Do Grown-ups Really Know Better?
By Oh Young-jin
Assistant Managing Editor
There appears to be little left undone to reform our education system. Whenever a new government takes office, education reform tops their list of priorities. Liberals did what they saw best ― bringing equality to the system. Ditto with conservatives, their emphasis placed on an elitist approach of providing kids with a chance to reach their full potential in proportion to their given ability and background.
Still, the system is in a mess. No matter how envious U.S. President Obama may be about the Korean education system, it still leaves a lot to be desired (I am quite sure that Obama meant a selective adoption of what is good about the Korean system).
Just think about the long hours kids spend in school and after-school private lessons, their faces pale from sleep deprivation and lack of outdoor activities. On the other side of the spectrum are delinquent juveniles roaming in the streets on the elevated seats of reconfigured motorcycles.
Ask any adult about flaws in the system and they are likely to be stoic for a moment before saying, "Life is not fair. Some make it and some don't."
If you want to know the national level of discourse over what is the "plan for the next 100 years," take a listen to what the nation's top educators have to say about the systemic reform.
Education Minister Ahn Byong-man says that it is best to reduce the number of subjects taught in elementary, middle and high schools by combining similar subjects. This may sound like a great idea, considering school backpacks bulge with textbooks and reference books and weigh down on the shoulders of kids on their way to school. The contents of their backpacks are a spillover from their personal school lockers. But Minister Ahn intends to consolidate disciplines, arts and music so as to free up more time for the schools to prepare the students to study for college and university.
In response, Lee Won-hee, leader of the Korea Federation of Teachers' Associations, the biggest lobby and fraternity of teachers, says he objects to Ahn's plan.
Why does Lee call for a review on Ahn's reform plan? Not because he sees music and arts as being indispensable to kids during their formative period of life but because, I say, he is trying to do his job of protecting teachers' interests.
Arts and music, say, are put into a broad category and their classes reduced or relegated to the curricula for lower grades. This would mean teachers would have to undergo retraining before being assigned to the subjects that are more in demand. Certainly, their importance in schools would be further reduced, compared with teachers of subjects that are a key to college entrance. It is about the loss of face.
Ask any adult about the Ahn-Lee standoff and most of them may lament the leaders' naked sense of self-interest. But they end up repeating, "Life is like that." If they were parents of school-aged children, they would say, "Adjust to it so you can beat other kids by going to better schools and getting well-paid jobs."
Nothing is wrong with that, is there? After all, the grownups know best.
But do they really? If they did, we would not be in the mess we are now, as logic goes. The education system is one of the least democratic of any democracy and is mostly against market principles.
With few exceptions, it is dictated by grownups from the bottom up. It is a top-down military chain of command. All key decisions are made by grownups. All kids can do is either obey or be kicked out of the system at the risk of turning into a pariah.
The system is dead set against market principles because the kids, the consumers of education, don't have any say in what they learn or how they are taught. The system as we know it and the modus operandi invite the kids to revolt. It's like a teacher saying, "If you don't eat your meat, you can't have pudding." Pink Floyd provides the answer. "Teachers, leave them kids alone. All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."
Then what can we do with the system? How about trying what has never been done? Ask the kids what they want to learn and how they want to be taught. Poll them and reflect what they say in the system.
I know it would be difficult at first. The students are all so brainwashed by the adults' pedagogy about schooling that they are timid, not sure-footed about what they want. When I asked a college sophomore whether it is good to give the students a say in schooling, he said that they don't know what they want and would be better off just to listen to and follow the adults' advice.
I asked him whether he was ever given a chance to affect the education system he had been part of for years. He said, "No.'' First, they need to learn how to think independently. Then the next time the education system is up for a change, ask the kids about it. It may turn out that it is not grownups but kids who know best.