A common quest for true intellectual commitment
Interview with Emanuel Pastreich
January 5, 2018
Emanuel Pastreich, a professor at Kyung Hee University, is the author of numerous books and articles about culture, history, politics, technology, and international relations that have been published in English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Originally an expert on classical Asian literature, he has become a major public intellectual in Korea, and in the region, over the last ten years. His book “A Different Republic of Korea of which Koreans are Ignorant” was the most successful of three best sellers. It was officially recognized by the Korean government as a major achievement.
Pastreich recently announced that he intends to leave Kyung Hee University to launch University Of Brain Education (UBE) and a brand-new think tank entitled “The Earth Management Institute.”
We had a chance to catch up with Pastreich and we asked him about the reasons for this decision, and about his plans for the future.
You are a famous scholar of Asian studies educated at Harvard, Yale and University of Tokyo who has taught at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign, George Washington University and Kyung Hee University for almost 20 years. You are established at a well-known university.
Why would you leave to be the director of this brand-new Earth Management Institute?
Being a professor, or being affiliated with a famous university, should not be the goal for an intellectual. An affiliation with a major institution can help one to realize one’s goals, but being at a major institution is only a means.
I have had the good fortune to receive an excellent education and to learn multiple foreign languages. That education and those skills are not my possessions, they are not a special right that I possess for which I must be rewarded with an exalted position at a famous university.
I was able to focus on my studies for these years because so many people helped me, whether I knew it or not. I am talking about the men who cleaned my elementary school, the women who cooked my meals in college (and today), the many efforts of drivers, librarians, secretaries, to maintain an environment in which we can work. I have a tremendous responsibility to all of them, and to even more people, to return that debt to society.
I have a duty to share what I have received with as many people as possible, and to do that as we struggle to respond to a rapidly changing and dangerous world.
Let us first face the truth: the institutional decay of educational institutions in Korea, and around the world, is making the goal of responding to the needs of young people, and of our precious Earth, more and more difficult.
In a normal age, I might have spent my life as a committed teacher helping his students to understand the world. But I believe that there are extraordinary moments in history, such as come every few hundred years, which offer overwhelming risks and also some substantial opportunities.
This is such a moment and action is demanded of me. I cannot simply teach my classes and publish the academic papers.
The rapid evolution of technology has overwhelmed our society and the institutions of local, national and global governance. Artistic and literary expression, which should provide inspiration for a better society to all citizens, has degenerated into an ode to consumption and to immediate satisfaction.
We know many facts and we have many skills but we are completely paralyzed and incapable coming together as a community and taking action.
This is a very dangerous time. We must alter our priorities and change our habits.
What have you seen at the university that has changed your thinking?
I am profoundly aware of the crisis in education from my teaching at the Kyung Hee University, and elsewhere. Our students are forced to study topics that do not interest them in order to get jobs that do not inspire them, jobs that have little to do with creating a better society or with helping their neighbors.
Sadly, education has been reduced to a diploma, a document that allows you to get a job. If students could secretly buy one of these documents and get a good job, I think many would be tempted to do so as the classes themselves, and the wisdom and knowledge contained in them, are not important in our society anymore.
Education is not about understanding the world, or about considering one’s ethical role in it. It has become increasingly difficult for me to teach in such an environment.
The university in specific, and education in general, has become a place for competition, and not for cooperation. Students who should be making life-long friendships with professors,
and with each other, are increasingly alienated from each other and are drawn into the deceptive world presented in their smart phones.
And the professors also are forced to compete with each other, rather than forming an intellectual community. The only thing that matters is that professors publish articles in SSCI journals. But what are SSCI (Social Science Citation Index) Journals? They dull magazines, chock full of jargon, that are edited by a few scholars. These journal articles, the only important contribution of the professor, have literally no impact on our society.
I feel I have an ethical obligation to talk to ordinary citizens, to truly engage my students, and all young people, in a serious debate on the risks of our age: climate change, the disparity of wealth, the threat of nuclear war, the decay of values in our society and the importance of understanding history and culture in order to create a future that is solid, not illusionary.
Was there some specific event that changed your mind about working at Kyung Hee University?
I have given numerous lectures for the public on serious issues in our society. I have written hundreds of articles for the people in newspapers and magazines read by ordinary people. But as far as the university is concerned, that was not important. I am still not a full professor and the last time my university renewed my contract was with hesitation because I lacked the qualifications demanded. But I felt that I should do what is demanded by these dangerous times, not what the Ministry of Education requires for promotion as a professor.
This semester I taught a class on climate change for the first time. I made tremendous efforts to design a course that would appeal to young people and that would teach them about the severity of the dangers that we face. I wanted to work with them to come up with a plan to transform our society, and above all to change our thinking.
But when I showed up for the first day of classes, there were only five students in the classroom. Until that time I had never taught a class in Korea that was not full from the beginning. I was shocked.
The department informed me that if I did not have ten students in the course, it would be cancelled and that my salary would be reduced as a result.
I learned later that many of the economics classes in the university had been made into required courses and that my course was designated as just an elective. That change in the rules meant that students who wanted to take my course (and there were plenty) were not able to do so.
The Climate Change course was not cancelled, ultimately. But I learned that the nature of the university has been fundamentally changed while we were asleep.
Our role is not to prepare our students for the future, or to give them ethical guidance. Our purpose as a professor is to grade papers, write letters of recommendation and write specialized journal articles that almost no one reads.
Personally, I think economics classes that teach students how to use mathematics to calculate inflation and interest rates without any consideration of the ethical and cultural aspects of economic exchange are far less valuable than my course on climate change. I told my department head I wanted an open discussion about whether climate change is less important than economics. But no such discussion was even possible.
Young people, intellectuals, everyone, should be focused on the critical issues of our times and we should do things directly to help solve problems. We need to stop be passive consumers, manipulated by the media and distracted by video games, and we should be active citizens, thinkers, who decide for ourselves what is an ethical life and who take brave and creative steps to realize that world every day.
Last year you published the book Earth Management: A Dialogue on Ancient Korean Wisdom and its Lessons for a New Earth together with Ilchi Lee. What was the significance of that book for your decision?
When I lived in Korea back in 1997, I practiced yoga at Dahn World for a year and was very impressed by the program. I did not meet President Ilchi Lee at that time. I taught for ten years in the United States and came back to Korea. Five years ago, President Lee invited me to give a talk for students and faculty at Global Cyber University about my book A Republic of Korea of which Koreans are Unaware. I think he was curious why an American who had studied at Yale and Harvard took such an interest in the Korean concept of Hongik (universal benefit) and other aspects of traditional Korean culture.
I had multiple occasions to serve as a mentor for students for the Benjamin School which President Lee established, and talk at the Earth Citizens Youth League workshop which brought together concerned students from Korea, China and Japan. Although we often speak of how the youth of Northeast Asia should have a chance to gather together and talk, in fact, at my university, there were never really such occasions. But these students, through YECO )Young Earth Citizens Organization) were deeply engaged and committed to a concern for others and for our fragile Earth.
I was impressed by just how serious these students from Korea, China and Japan were to planning for a better future. I felt tremendous potential there.
My conversations with President Ilchi Lee about the concept of “Earth management” covered the environmental crisis, the loss of humanity in our society and the many challenges that we face. We share a common concern for this Earth, and common commitment to finding a solution. We felt that the Earth citizens’ movement was essential.
At a higher level, we felt that the dialog on Earth management must extend to the entire world and must be made into a movement of action. That was the start of our book together. We felt that a theoretical basis for our approach and an active movement was critical. The Earth Management Institute was established for that purpose.
And what drew you to the University of Brain Education?
Although the University of Brain Education does not have a long history, I see a remarkable sincerity in the faculty and the students that I found inspiring.
The university is dedicated to identifying what we need to address the problems of today, and what will need to do for the future of humanity.
Part of that process is the reinterpretation of Korean traditional values so that they can be applied in contemporary society. There is also important research on how we can make better use of our brain so as to restore a more human and more creative culture. Earth management, with its focus on the environment and world peace is an essential part of this program of study.
All these fields of study are critical and we are focused on “scholarship for action, not scholarship for scholarship,” as Ilchi Lee has stressed repeatedly. That vision is appealing to me, and it will be for others.
My focus has not been on ancient history, but rather on comparative studies of the literature of Korea, China and Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries, so much of the work on Korean traditional culture will be new to me.
But I am sure that we can use traditional Korean culture, as well as of Japanese and Chinese culture, to address many current problems. There will be a natural intersection between the cultures and that is what I want to focus on. I would not have the opportunity to concentrate on the critical topic of how we can use past wisdom in the current day at any other university.
What is the attraction of the Earth Management Institute for you?
The Earth Management Institute is dedicated to addressing the issues that we actually face, not the requirements put forth by government agencies, or the demands of our funders.
We are starting from zero and we are going against the accepted thinking that educational institutions must first conform to what is required to get our graduates jobs. But by addressing the actual problems of our age, by asking our students, asking everyone, what is needed to manage our precious Earth, we will be the only ones addressing the most critical issues of our age directly.
Such a move requires bravery, but it brings with it a tremendous freedom and potential. I have no doubt that there will be others in Korea, and around the world, who will come to join us as we strive to reset humanity’s priorities.
We care deeply about our students and about our researchers at the Earth Management Institute, but we do not see them as objects that have to be processed. Our students, our fellow researchers, are precious partners with whom we will work together for a lifetime. We expect them to do their best to address the real issues of our Earth today and we will support them in every way we can. They are not products or sources of income for us. We are not trying to make money for stockholders, or to satisfy our funders. We do not want to make them compete with each other, but rather to have them work together with us.
We are going to do what is required for our threatened Earth, and we will do it with real bravery. I believe that the Earth Management Institute will not only survive, but it will thrive.
Although we are starting from zero, we have no chains and we have no limits. We welcome everyone to join us who shares our vision. And you do not need to be from a famous school or from a rich family. As Orison Marden once said,
“Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great.”
What exactly does “Earth management” mean?
At the most basic level, all of humanity, all seven billion of us, have our fates linked together for the first time in history. This coming together is a result of the unprecedented development of technology and of the rapid progression of climate change. Whether we survive or not is going to be determined by whether we can cooperate, whether we can come up with a common vision, and act on it—and do so right now.
There are many global organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank that try address these issues, but they do so only in part and not quickly enough. Moreover, they do not form common communities for the long-term.
We need to create a new field of study, and more importantly, of action, known as Earth management.
At the Earth Management Institute we are going to bring together a group of people from around the world and ask them to consider how exactly the Earth should be managed to respond to the current crisis. We will ask them how we can make people aware of the impact of their daily actions on others around the world.
Our efforts will not be limited to climate change. We will work to form a fairer society, a more compassionate society and a civilization of cooperation and collaboration focused on long-term needs, not short-term thrills. Creating a more spiritual and self-aware culture
will be a big part of that process.
What is wrong with our civilization?
If we look at the destruction of forests to provide timber for unnecessary products, or the destruction of ocean ecosystems to provide cheap fish that we often do not even eat when they are on our plates, we get a glance at something extremely disturbing. We are witnessing our own self-destruction, our pathological inability to see the consequences of our actions.
We need to come back to our brains, to our own habits and compulsions if we want to move forward. That is why brain education is so critical for the Earth Management Institute.
Something went wrong in our civilization in the process of industrialization. We started to think that if we cannot see the future, it does not exist.
We are trained by advertisements that we can consume whatever we feel like without consideration of what the impact of that action will be for people on the other side or the world, or for future generations. The culture of consumption has displaced the culture of contemplation and we assess value based on fame, ranking, income and size.
The future is not some ultramodern “smart city.” A viable future demands a reevaluation of what it is in traditional cultures that can enrich our lives.
We measure value in terms of growth and consumption. Kindness and modesty, moderation and preservation count for nothing in our economic system.
This must stop.
If the Earth Management Institute must stand in complete isolation, we will address this cultural crisis straight on without hesitation.
What is so dangerous about this age that it requires Earth management?
We must be extremely careful what we mean when we say we want change. Recently, people use the word “revolution” in a superficial and sloppy manner. We hear about a “candle light revolution,” or a “fourth industrial revolution.” Revolution is a highly emotional and irrational term. It is dangerous. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asked once, “How do you know when the revolution ends?” It could easily spin out of control.
That question is central in Earth management. We know we need rapid change, but also must avoid unintended authoritarianism. We can only do so by changing our culture.
In the case of the Russian Revolution, the initial attempts at radical change backfired because the traditions of the past that encouraged cooperation and respect among humans were torn down in the pursuit of rapid mobilization. People like Stalin were able to able to use the idea of revolution to consolidate personal power.
More importantly, the revolutionary new society in Russia worked according to the same ideas as the capitalist society it was supposed to replace. Things had to be manufactured and consumed; factories had to be put up and manufacturing was more important than sustainability. There was no spiritual world for citizens.
What we need now in Earth Management is a vision of the future that provides a truly global perspective mixed with local action, what is known as the “think globally, act globally.” But that vision must include a reassessment of what can be found in traditional cultures, such as modesty, restraint and frugality, or a concern for the ecosystem and for future generations.
We are not throwing away the past in the pursuit of some modernist utopia. It is the opposite. We will find great treasures in our sustainable past. We must get beyond this dangerous myth that the past is useless for our modern society.
And what about technology?
Technology is at the center in the development of the field of Earth management. Technology so dominates the lives of people today that they have no time to think about themselves, to enjoy their lives or think about the Earth. Ironically, although technology provides us with useful information, in also isolates us and makes us passive. We need to form a real society, to read books and go for walks, to be intensely engaged with the world around us. Earth management also means “technology management.” We must be in control of technology and make sure it serves a purpose.
We must be able to say “no” to technology if it destroys our Earth.
This sort of a change in our culture will require honesty, bravery and resolution. But it is a necessity to save mankind. It will be extremely exciting to be at the center of this process at the Earth Management Institute.
Why start in Korea?
We are starting from zero, but in fact Korea has a tremendous tradition in the humanities that we can utilize as we work to revitalize education and to transform our society.
I am excited to join an institute that will cooperate with many people around the world as it draws on the best of Korea, and of Asia’s Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist traditions. We will have honest discussions about real issues of our age and come up with creative ideas about how to respond. Those like me with academic backgrounds will have our roles, but the Earth Management Institute will be open to everyone, and we will take all ideas that are sincere seriously.
The plan is to have Earth Management Institutes around the world where people can gather to talk seriously about real issues like climate change. Those institutes will be integrated with the local community, but they will be linked together globally to form robust networks.
We draw on the Korean tradition of “hongik ingan” (弘益人間) which means “spreading benefits to all of humanity,” as we plan for the future. We do not see Korea’s past as an impediment to Korea’s modernization, but rather the true source of inspiration for creating a more compassionate and sustainable society.
Many people are drawn to Korea by K-Pop and smart phones.
Although Korea is animated by a vital popular culture, I feel that we need to dig deeper in order to find the true value of Korea.
When the Indian poet Rabindranath wrote this poem in 1929, both countries were under the yoke of colonial rule and had lost control of their ability to produce their own culture. Tagore wrote of Korea,
In the Golden Age of Asia
Korea was one of the lamp-bearers
That lamp waits to be lighted once again
For the illumination of the East
Tagore saw a tremendous potential in Korea, the nation that had appealed for its self-determination at the Hague Peace Convention in 1905
in the face of colonial oppression (something India could not do).
Korea was an influential nation in Asia, with broad cultural exchanges with the region. Tagore thought, correctly, that Korea could be the nation to lead Asia back to its roots, and also to light the way to the future. The potential to bring peace to Asia that lies deep in its Korea’s past. Whether it is Korea’s tradition of peaceful coexistence, its tradition of sustainable farming or its rich philosophy of respect and universal compassion, there is so much to be discovered here.
You have run the Asia Institute for the last ten years. How does it fit into your future plans?
The Earth Management Institute will be complementary to the Asia Institute and the two institutes have already started to cooperate. Yet their roles will be distinct. The Asia Institute is focused on Asia, the center of the global economy and increasingly the source for the most vital cultural production. We consider the impact of technology on society in our research especially the implications of technology for climate change and for international relations.
But the Earth Management Institute is not limited to Korea, or to Asia. The Earth Management Institute will be dedicated to revitalizing the inspiring ideas about peace found in the United Nations Charter and promoting even broader participation of citizens in policy and culture around the world. The Earth Management Institute may find some inspiration here in Asia, but it is aimed at any citizen of the world who wishes to live and ethical life and to dedicate himself or herself to responding to the challenges of our age.