Barack Obama calls education “the currency for the information age.” Education is, however, based on the genesis of ideas and their expression. In his book “Ideas and Opinions,” Albert Einstein wrote about the importance of opinions and formation of ideas in any scientific discipline. What is an “idea”? It is knowledge, a brainwave or some new germane thinking giving birth to some potential discoveries or inventions. In the discipline of economics, the importance of ideas is not new. Schumpeter talked about the preponderance of entrepreneurship and growth through creative destruction in a capitalist society. In the 1980s, Paul Romer of Stanford University brought to light the importance of ideas in a formal theoretical modeling framework of growth theory.
The new sub-branch, christened “endogenous growth theory,” ushered in a new insight of growth harping on creative stimuli for economic growth and development. Idea gaps create wealth gaps. In this modern era, ideas are most important. That depends on the plasticity of mind and plurality, heterogeneity of thought and action, not on one uniform line of action. Just like alloys made of impurities from metals of different chemical structures are rich in compositional diversities, the confluence or synthesis of ideas of different genres causes enrichment of thought and nourishment of mind and soul.
Expressions are important, too. Looking at history, we can say that even if expressions cause the free flow of ideas, the translation of ideas in different localities into a universally accepted language, say, English, facilitates spread of ideas quickly. That happened in Urdu, Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit languages in Asia and much so for French, German and other European languages (Sanskrit is sometimes called the father of all languages). After all, language is an amalgam of human cognition, knowledge, synthesis and exchange of cross-cultural factors, syntax and culture of a nation.
Language is no bar as such in this age of information flows around the world. Nobody can deny the predominance of English as a global language of this millennium; however, simultaneous honing of creative skills is also important. The context of “English fever” that has gripped Korea and for which people pay premiums in international schools and hagwon are ample testimony to these observations. It is important to teach the students the direction they should be going, rather than cramming English just to talk and understand colloquialisms. Often, if properly administered, the good-quality non-international schools promote better knowledge than international schools in terms of nurturing creativity. Credit for high PISA scores in 2012-13, highlighting glorious East Asian performances in general and South Korea or China in particular, could mostly be attributed to non-international schools. However, such measures face criticism in terms of judgment of “innate talent or ability” of the pupils in terms of problem solving or facing real analytics.
Recent research has shown that linguistic factors (historical affinity and similarity of word order between languages, say Indian and Korean) as well as schooling years, internationalization, culture and free-thinking affect English proficiency. At least, the Indian experience with multi-ethnicity and multiple languages is a good example. Thus, the prerequisite for knowledge-accumulation is not only “knowing English”; rather, the precondition is lateral thinking.
Ideas need vent for expressions and manifestations. If one does not have ideas, what remains to be expressed or written? Thus, knowledge or talent or human capital is as important as the expressions. Globalization facilitates the free flow of ideas in this globally integrated world. When a country strives to become more global, it should be open, liberal and pluralistic in attitude. Thus, the mind needs to be open ― not like the dreary desert ― embracing and nurturing talents, and assimilating ideas from global citizens. Ideas find their best outlet in their spontaneous manifestation. Both go hand in hand.
English-phobia in South Korea is inhibiting the expression of innate ability. First, enabling formation and absorption of ideas, critical thinking, imagination and expression will follow spontaneously from the global pressure of competition. Knowledge-workers could sharpen their expertise by thinking laterally. The intellectuals, in any discipline, should specialize in forming ideas, and express themselves for the ideas’ acceptance in the public domain; however, the finesse could be achieved with further fine-tuning or collaborating with “global scholars” or experts in scientific outlets. A “salad” mentality ― where a concoction of everything is present while every component retains its own flavor or identity ― is useful. Ideas are best expressed when a salad bowl of individual thinking is optimally prepared. For that to happen, openness and assimilation with self-identity are essential.
The high cost of international schools serves as an entry barrier for the ambitious talented learners. For this, “national” educational institutions should come forward, revamp and counter their myopia to become “international” in mindset. Therefore, schools in countries like Korea need to promote the English language as part of their curriculum so that the “fear” of English leaves the mindset of the kids in their formative years, when the gains from schooling years are huge. These Korean schools should internationalize with a good blend of retaining national identity simultaneously. Korean schools can start globalizing at the grassroots level to form the backbone of higher education. Then the PISA scores will surely survive criticism, and truly reflect quality-adjusted indicators.
By Gouranga Das
Gouranga Das is professor of economics at Hanyang University, Erica Campus, South Korea. ― Ed.