Lessons from a traditional seodang and its headmaster
By Han Sang-hee
A lesson from a man dressed in white hanbok, Korean traditional costume, donning a black horsehair skullcap on his head and mustache will likely have students today dozing off, but sometimes good medicine is bitter to the mouth.
This is exactly what Seo Jae-ock, “hunjang” or headmaster of a traditional private village school called Cheonghak Seodang, believes in, and while some students and parents argue that his methods are too old or mundane, he is determined to power through.
“Seodang” were private village schools that provided elementary education during the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon Kingdoms (1392-1910). Led by the hunjang, young boys learned basic lessons based on ancient books such as the “Thousand Character Classic” with heavy emphasis on traditional manners and character building. The number of traditional seodang has decreased, obviously, but people still recognize the heart of its lessons, hence the many children and parents registering during summer and winter vacations. This is also why teachers like Seo still run them.
Building and maintaining tradition
Seo, 49, was born in Cheonghak-dong, Hadong-gun, South Gyeongsang Province. The village Cheonghak-dong is known to be the center of traditional education, with a number of famous monks and scholars studying at its numerous seodang throughout history.
Seo’s father Seo Gye-yong moved to the village after the Korean War (1950-53) and later became the village chief. Realizing the need of education within the small isolated village surrounded by mountains and woods, he opened a seodang, becoming one of the first members to transform the area into an educational hub.
Seo grew up listening to his father’s lessons: he was one of his best students and eventually followed in his father’s footsteps.
“I never went to a modern school. I regretted it when I was young, but then I realized that just because I studied at a small seodang, it didn’t mean I looked at the world with a narrower perspective. Building up the fundamental lessons from ancient books helped me discover and fully understand myself, and that is what cultivating the mind is all about,” he said.
While he was teaching at Cheonghak-dong, he found that the seodang were springing up like mushrooms: the traditional schools were becoming commercialized. Although the seodang culture first started in Cheonghak-dong, Seo knew that it was not about the location but the lessons and spirit that allowed it to survive all these years. After deep consideration, he moved to Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, five years ago, attracting both students and parents who were looking for the same experience from the mountains but in the vicinity of Seoul.
Breaking the mold
The Cheonghak Seodang offers various programs, from one-day, three day sessions to more specialized programs that can be arranged to focus on specific subjects such as traditional manners, culture and ancient studies.
The biggest emphasis on the program is building character Korean style, hence the emphasis on filial piety, respect to ones elders and traditional manners. But, according to Seo, teaching students has become a challenge, even to the extent where he doesn’t know what to. The children can be difficult to handle, but Seo explained that most of the problems start from their parents.
“Parents have become greedier than before. They want their children to be the best. They make certain molds for their children and try to fit them into it. This is ridiculous,” he said.
A mold is just a mold, Seo says. If the child doesn’t satisfy the parents’ expectations, the best way would be trying something else: discovering the child’s true identity, understanding his or her needs and ability and eventually nurturing that talent.
But in a society where the highest scores are greatly appreciated and enrolling in the top universities is considered success, recognizing one’s individuality can be difficult.
“Parents must look past their greed. There has to be a special talent hidden somewhere. They should put efforts into trying to discover that before they register in a private cram school,” he said.
‘Hardships are the greatest teachers’
One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is preventing their children from going through hardships. Who would want their children to suffer, one may ask, but Seo believes otherwise. Sufferings and hardship can be the best teachers in life, Seo says.
“Children these days want to accomplish everything without trying. They take everything for granted and try finding the easy way out of everything.”
While many parents believe that leaving as much money as possible for their children is the best gift they can give, this can mean nothing if the money gets into the wrong hands. “Pass down wisdom, it will last a lifetime,” Seo said.
Back when Seo studied under his father in Cheonghak-dong, he used to take his textbook and a thin cane which the hunjang used to “help” him concentrate. It was a traditional method of discipline and nobody, including his father, back then considered it as violence.
“Punishing the student by hitting them with a thin stick is not authoritarian, but more out of duty. It has its good points and bad points, just like a day is divided into daytime and nighttime. Of course, overdoing it is wrong, but we cannot just demonize it,” he said.
For an ugly stone to become smooth and pretty it must travel from the top of the mountain; roll through the woods and hit and bump into the sharp edges of stones and trees. It doesn’t just take time and the wind to shine it up.
“It’s not easy but we can’t teach our children to be quitters. We have to encourage them to pick themselves up from the hardships and learn from it,” he said.
Right before wrapping up the interview, Seo let out a long sigh.
“The reason this country has become so successful is because we had so many great figures who risked their lives for their families and country. They didn’t have the brightest minds or perfect scores at schools. They grew to be true, passionate and genuine characters. My goal is to help children and their parents learn that from our roots and tradition.”