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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume II

Human Rights Education in Korean Schools

Won-il Heon

Many dream of a happy, discrimination-free society. If human rights are violated even in a remote corner of the world, we cannot say we live in a happy society. A society where those with power and wealth suppress others just because of differences of ideas cannot be a humane one.

Education should be a systematic and cultural process in which one strives to create a society where liberty and equality go hand in hand. Unfortunately, Korean education has foisted oppression and inequality upon the majority of the masses.

Korea's modernization process was attended by foreign occupation and rule, which led to the Korean War and the country's division. The divided Koreas, currently under a truce, confront and compete with each other. The military regime influenced and controlled the content of textbooks, and education degenerated into a means to justify and advocate military rule.

In 1998, life-time dissident Kim Dae-jung, who fought against the military regime, was sworn in as President. He is more aware of the importance of democracy and human rights than anybody else. Thus, many political prisoners were freed; a human rights law was enacted; a human rights committee was formed; human rights for children were declared; corporal punishment is now prohibited by law in schools; the local education office drew up guidelines regarding respect for students' human rights; and a domestic violence prevention law was enacted. All these represent great social progress.

However, laws and organizations are not enough to change a society long unaccustomed to democracy and human rights.

Causes of Lack of Social Recognition of Human Rights

The characteristics of Korean society are rooted in Korea's unique history. In her modernization period (the late 19th to the early 21st century), Korea was invaded by the Western powers and ultimately occupied by Japan (1910-1945). Even after liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Korea continued to be divided by fratricidal war and ideological confrontations.

The mutual slander, hate and death of millions caused by the Korean War created a chasm between the two Koreas. Even after the war, many people on both sides suffered because of their governments' ideological differences. It was difficult for democracy to take root. In the South, the ceasefire delayed the practice of democracy; anti-communists were considered to be patriots. It was in this context that the military seized power and those opposed to the military regime were stigmatized as "pro-communists"; some were even put to death.

The military regime promoted a regional confrontation between Cholla Province in western Korea, where President Kim Dae-jung was born, and Kyongsang Province in the east. Regionalism has made it difficult for people in the east and west to marry each other. It has also influenced politics. Incorporated into the Confucianist Chosun Dynasty's kinship, factionalism, patriarchy, family and group consciousness, regionalism has worked as a cultural impediment to the practice of democracy and human rights. The family-first and group-first traditions created a vertical order in which women's absolute sacrifice and obedience to men and children's respect for seniors are regarded as virtues. Confucianist traditions influence people's behavior: they still prefer boys to girls; there is a hierarchy of the old and the young.

The "Miracle of Han River" that was achieved by the military regime after the 1960s was established at the expense of democracy, human rights and the environment. Rapid economic development has produced side effects and social illnesses such as selfishness, materialism, human trafficking, child prostitution, teenage pregnancy, etc. The human rights of the handicapped, unemployed and poor, social outcasts and daily hired workers, foreign workers and homosexuals have long been marginalized until recently.

Education in Schools

Undemocratic Administration of Education

The term "democracy" was considered dead, as it was found only in textbooks. A course named "Good Citizenship" (literally translated as "Ethics"), which is not taught anywhere else outside of Korea, was taught to legitimize the military regime. Education was standardized to conform to military rule. The state monopolized the publication of textbooks or at least controlled their contents. Until the early 1980s, students had to memorize the "The National Charter of Education" and to take a military drill course. The Student National Defense Corps replaced the students' autonomous association. As for teachers, the formation of a labor union has not been permitted by law. The Korea Teachers' Union, a teachers' voluntary organization, has just been recently legalized.

The government has been pursuing an "educational reform" which focuses on the democratization of education and promotion of human rights. It is no doubt a progressive regime compared with former regimes in that it stresses the importance of human rights and democracy. However, it is very difficult to tear down all the undemocratic and anti-human-rights practices in the political, economical, social, cultural and educational arenas all at once. Education is one of the most conservative areas in society. Before anything else, the mindset and attitude of educational bureaucrats, private school foundations, and principals must be changed, many of whom were more concerned about keeping their positions in the authoritarian regimes. Their educational philosophy is so conservative that they think it is their duty to control students and teachers. Democracy in education requires teachers and parents to voluntarily step forward in parallel with government's strong educational democratization policy.

Education Aimed at Entrance Examinations

Education in Korea is rigid, placing an excessive emphasis on college entrance examinations. Students, teachers and parents have only one concern: that students get good grades so that they can enter good colleges. Thus, the majority of students are sacrificed for the minority that is bent on attending college. Anyone left behind in the competition is stigmatized as a "problem child," despised and discriminated against. Chances are that these children will become rebellious or social delinquents. In fact, "school violence," which is a serious problem in Korea, stems from a grade-oriented education. The discrimination against those who are not successful in school is attributable to the competitive education that puts excessive emphasis on grades.

Students who misbehave in class or do not follow teachers' instructions or school rules receive corporal punishment. Only good grades and passing the college entrance examinations are considered important while many inhumane situations are often justified and overlooked. Activities unconnected to studying are regarded as sinful. Extracurricular activities, including the homeroom period, club activities and student body government activities are for appearance's sake. Teachers seldom have a chance to talk about social reality or to maintain a close relationship with students. Those who do so are considered subversive by principals or parents. Teachers counsel and students only about grades and violations of school rules.

HRE should be about developing ways of thinking and attitudes respectful of man's dignity and rights; developing social ego in relationship with other individuals; and finding the meaning and value of life. However, harsh conditions make it difficult to learn about human rights. To expect poorly performing students in schools to have self-esteem, to love other people or to care for others is just like looking for fish in a tree.

Poor Educational Facilities; Lack of Investment in Education

Another problem is school and class size. In urban areas, the average number of students in most schools is over 2,000 and in a class it is over 40. All wearing uniforms, they blend into a faceless mass, "a group of students who receive education in a certain area for a certain period." So, it is difficult to know students as individuals with various abilities and potentials.

There are not enough rooms or facilities for the great number of students. Welfare facilities are few and of poor quality. Schools are even short of chairs and books. Libraries have few books. Water fountains, locker rooms and personal lockers are luxuries. Programs and facilities for extracurricular activities are also limited. A satirical comment on Korean education goes: "In a 19th-century environment, 20th-century teachers teach 21st-century students." Of course, it is an obvious improvement that computers, albeit outdated ones, are widely provided in schools. But the provision of computers does not necessarily improve the welfare and cultural environment of students when basic facilities are scanty. Investment in educational facilities is urgently needed in view of "students' human rights."

Prisoners' rights are often called attention to due to poor penitentiary facilities. Schools are similar deprived: they have no gymnasiums, so students can play only on the playgrounds; but junior students cannot play while senior students are playing.

Environment shapes personality. It is difficult to educate students about democracy and human rights in a poor physical environment. The fact that space and facilities are regarded merely as an "accommodating place" is likely to affect students in a negative way.

Students and Teachers are Submissive to Control and Surveillance

As education focuses on passing entrance examinations, students and teachers find it almost impossible to understand human dignity or to care about others. Competition among students leads to competition among teachers, which in turn leads to competition among schools and their principals. Parents have no choice but to accept this reality. The local community is also keenly interested in the results of college entrance examinations as they affect the price of real estate. Thus, schools justify the use of corporal punishment and disciplinary measures on students.

The school uniform is an efficient way of controlling students. Many parents and teachers believe that wearing uniforms keeps students mentally armed. Students should also wear socks and shoes that match their uniform and keep their hair tidy, not too long yet not too short. Otherwise, they become stigmatized as "problem children" and must reflect upon their wrong deeds. Dress inspection is conducted frequently at schools. Although it may infringe upon students' human rights, it is tolerated in most schools. The practice of inspecting students' belongings allows teachers to search students' bodies and bags without their consent. This has become routine and students may not complain.

No machinery or procedure protects students against infringements on their human rights. When students are disciplined for violating school rules, they and their parents may not protest. Those who have been disciplined are sometimes encouraged to transfer to another school although schools are reluctant to admit them.

Teachers are controlled by principals, and students, in turn, are controlled and watched by teachers. Teachers cannot participate in running a school. They do not even think about it. Students cannot participate in school affairs. HRE should start from the perception that teachers and students learn through collective activities enhancing social relationships, their interests and rights.

Issues in HRE

Although it is important to teach the concept and history of universal human rights in the context of world history, true HRE requires one to begin from the history and reality of local society. The greatest historical reality of Korean society may be the "division" between South and North. It is crucial to understand that the structural constraint of division defines various sectors of society in Korea's HRE. The task of overcoming the division of the two Koreas is a key factor in the efforts to improve the human rights situation in Korea as it is the greatest obstacle to moving toward democracy. The National Security Law restrains the freedom of thought and conscience while questions of "security" based on anti-communism overwhelm all other logic. Education cannot be free of the security logic. Human rights issues in Korea are closely intertwined with efforts to develop democracy and overcome the division. It is for this reason that the HRE movement in Korea is different from that in Western states.

HRE in Korea remains in its infancy. The need and importance of HRE are so widely recognized that the government has made efforts to enact a human rights law, organize a human rights committee, draft a human rights declaration for children and student rights declaration, and the like. It is a great stride toward the improvement of human rights. The human rights movement has become a citizens movement. But as the Korean citizens movement is not yet full-fledged, it will take time for society to recognize human rights.

In HRE, we do not have to touch on the fundamental issue of division. Rather, we can discuss specific issues such as school violence and bullying and textbook lessons, which represent the living experience of democracy. The school can select for discussion such social issues as regional discrimination, discrimination against females, sexual assault, arrogance of power, immoral business activities, the gap between rich and poor. Students and teachers can organize trips to facilities for the handicapped, the aged or orphans and share their lives with them. Such activities may be carried out in cooperation with the local community. The fact that such efforts exist is a hopeful sign. In order that these efforts may continue, Korean education needs to be reformed and school facilities improved; college entrance examinations should be reformed; school administrations should be more democratic; classes should have fewer students; and students' autonomous activities should be supported.


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