Jun 9, 2012

The Crisis in Education in Korea and the World

Posted by in categories: education, philosophy, supercomputing, sustainability

Emanuel Pastreich


Kyung Hee University

June 9, 2012

The Crisis in Education in Korea and the World

The suicide of four students at KAIST in Korea last year has made it apparent that there is something fundamentally wrong with the manner in which our children are educated. It is not an issue of one test system over another, or the amount of studying students must do. Although KAIST keeps rising in its ratings and shows up increasingly in the media, students are being sacrificed on the altar of a new model for the university: a model for the university in which the human experience and spiritual growth are no longer considered of importance. Students are produced like RAM memory drives, or carbon nanotubes. They are built to the highest standards of in quality in all visible respects, under the highest pressure and with the greatest efficiency. But what the purpose of life is besides getting good grades and a good job is far from clear to these students. Students seem to be competing against some overwhelming force that they cannot overcome, a force that leads to despair and to suicide. But although students may think they are competing against each other, in fact they are competing against Moore’s Law. The forces that drive our children are forces they cannot be expected to overcome. The increasing capacity of computers serves as an overwhelming weight on youth. The more that their minds are aligned with the demands of computers, the further away they are from what humans can do well naturally: creating new cultures and new ideas.

Increasingly, we see universities that build expensive research facilities and administrative offices and spend heavily on advertisement, but from the point of view of the student seeking something other than the qualifications necessary to get a job, those universities have become inhuman deserts. All this is happening at a time when we need more human universities that address the challenges of our age. We need to invest what money we have left in the actual courses and guidance for our students, for programs that will give our students the broad understanding of the principles of human nature, of philosophy and literature, art and ideology. Such an education will guide them forward, regardless of the changes wrought by technological change.

To speak bluntly, judging students by their ability to digest information and reproduce that information on tests, is the equivalent of turning people into machines. But humans cannot compete against machines. Our brain is carbon and water based, not silicon based. The consequence of such a mistaken analogy produces unspeakable tragedy. Moreover, we may well find that the students we now train to be computer engineers, or lawyers, will discover, within their lifetimes that those careers disappear. Why? Becausethe unprecedented rate of technological change threatens to make many of those careers fully automated within the next decade. Already many law firms are firing lawyers because automation has reduced the perceived need for analysis.

What to do in such an environment? First we need to create a human school in which serious engagement with texts, with works of art, with all aspects of culture, from advertising in magazines to the arguments of politicians, are the subject of study. As technology advances in our society, the critical role will be played by those who can evaluate and respond to the implications of technology for society and the environment. That response will require as much an understanding of metaphysics and psychology as electrical engineering and computer programming.

Here are the problems we will have to consider: What will we do when we can no longer distinguish between real and fabricated images? How will be use technology to save the environment instead of destroying it? How can we make sure that future robots and computers are helpful to mankind? How we define the “human” as robots computers and biotechnology start to merge?

These problems of how we will manage technology are going to be absolutely critical to humanity. They are the problems our students should learn about in class. Yet finding answers to these questions lies in the realm of esthetics, philosophy, literature and art and not in the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering. We must completely rethink the purpose of education to make it more human, and at the same time to make it appropriate to the needs of our children’s future. That is not to say that there is any one career that is the right path. Rather our children must be able to decide for themselves how to survive in an uncertain and changing world. The education necessary for that wisdom should be the highest priority.

What if my son spends his life learning computer design only to find himself replaced by a computer when he is 35 years old? What are the odds of that? They are higher than most of us would like to contemplate. We might ask whether he would be better off as a poet or a painter, creating a new culture and presenting new ideas for the future.

Without such people, without people who can imagine new worlds and possibilities, we run the serious risk that technology will spin out of control, creating problems that we will not be able to solve, especially if we are fully dependent on machines. Or technology may evolve in unexpected directions, developing for its own purposes, and counter to the needs of humans.

Then there is the issue of leadership. We have this vague idea of leadership that is taught to young people. That concept of leadership is best summed up by the concept of the CEO. But as far as I can tell, CEOs–as they are presented to our youth–are men and women who dress well, make good presentations at meetings, work hard on their assignments and live a luxurious life. Such individuals exist, but they are not leaders. In most cases, they are followers of models and examples created by others.

It is certainly true that education should produce leaders. But leaders mean those with the imagination, the moral conscience and the courage to do what others are not imaginative enough to do, not ethical enough to do, not brave enough to do. We need to ask ourselves seriously, how many leaders are these universities producing? Then we can go back to creating schools that are really about education.

There is one more crisis facing education in Korea that most students do not fully understand, but demands our full attention: the aging society. As Korea ages, as the percentage of the population over sixty goes up radically over the next twenty years, young people and children will be sacrificed as more and more of the concern of government and society goes towards caring for the elderly.

Korea is on track to be the most aged society that has ever existed by 2050. 40% of the population in 2050 would be over 65 and already in 2030, when today’s graduate is 40, already 25% would be over 65 years of age. The results could be a society that cares very little about the education of the young and very much about the extremely expensive process of extending life for the very old.

That would mean that most resources would be used for hospitals and care for the elderly instead of schools. Even in the field of education, it is possible to imagine an aging population using funds to establish educational program for the elderly paid for with the money that would normally go to train young people. That would be, after all democracy. And we see such disturbing trends already in Korea. We will need to create a space to educate our youth that can be protected from the encroaching demands of the aged and allow young people to feel appreciated and needed. Japan, which has entered the swing towards an aging society earlier than Korea, already has a generation of young people who feel their society and government do not care about them.

There is one more rather insidious problem that faces our students in this age of computer-driven education. We risk cultivating a rather flat and simplistic representation of reality, a low-resolution mimesis. The world around us is infinitively complex, contradictory and unpredictable. The representation of reality in much of science is numeric or graphic, making invisible just how little we know about the natural universe. The student is given the incorrect impression that if a human genome can be represented in a certain number of terabytes, that there is nothing more to life or to genetics than that. Although the conversation of genetic code to data is a significant form of “understanding” it is extremely limited in its application. We thereby risk cultivating blindness in our children by making them think that because they saw the computer representation they understand it. Understanding reality is infinitely difficult. Even the nature of the electron or the DNA continues to defy human analysis. It is only in a very limited sense that we have mastered these subjects.


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  1. A very timely and thoughtful article on the condition of education globally. One of our projects was to combine art and nanoscience, but it only took a few years for the art to become totally digital manipulation of the scans provided. The first two years we actually had artists creating paintings from the STM scans, along with sculptures that were amazing. We try to address nanoscale science as the foundation of nature in the atomic realm that could be understood in the early k-12 grades, but all education in the U.S. is a ‘top down’ decision based on standards and testing, which is a total failure. The workforce training for technicians does not draw many students as they are not exposed to nanoscience in the early years. The next issue to address is robotics in manufacturing that will eliminate the few jobs that they are being trained for by the time they graduate. We have a lot of issues to resolve globally, but every small decision takes a decade to implement and we just don’t have that much time. Our students will not have careers, they will not have lifetime jobs, they will continually need lifetime learning to find any means of supporting themselves and we need to look deeper at what we are creating as a technological future that displaces humans. We all need to address these issues whenever possible as they are already creating serious societal implications as this Professor has pointed our so eloquently in his article. Our short term focus of problem solving versus long term solutions embracing the larger concept of our actions will backfire in this decade. Student suicides are increasing globally as this generation is forced into enormous debt for educations that have no future.

  2. James Bach says:

    I don’t see this crisis in my personal life. I quit school when I was 16. My son quit when he was 12. We simply opted out.

    Today, I support myself as a software testing consultant. My son could support himself as an IT support guy or an aquarium builder, with the skills he has picked up in his teens. But he is not sure what he wants to do.

    There are at least several thousand children in the United States whose parents have allowed them to or else kept them out of school. As far as I know, no statistics are kept on us. I’m estimating the number based on the parents and children I have personally seen at unschooling conferences.

    Unschooling goes along with asserting ourselves as part of a free society. It goes along with rejecting the propaganda eternally gurgitated from the education system, which seeks to convince the public (and does so with great success) that they are helpless and stupid unless they “get educated” by an institution.

    But education cannot be granted by any institution. Education is self-constructed. This construction process may certainly be aided by a school. I can accept that many people wish for that sort of aid. But nobody NEEDS a school to become educated. Schoolism is a modern hysteria, and the true crisis in schooling is simply the inevitable destruction of the illusion that school is necessary.

    There IS something of a crisis in education, if by that we are speaking of how to feed the economic engines of the world with fresh fuel in the form of kids willing and able to perform the work under the traditional conditions of the workplace. Maybe it’s getting worse, but this is an old problem. We were complaining about it at Apple Computer 25 years ago. The answer is really quite simple, however: businesses need to stop expecting universities to solve their problem. Instead, businesses must expect to do their own training. This is especially true for the computing field, where in my own area of software testing there has never been an adequate software testing curriculum based in any university.

    There are amazing resources online for people to learn all kinds of things. Self-education has never been so easy. The one thing I think we need to do as a matter of public policy is to make research papers in scholarly journals open and free to the public.

    – James Bach
    Author: Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar
    Author: Lessons Learned in Software Testing

  3. Well I certainly think that the rapid advances in technology have created a crisis in education, and one that goes far beyond the tendency of students to compete against computers in an effort that increasingly flattens out their world. The question of what is real, made so much more ambiguous as a result of the increasing cheapness of mechanical reproduction also has undermined much.

  4. J. Savage says:

    Excellent article. All that I can say is that the ideas you’ve espoused give me hope. If in our accelerated and focused technological achievement we become literary and spiritual barbarians, then I’m certain that the future will not be a pretty one. Nor a friendly one.. Trading power and control for wisdom is the perfect recipe for disaster. I also appreciate the point you make about how the pinnacle of many educational models is so algorithmic by nature that a machine could do its students’ work. This is relevant of course, because it is becoming possible that machines will do this work.

  5. Lara Tosh says:

    Korean culture seems to only respond to anything in an after-the-fact, band-aid on a gunshot wound fashion. The concept of responding in a proactive fashion is, sadly, lost on most of the population which holds positions in “leadership” (as you mentioned, the CEO model-based Korean concept is actually “followership” in a party dress ;-) ). Many of these so-called leaders suffer from of a nasty case of rectal tunnel vision — and typical passivity.

    People will wake up shortly after it appears as if it’s “too late” (a subjective, loaded, multidimensional concept). Intense-enough pain must first be felt: keeping things as they are must first become more uncomfortable than making changes ;-)

  6. Magdy says:

    But may be The President of USA is being over excited as Korea is doing what any other niaton would want , balance of power ‚its the right of the country & state itself what if people of any other country decide for USA? i am sure they will do the same (as in the past)& secondly it will enhance the hatred against the Americans & what i belive is Bush has done enough regarding the image of the niaton today for the other world so my conclusion is its just another tool to keep people diverted for another year or two,today i feel as blessed as any American cause the common people are always being played by the so called leaders of State.