious-
the students that Abelmann examines, it is Kun , ly dicult. It doubtless varies both from school
with his frequent references to class and humble to school and even from classroom to classroom.
origins, who has least personalized the notion of But it is nevertheless necessary to ground our
vitality. But at the same time, Abelmanns analy- analyses of the problems and prospects of educa-
ses of other students makes it clear that dierenc- tion in South Korea with a more concrete sense
es in the ideals of vitality and cosmopolitanism of teaching methodologies and learning experi-
can certainly exist within classes and even within ences. Without this, it is dicult to say what edu-
particular universities. cation in Korea actually is.

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 55

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

Moreover, such an exploration of what educa-

tion in Korea actually is should be accompanied
by a more detailed analysis of what Korean edu-
cation was. Michael Seths paper includes some
discussion of education in pre-modern Korean
society. But even Seths paper focuses more on the
socio-economic functions of education than on
the process of education and education as lived
experience. Analyses of the present conicts oc-
curring over education could be much richer if
accompanied by some sense of how education
has evolved.
Despite these inevitable absences, these pa-
pers identify some of the key issues that have
confronted South Koreas education system in the
past and will inevitably confront it in the future.
By combining the theoretical perspectives ad-
opted in these papers with a rmer knowledge of
what goes on in South Korea classrooms, schol-
ars should be able to help Koreans move toward a
resolution of these critical issues.

56 The Sigur Center Asia Papers


Nancy Abelmann is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Asian

American Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Womens
Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She cur-
rently serves as the director of the Center for East Asian and Pacic
Studies. She has published books on social movements in contempo-
rary South Korea (Echoes of the Past, Epics of Dissent: A South Korean
Social Movement, University of California Press, 1996); on women and
social mobility in post-colonial South Korea (The Melodrama of Mo-
bility: Women, Talk and Class in Contemporary South Korea, Univer-
sity of Hawaii Press, 2003); on Korean America (Blue Dreams: Korean
Americans and the Los Angeles Riots, with John Lie, Harvard University Press, 1995); and on Korean
lm with Kathleen McHugh, South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and Nation (Wayne
State University Press, 2005). Currently she is completing The Intimate University: College and the Ko-
rean American Family, based on 4 years of transnational ethnography on the educational trajectories
of Korean American public college students as they articulate with the educational histories of their
migr parents. She has received two campus grants with psychologist Sumie Okazaki to study Korean
American adolescents and their families.

Kiwon Jang is Education Counselor of the Korean Embassy in

Washington, DC. He has a Ph.D. from Seoul National University and
an MA from the University of London, both in education. He is a for-
mer Deputy Superintendent of the Provincial governments of Inchon
and Kyonggido. Just before coming to the U.S., he served two years as
the Director-General of the Higher Education Bureau in the Republic
of Korea Ministry of Education.

Jae Hoon Lim is assistant professor at The George Washington

University. She received her Ph.D. in elementary education from the
University of Georgia with an emphasis in qualitative research meth-
odology. She teaches introductory and advanced qualitative research
courses for graduate students in School of Education and Human De-
velopment. She has published several articles and book chapters in ac-
ademic and professional journals both in South Korea and the United
States. Her research interests include qualitative research, gender stud-
ies, and socio-cultural issues in education.

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 57

2004 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities

Michael J. Seth is assistant professor of history at James Madison

University where he teaches East Asian and comparative global his-
tory. His Ph.D. is from the University of Hawaii. His research interests
are in Korean social history and the problems of economic and social
development. He is the author of Education Fever: Society, Politics
and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea (2002).

Gregg Brazinsky is assistant professor of history and interna-

tional aairs at The George Washington University. He is an expert
on American diplomatic history and U.S.-Asia relations. He earned a
Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2002. He is completing a book on
American Cold War Nation Building in South Korea.

Roy Richard Grinker is professor of anthropology, international

aairs, and the human sciences at GW. He received his Ph.D. in social
anthropology from Harvard University in 1989 with a specialization
in African studies. His publications include Houses in the Rainforest,
Korea and Its Futures: Unication and the Unnished War, In the Arms
of Africa, and Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and
Representation. He worked extensively on North-South Korean rela-
tions, and in 1997 he testied before the U.S. Congress on the issue
of North Korean defectors adaptation to South Korean society. He is
currently Editor-in-Chief of Anthropological Quarterly.

Young-Key Kim-Renaud is professor of Korean language and cul-

ture and international aairs at GW. She is past President of the In-
ternational Circle of Korean Linguistics. A theoretical linguist with a
broad interest in Korean humanities and Asian aairs, Kim-Renaud
has published widely in the area of Korean phonology, writing system,
honorics, and general Korean cultural history.

58 The Sigur Center Asia Papers

Kirk W. Larsen is the Korea Foundation assistant professor of his-
tory and international aairs at GW. He received his Ph.D. in history
from Harvard University. His research and teaching interests include
modern Korean history, imperialism in Asia, networks, patterns, and
trends of trade in Northeast Asia, and the Overseas Chinese in Korea.
He is currently nishing a book on Qing imperialism in Chosn Korea
during the Open Port Period (1876-1910).

Hyunhee Kim is a Ph. D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-
Champaign. Her primary research interests intersect between legal anthropology and Asian American
studies (with a particular focus on Korean Americans). Her dissertation examines Korean American
lawyers citizenship project in post 9/11 New York City.

So Jin Park is a Ph. D. candidate in sociocultural anthropology and was a Spencer Foundation Dis-
sertation Fellow (June 2004 - May 2005). She also earned a Graduate minor in the Gender and Womens
Studies Program. Her dissertation examines mothers management of their childrens private after-
school education to reveal the workings of both social inequality and ideologies of motherhood.

The Sigur Center Asia Papers 59