OPEN LETTER

  NATIONAL COMMISSION FOR EDUCATION REFORM

 
    [Several of us, senior Korean-American Scholars, have written up an open letter to Korean society calling for
    the establishment of a national commission for education reform in Korea to begin a national debate on this critical
    issue.  The  letter was published in the  November 28, 2003 issues of  IEKAS 03-42, the Korea Herald
    (http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/SITE/data/html_dir/2003/11/28/200311280049.asp), and the Joong-Ang Ilbo
    (http://joongangdaily.joins.com/200311/28/200311280108194609900090409041.html).]


    [An Open Letter] Establish a National Commission for Education Reform


    It has been a little over half a century since the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948.  Since then,
    Korea has made phenomenal strides in economy - from zero industrial production to the thirteenth
    economic power of the world - and in societal evolution - from barely jettisoning the colonial and
    occupation army rule to vibrant democracy of today.  However, we believe there is one grave and
    persistent shortcoming that is draining the wellspring of strength and potential of the Korean people.
    That is the unmitigated failure of education in Korea, which poses a colossal barrier to well-being of the
    Korean people for generations to come and for uplifting the collective character of Koreans in this fast
    shrinking world stage. The current woes of Korean educational system, from kindergarten to college,
    are many-faceted and all too painfully familiar to all of us and require no enumerating here. Suffice it to
    start with just two main afflictions.

    First, virtually all Korean households are under immense pressure - mental and financial - to educate
    their young ones by expensive, and highly competitive, private tutoring system known as "hagwon."  It
    brings unbearable pressure not only on young students but also to the whole family, the pressure that
    brings about the annual rites of young students committing suicides and prompting many families to
    abandon Korea and move, in search of better quality of education, to such places as the United States,
    Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  We know of no other country in the world where so many middle-
    class people simply uproot themselves from their homeland primarily in search of better education for
    their young ones.  In many instances, this results in 'split' families, mother moving to another country
    with her children while father stays  behind in Korea to carry the crushing financial burden.  The
    inordinate amount of the education pressure on students, family, educational system, societal and
    economic fabric is incalculable, not to mention the distortion in the sense of values it imposes on young
    generation.

    Secondly - and this cuts deeper into the future Korean psyche - the Korean education has utterly failed
    to nurture and raise productive citizens.  By that we mean enlightened individuals of strong character,
    high integrity, and individual initiatives.  We believe that we must have future citizens of Korea who
    can think for themselves and contribute to an enhanced democratic society of reason and compassion.
    Instead, the system, as we observe it, has contributed to producing one leadership class after another of
    blind ambition, utterly oblivious to broader good of the society at large.   Taken together with many
    other shortcomings not all listed here, the failure of education spells a doomsday disaster for the future of
    the Korean society.

    The deepest root of the failure does not lie within the administrative policies of government alone, but
    rather in the very culture of the contemporary society. During the past 55 years, Korea has evolved
    through some eight administrations. During five years of the immediate past administration, for
    example, there had been seven education cabinet ministers. Taking the average tenure of an education
    minister to be less than a year, Korea has gone through, during the past 55 years, at least some 50
    education ministers.  Each new minister almost dutifully introduces abrupt changes in the national
    education policies that govern everything from kindergarten to colleges, many such 'new initiatives'
    having severe unintended consequences that pile on one misery over another.

    The aim of Korean parents when it comes to education of their children is simple and direct: they will do
     whatever it takes for their children to succeed.  By observing how others have become successful, they
    can easily see exactly what it takes  to attain success in Korea.  And what they see is not pretty.  In
    order to attain success in Korea, the young ones need at least the following: a diploma from a
    prestigious university (It matters none whatsoever whether much learning has been accomplished or not.
    It is the diploma and a byline on one's resume that is all that counts), network of connections
    established during the university years (and also during high schools as well), and network of connections
    based on regionalism, factionalism, cronyism and nepotism, all of which can be traced as the source of
    corruption.  All these 'requirements' are necessary components in attaining success in contemporary
    Korea.  And this is the great distortion the society imposes on education.  Society in general must reform
    before education can be reformed, because the failure of education, in the end, is simply a reflection of
    the failure of the social fabric in Korea.

    It is not ours to add another lamentation on this grave issue but to propose a plan for action before
    reaching the point of no return.  We the undersigned are some of the senior Korean-American
    professionals and would like to propose that a "blue-ribbon commission" be established at the highest
    level.  And it must start a comprehensive national debate in search of long-term fundamental solution
    to the malaise.  It cannot be left unreformed, lest the future of Korea be dismissed as a doomed people
    and a failed nation.

    The blue-ribbon commission we propose should be broadly based on the entirety of the Korean society
    and of highest caliber with impeccable integrity of enduring track records.  Without citing some recent
    examples of such commissions in America, we may list critical elements of such a commission.  It
    should consist of representatives from various segments of the society, not restricting to the educational
    and political sectors, but encompassing all those that are the potential employers of the educated.  In
    addition, the commission should  be empowered to examine the entire spectrum of educational
    system, both public and private, and kindergarten to graduate school.  It should be provided to elicit, if
    not demand, assistances of the whole education enterprise of the nation, including the Ministry of
    Education and all higher educational institutions.

    The commission, with the support of expert staff, should be exposed to the entire cross section of the
    society - parents, students, teachers, professors, administrators, as well as the cross section of the
    leadership class.  Its mission must  be established in order to start a national debate to assess the
    current situation, with the aim of providing the nation with proposals for both short- and long-term
    remedies toward eradicating this most insidious malaise.

    None other than the very future of the nation depends on education today, and it is too important to leave
    the matter to the political appointees however well intentioned they may be.  The very future of the
    nation requires that the entire nation must take stake in its management.  This is our clarion call to wake
    the Korean nation to face its future.

    Signed (in alphabetical order)

    Dr. S. J. (Sukjung) Chang
    Professor of Finance
    Illinois State University
    President-elect, the Korea-America Finance Association
    An Editor of Society of Korean-American Scholars
    sjchang@ilstu.edu

    Dr. Moo-Young Han
    Professor of Physics
    Duke University
    Editor-in-Chief and former Chairman, Society of Korean-American Scholars
    myhan@phy.duke.edu
    [Contact person for the signatories]

    Dr. Ki Hang Kim
    Distinguished Professor of Mathematics
    Alabama State University
    An Editor of Society of Korean-American Scholars
    kkim@asunet.alasu.edu

    Dr. Siduk Lee
    President, Pacific Institute for Environmental Research
    Chairman of the Board and an Editor, Society of Korean-American Scholars
    US Environmental Protection Agency (Retired)
    leesd@bellsouth.net

    Dr. Gill-Chin Lim
    MSU Endowed Professor of Asian Studies in a Global Context
    Professor of Geography and Urban Planning
    Michigan State University
    and
    Distinguished Institute Professor
    KDI School of Public Policy and Management (Seoul)
    Chair, Advisory Committee, Council on Korean Studies, MSU
    An Editor of Society of Korean-American Scholars
    limg@msu.edu

    Dr. Heesun Park
    QA Client/Server Group Manager
    SAS Institute
    An Editor and Former Chairman, Society of Korean-American Scholars
    sashsp@unx.sas.com

    Dr. Yoon Soo Park
    Adjunct Professor
    Johns Hopkins University
    Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering
    President, Centennial Committee of Korean Immigration- Greater Washington
    US Office of Naval Research (Retired)
    An Editor of Society of Korean-American Scholars
    yoonsoopark@msn.com

    Dr. Hyuk Yu
    Walter H. Stockmayer Professor & Eastman Kodak Professor of Chemistry
    Department of Chemistry
    University of Wisconsin
    An Editor of Society of Korean-American Scholars
    yu@chem.wisc.edu