I had a chance to visit the Sungmisan School (성미산학교) in Seoul today for their yearly festival and I spoke a few minutes with one of its founders, Yu Chang-bok (유창복) and the current principle Park Bok-seon (박복선).
Founded in 1996, Sungmisan School is one of the best-known of the alternative schools in Korea, running a program from nursery school through high school—and there is even a plan to establish a university. The school puts a tremendous emphasis on the role of students in society, and particularly courses related to the environment and agriculture (while the school is located in the middle of Seoul).
Many assume that all students in Korea are subject to the devastating pressure of academic competition, but there are notable exceptions, and recently more students are opting out of the rat race to try alternative schools. That said, although Sungmisan School has a large enrollment for its elementary school, it loses many students in high school as the brutal realities of education in Korea become manifest.
Sungmisan School has developed its own unique curriculum around the environment and has its students engaged in such activities as planting and carrying for plants. The roof features an ecological park. The students, from elementary school on, are responsible for working together to plant, water, fertilize and protect the vegetables they plant. In a sense, Sungmisan School works on a traditional assumption of mutual responsibility that is the opposite of the radical competitiveness in Korean schools. Most Korean schools have absolute grading systems in which there are a limited number of students who can get good grades and in which the class ranking of students is critical. As a result, cooperation with other students is almost impossible, at Sungmisan School, cooperation is required as part of the curriculum.
Also, working with one’s hands is a big part of education at Sungmisan School. Whereas most Korean schools tend to put the memorization of facts and their reproduction in tests as the highest priority, Sungmisan makes organizing, maintenance and development of projects, and actual crafts like woodwork and gardening central. The school is full of displays of the rather sophisticated art and practical objects built by the students. If one were to generalize one could say that the school stresses understanding how things work in a very concrete, physical manner.
Sungmisan School organizes many field trips, but the students have to work as part of those excursions. They create their own records, do their own research and engage in various projects combining study and exploration. Most field trips are to rural Korea, but I was told about a recent trip to Cambodia, in cooperation with the Sungmisan Village, to learn about how to form a community, a “village” with Cambodians. The school is ultimately about building a village.
When I spoke with Yu Chang-bok, he stressed the importance of the formation of the “Sungmisan Village” as the core of the school’s success. That is to say, he and his associates felt that a true community, like a traditional village, should be built in this urban environment that would be nourishing to the students and that only by creating such a larger community could the school be successful.
The festival featured young singers, but also featured various dances and games taken directly from traditional Korean village festivals. The stress falls on the traditional community. Not with all of its biases and insularity, for Sungmisan Village is a very open environment, but as a source for support throughout a lifetime. Yu Chang-bok kept coming back to the “village” as he described the evolution of the school
Effort of city to build a reservoir on Sungmisan (which literally means Sungmi Mountain) unified the local citizens into a protest and brought the community together. Since then, the theme of “building a village” has been a central activity here. As the school principal Park Bok-seon as the principle states in his official greeting, “building a village is not a matter of building new houses and laying out roads, rather, for us, building a village means building a culture of close communication and mutual assistance.”
I was quite impressed by the program to find jobs for disabled members of the community as part of the administration of the school. One handicapped student showed me a beautiful business card he had just received that designated him as an employee of a small store in the neighborhood. The conversation was quite touching.
When I taught as a guest lecturer twice last year I was quite impressed by the autonomy of the students in the school. From elementary school on, students are encouraged to create works of art and engage in projects with other students.
Sungmisan School is part of an elaborate system of village culture center, an organic foods cooperative, an organic foods restaurant, and various enterprises including a radio station. Much emphasis is on the role of parents in the education of their children and the children of others as part of the school.
The school is part of the village and the village is an explicit attempt to return to a pre-modern vision of social relations. As the principal Mr. Park puts it, “In many respects, this school presents an approach to life that is quite different from the modern approach to life. In a sense, it is not only an alternative school, it is an experiment of an ‘alternative approach to life’ that we engaged in.”