One of the greatest attractions for me about Korea is the status that professors enjoy in this country. I am not talking about just the respectful manner in which students speak to teachers; that is a pleasant, but not particularly significant, aspect of Korean culture. I am talking rather about the broad role that professors play in policy and industry. Professors serve on government committees, and the position of professor is a standard platform for launching a political career. In a sense, the rank of “Dr.” seems to outrank just about any other position in this society.
Korea stands in marked contrast to the United States, where the status of intellectuals has been much diminished over the last fifty years. Whereas American presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman appointed many professors to high positions, those days are long gone in my country. But the tradition remains in Korea.
Although I am delighted to live in a country that values intellectuals, my experience as a professor has also brought me face to face with the profound contradictions in the actual role of the professor that undermine the critical role of intellectuals in society.
Professors, I learned, are not evaluated by their peers in a written format that captures the complexity and subtlety of their role, but rather are assessed according to inflexible checklists that have little, or nothing, to do with what the responsibility of the intellectual should be.
There are three categories for evaluating professors at the university: teaching, research and service. In the case of teaching, the courses are so large that it is essentially impossible to talk with any real intimacy with students. The role of the professor is now to provide letters of recommendation for future employment or further education without actually having worked closely with that student and to provide a grade for the course. My teaching performance is evaluated by students using a survey that encourages students to see professors as performers.
Sadly, a close relationship wherein the professor guides the student in understanding the world and prepares him for the challenges of a rapidly changing society is not relevant in the evaluation of the professor-although such relations with students would be the most valuable thing a professor could do.
Moreover, the relationship of teacher and student is limited entirely to the course itself with little of the lifelong relationship that made Korean learning great over the last 500 years. There is no incentive at all for the professor to tell the student about harsh truths so as to help him or her to survive in what looks like a very grim future. Telling students pleasant myths helps one in getting a good evaluation, but it is a deep disservice to the students themselves.
Then there is research. I was shocked when I was told last year that I should not bother reporting articles unless they are published in English, in Science Citation Index (SCI) or Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) journals. These journals have magically been declared to have “impact” (even though their readership is extremely small) and are considered “A grade.” But, in fact, many world-class journals are not included in these mysterious lists, and although I wrote in SSCI journals 10 years ago, I have stopped because I find that books and other journals have far more influence.
Oddly, although the complexity of a scholar’s research activities can only be evaluated by his peers, the evaluation is left up to a check list made up by people who know nothing about the field.
The scholar who publishes 10 mediocre articles in SSCI journals (which is easy to do) is favored over the scholar who publishes one game-changing paper in an obscure journal. Needless to say, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution or Galileo Galilei’s heliocentric model for the solar system were not easily published in the scientific journals of the time. Today, scholars agree that much of the best writing is found on blogs and in many other unconventional places.
In addition, it is assumed in evaluations that research written in English is the most important. In the humanities, obviously, the best journals in French literature are in French, and the best journals in Chinese history are in Chinese. But English is not even the only language for science. Although many scientists publish primarily in English, in the field of botany, for example, some of the best journals are written in Japanese. There is an increasing amount of first-class work in science that is published exclusively in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other languages – the fact that American scholars do not know about that scholarship does not reduce its significance.
I thought that I would do well in the “service” category as I participate in many volunteer activities related to the environment and civil society. But I discovered that only bureaucratic duties in the department count as “service.” That is to say that if intellectuals do their duty by calling attention to important issues for ordinary people, issues that ordinary people do not have the expertise or the time to fully comprehend, that effort is irrelevant in the assessment of a professor’s contributions.
Korea has a glorious history of academies called hyanggyo that produced great scholars who were also intellectuals of conscience. Scholars in those academies were evaluated by other scholars according to the quality of their writings and their ethical stance. That tradition of scholarship, in which the academies were fiercely independent and committed to a long-term vision of learning as an ethical pursuit, should be a model for us. It is precisely the combination of ethics and scholarship that distinguishes Korean academics. To tear the two apart is to destroy the very appeal of Korea’s universities.