The Crisis in Education (by Emanuel in Korea)

The crisis in education

The suicide of the fourth student this year at KAIST 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 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? Because the 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? 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.

3 responses to “The Crisis in Education (by Emanuel in Korea)

  1. Vince July 3, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    This is an amazingly important post, Emanuel.

  2. Gorbachev July 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    The reason for the suicides and the emphasis on paper qualifications in Korea is clear.

    I hesitate to call it “confucian”, though I’m sure there’s an element of that, but education correlates with social class. I don’t know how many Koreans I’ve met with PhD’s, often not working in their fields, who introduce themselves and go on to say “And I’m a Doctor. I have a PhD” – as if I’m supposed to be impressed.

    We all know how the social system works. A great employee with a lower-class degree advances less quickly than a mediocre employee with a degree from Seoul National University.

    The suicides happen because education is manifestly not about education at all: it’s about social class and hierarchy.

    All of the Koreans I met studying English abroad were different in one major respect from the Japanese or German studying abroad: They were obsessed with programs and studies which provided them with a piece of paper or some sort of (usually meaningless) diploma. The actual quality of teaching rarely figured: The programs with a piece of paper were much more valuable than actually learning the subject.

    This attitude pervades Korea on every level. On a Canadian resume, your education is listed last and almost as an afterthought – it’s just not interesting. It doesn’t matter if you went to Toronto or Waterloo for math or Harvard. What employers want to see is what you can do for them. In Korea, it’s the reverse.


    Because here, education isn’t about being educated at all. Being a highly educated (paper-qualified) idiot with no actual experience and a relatively limited background, no outside interests an lacking in personality is fine – if you have the right piece of paper. 45-year-old executives with 20 years of experience in managing companies to wild success still need to cough up a copy of their irrelevant, ancient degree at job interviews.

    With this attitude toward rigid, enforced social hierarchy, any failure at the meaningless hoops and hurdles that exist in this organization – or interruption of the prescribed timeline for these to be achieved – means that no matter how otherwise worthy or bright, any individual who drops a grade point for whatever reason is simply cast aside.

    This pressure to conform to utterly meaningless preconceptions has to lead to excruciating social pressure. It’s unforgiving. I have no idea how people put up with it.

    That’s ultimately where we need to look for the reasons for high levels of suicide.

    The education system isn’t used to educate at all. It’s used to rank and file people.

  3. Emanuel Pastreich June 11, 2012 at 3:27 am

    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.


    Judith LightFeather
    The Nanotechnology Group Inc.

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