“Merit, wisdom and the Korean tradition of governance” Korea Times

Korea Times

“Merit, wisdom and the Korean tradition of governance”

January 27, 2019

Emanuel Pastreich


The ruthless competition between young Korean to get into good high schools and then be admitted to leading universities as the necessary step to finding superior jobs takes a terrible toll on the lives of many and has distorted the nature of learning.

Education has become a concealed combat that drives us into isolation, rather than the grounds for cooperation among all people for the purpose of discovering the truth or creating a better society.

I have heard frequent comparisons between this obsession with exams in contemporary Korea as a means to achieve social status and the civil service examination system that dominated traditional Korean society. The civil service exam was central to Korean governance in the Joseon Dynasty and it affected all aspects of culture before then.

The analogy between contemporary test-taking and the Confucian civil service exams of the Joseon Dynasty is not entirely wrong. The examination system, especially after the complete saturation of government jobs in the late 18th century due to a rapid rise in population, became the battlefield in a ruthless competition for jobs that were tied to wealth and power.

A few powerful families monopolized the exam systems through access to excellent instruction for their sons, or through corruption, or through both means.

The content of the exams was reduced to the memorization of set phrases, the employment of set flowery language that conformed with the demands of the examiners, and the endless practice of unimaginative model essays.

But the degenerate form of the civil service examination system of the late Joseon does not represent the original intentions of that exam.

Rather, we need to ask ourselves what it meant to have a society in which government service was considered the highest goal and in which being educated in moral philosophy, as opposed to business administration, or finance, or advertising, was presented as the goal for all educated people.

The first question we must ask is about the value of meritocracy that is the part of the examination system most frequently cited. The civil service exam system in Korea, Vietnam and China ― which would become a model also for France, Britain and other countries in the 18th and 19th centuries ― is often held up as the model of meritocracy; rule by the capable and the educated. It has tremendous appeal.

Meritocracy forms a strong alternative to aristocracy (granted that meritocracy often degenerates into aristocracy over time) or tyranny.

There is recent interest in the virtues of meritocracy (especially in the Chinese case), most notably the writings of Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University. He proposes that the current Chinese political meritocracy can serve as an alternative to Western democracy in his book “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.”

It is certainly true that meritocracy, a system that seeks to promote those with the skills and the ability to govern, may offer an alternative to “democratic” systems wherein citizens vote for leaders who are preselected by special interests. After all, if people vote based only on information supplied by biased media sources, it is hard to consider such a system to be an effective way to select leaders.

The civil service system was subject to withering critiques by reformers in the late Joseon Dynasty who argued that Confucian scholars who were well versed in the classics were unprepared to deal with the challenges of modernization and that the need was for practical experts who could negotiate trade treaties, establish postal systems and run railroads and steel mills.

That legacy lives on, and most tests used today to determine careers and focus on math and the English language, on administration and management, or on specific skills in accounting or in finance.

Moral philosophy has disappeared from exams in the process of modernization.

So why did the civil service examinations focus on the Confucian classics and on moral philosophy? Was it because the scholars had lost touch with the needs of the nation and had lost themselves in their own privilege?

Understanding the nature of the Confucian civil service is difficult because there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the original spirit of the civil service exams.

The term “meritocracy” is a misnomer. Of course the Chinese civil service exams were about merit, but that was not their primary function.

The exams were originally, from their roots in the Han Dynasty, meant to serve as the basis to establish rule by the wise and the ethical, rather than rule by the capable and the erudite. The two goals are related, but grasping the fundamental difference is critical for future reform.

The philosophers who systematized Confucian thought, Confucius and Mencius, were advocating not so much for a meritocracy, as for a noocracy, or “rule by the wise.” Noocracy has become an unfamiliar term, but that goal of creating a nation ruled by the wise and the ethical was also held up by the Greek philosopher Plato as the best form of government.

Most people today would consider the idea that government should be administered by the wise, rather than by the capable, to be either hopelessly naive, or perhaps dangerously elitist, but let us think carefully about this issue before we dismiss this critical assumption in traditional Korean culture.

Democracy can easily degenerate into the people being misled by false information or charismatic leaders into terrible decisions that lead to the worst form of tyranny.

Meritocracy can lead to rule by those who have clear skills and a high level of education, but who have no moral compass and who pursue their personal interests, or their family interests.

Confucius and Plato had a point in advocating for rule by the wise.
How people are promoted in government and business is critical for a healthy society.

The problem is: how do you achieve governance by the wise?

Humans are flawed creatures and there will be corruption and abuse of power in any system. Periodic reform is essential to assure transparency.

The demand that those involved in politics and governance be steeped in moral philosophy from childhood, being familiar with the humanities and capable of writing thoughtfully about how to find ethical solutions to problems in governance and in society is logical and compelling. We need exactly such an approach today.

But we should pursue the spirit of traditional Confucian governance, and not its forms ― especially in later ages.

We should not force everyone to read only the Confucian classics, or to take the exams used in the Joseon Dynasties. The world today is different.

Rather, we can experiment with new approaches to making philosophy and literature part of the training for all those who wish to work in government, or in business, so that they will be aware of their own actions and their impact on society, so that they will see ethical behavior as the highest goal.

The readings for such an education should extend down to the current day, and should not be limited to the Chinese tradition. Moreover, such an education should involve learning from a teacher, a moral and philosophical teacher, and talking with that teacher. We must move beyond the inhuman system of computer-graded anonymous tests. Exams must be more human and more organic. They can refer to abstract principles, but they must be grounded in the moral tests we face in contemporary society.

Such an innovation in the sense of recapturing the original spirit of the Confucian tradition can bring tremendous new vitality to government and to education, giving new hope to youth in Korea, China, Vietnam and around the world.

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