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[Keenan Fagan] Limited student opportunities to participate in the humanities

Professor Kim Seong-kon wrote another excellent editorial for this paper on May 8, in which he lamented that societal and student interest in the humanities was being “squeezed out by pop culture.” Professor Kim noted that until recently, South Korea had great respect for intellectuals and their contributions to the humanities. I was reminded of reading Richard Rutt tell of regular poetry reading festivals in the countryside just south of Seoul when he was a priest in the 1950s and ’60s. But now Kim notes that “when an intellectual giant comes for a lecture, students are not interested at all. Most of the time they have to be dragged into the lecture hall, threatened by attendance checks that will affect their grade. … They just sit there, texting or updating their Facebook or Instagram until the lecture ends.”

While I largely agree with Professor Kim’s observations, I would like to add to them by offering reasons why students lack interest in this broad area of studies that encompasses philosophy, religion, ethics, the arts, anthropology and cultural-historical exploration. In the Korean educational system, students are very rarely allowed to engage actively with these disciplines, even when they are registered in and pay for classes in them. My students, and other students that I talk to, say they are not given opportunities to discuss readings or class topics because almost all of their professors spend so much class time lecturing. Students report that they are given almost no group or pair work to discuss issues. And while they are offered chances to ask questions at the end of lectures, many students report declining to do so out of humanitarian and ethical considerations. They do not want to detain their fellow students, who were bored and killing time through the lecture, any longer.

To exacerbate this problem, students report that they are hardly ever given writing assignments through the entirety of their secondary and university schooling. They are not being asked to develop and share ideas through this medium for critical thinking. I know this because at the beginning of my required English reading and writing classes for Korean universities, I pass out a graphic organizer to students so that they can ask five or six partners (one on one, to maximize student communication) about their academic writing experiences in both their home languages and English. During this exercise, typical of any day in my class, the room bursts into conversation in a foreign language. Students eagerly share their experiences on how few opportunities they have been offered to participate in this crucial work of the humanities. Writing is, after all, the very technology that allowed the humanities to thrive in the first place. Students invariably regret that they have not gained more experience in academic writing in either Korean, Chinese or English. Working through the organizer, they ask each other what they would like to learn in our reading and writing course. Most tell their classmates that they want to learn academic writing skills, like those practiced by Professor Kim and by their own professors.

It is not that Korean students are not interested in the humanities; it is rather that they have not been invited to begin work in this field. Contrary to the educational practices found around the world by such scholars as Barbara Rogoff, they are not being apprenticed into the practices of the humanities.

I find Korean and Chinese students eager to express critical opinions on subjects involving the humanities, like the importance of manners, ethics, arts or architecture. Students also report that the Buddhist monks at our university allow them to exercise these same participatory skills in freshman seminar classes and in reflective sessions after meditation. Dongguk University students are eager to learn the names and ideas of poets, philosophers and thinkers featured in class discussions. Given a pearl of wisdom, Korean students eagerly grasp it.

So why is it that professors in this country have difficulty getting students to speak in their first language on this broad field of the humanities? Could it be that many professors lack knowledge of the humanities themselves and are therefore unable to Socratically draw out student thought? Is it possible that they do not work to cultivate classroom cultures that foster the very dialogical skills on which the humanities thrive? Could this be because they relish their authoritative power as professors in Korean society and don’t care to relinquish it, even if it would accomplish an educational mission? Or is it that they don’t practice the arts of the humanities in questioning the traditional East Asian role of the teacher as an expert who bestows knowledge upon students?

I would like to thank Professor Kim for fostering my dialogical engagement with his astute editorial observations. I will look forward to further opportunities to share such thoughts with colleagues and students, in either English or spoken Korean, for the sake of fostering the humanities in our institutions.

Keenan Fagan
Keenan Fagan holds a Ph.D. in learning, teaching and diversity from Vanderbilt University, and teaches required English courses for Dongguk University’s Dharma College. -- Ed.