Korea has a long and deep history of Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and Confucian values. For half a millennium, the entire country was structured according to the fundamental Confucian principles for government, society and family as well as the role of the individual within these units during the Chosŏn dynasty, from 1392 until 1910. The effect of this on the subconscious of the Korean people was profound, and even today Korea is considered to be the most Confucian nation of the world, more so even than China.
The Dosan Seowon traditional Confucian academy founded by Toegye Yi Hwang (W5000 note)
When one understands this, it becomes clear that even today, many facets of Korean society and government – and of course family life – are in line with Confucian principles and methods, simply in a more updated form to function in the Twenty-first Century. The educational system is no different. Education was a vital and fundamental part of the Confucian ideal for a state. In fact, in a Confucian state scholars were the most highly respected class of people. To achieve success in the civil service examinations in these countries, one had to first spend a great amount of time in rigorous study and ‘self-cultivation,’ a popular theme in Confucian thought. As this was the path to a bright future, one can see how a culture of respect for education, and admiration for the educated came about in Korea. This was the subconscious attitude that was present – and in many respects still is – when South Korea’s present educational system was formed.
However, it is naturally a difficult task to ask whether the influence of a man who lived around two and a half millennia ago can be conclusively proven to exist in the educational system of Korea today. Bearing this in mind, then, what I will now try to investigate is whether any concepts or principles introduced or attributed to Confucian philosophy can be seen and identified within this educational system today.
Structurally, the Korean educational system is very rigid and closed. It takes the form of a vertical hierarchy, as any institution would in a Confucian-influenced setting. This said, in name and very superficially the Korean system is actually modelled on the American system. The similarity is, however, very superficial, with the American system being much more decentralised and open. Furthermore, the interpersonal relationships within the two systems are very different, as well as methods of teaching and studying, although this will be discussed in more detail below. At the head of the Korean system is the Ministry of Education, whose main function is policy making and evaluation. Therefore this body governs the behaviour of all institutions in the country. This type of vertical structuring is very reminiscent of Confucian ministries, and the effect is thereby echoed within the educational institutions themselves.
A typical school or higher education institution in South Korea will have a similar vertical hierarchy, usually with a single male at the very top. Typical educators in Korea consider that this role requires an authoritarian leader, according to J. Lee (2001). Such authoritarian leadership means that there is little discourse between the staff of the institutions regarding policies or important matters. The figurehead will typically only require his staff to obey and respect him for the perceived smooth running of the institution. These administrators also, as I’m sure any English teachers in Korea will testify, encourage their subordinates to “devote” themselves to their institution, and by extension its head.
Lee also explains the hierarchy in more detail, saying
“… sitting positions are usually based on rank determined by status, age, and gender.”
Such a system is clearly not derived from ‘modern’ or ‘western’ concepts, and just as clearly demonstrates a Confucian style hierarchical body.
As mentioned above, the highest level administrators of Korean schools and educational institutes are typically authoritarian men. This again reflects the feeling of male superiority found in Confucian texts and traditions. But it is not just in the case of the highest administrators where this is seen within the educational system in South Korea. In fact, it appears that it is prevalent on all levels.
The OECD reveals that in 1999 in South Korea from a total of 354 higher education institutes employing 55718 teaching staff, 8505 were women, and 47213 were men. Moreover, J. Lee states
“female faculty members are generally discriminated or disadvantaged in personnel or school administration by the majority of male administrators.”
As Confucianism has always been favourable towards men, it can be assumed that it is more likely that men will transmit Confucian sentiments onto others. Thus, this analysis clearly leads one to consider that most Koreans, whilst perhaps not openly indoctrinated in Confucian philosophy any more, are surrounded by a system run entirely according to a Confucian modus operandi, and so it is highly likely that such attitudes will be transmitted at the very least in part.
Another fundamental concept of Confucian thought is that of filial piety and respect for elders. Sung explains that;
“In the traditional Confucian notion, the aged are people who must be respected. Filial piety inherently entails a ‘respect-the-old’ ideology.”
Typically, the concept of filial piety in Confucian thinking refers most specifically to the respect a child has for their parents, and the care they show for them. Accompanying this, however, is the idea that similar respect and displays of respect must be shown to all who are elder. Thus we begin to see the reason behind the aforementioned complex seating arrangements in a school staff room, for example. Younger members of staff will demonstrate the required respect by referring to elder members of staff using honourific titles. This pattern is also carried over into the relationships between teachers and pupils. The teachers also expect unquestioning obedience from their students. Within the classroom, the teacher takes on the role of the parent in a two-layer hierarchy, and the students are effectively in the role of children. Pupils are expected to show gratitude to their teachers. Independent discussion and thought around the topic are discouraged, with almost all lessons being conducted by rote learning in Korea (Again, some of you will surely know most this already). This is a distinct contrast to the western approach, and also further amplifies the effects of a Confucian hierarchy within the classroom, whereby the students do only as instructed, viewing the teacher as an infallible figure.
Evidently, the contemporary Korean education system does indeed reflect many traditional Confucian concepts. Of course, Korea has undergone many drastic upheavals and changes since it was officially run as a Confucian state, such as the colonization by Japan, the Korean War, military authoritarian rule, the switch to full democracy and the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Events such as these have had a marked effect on the culture of Korea and on its people. One thing some scholars refer to is that in South Korea now there is a sweeping trend towards materialism and cornucopian trends (OECD, 2000, 48; Chua, 2000, 15).
This is naturally far-removed from the Confucian ideals traditionally held. On the other hand, fashion and other materialistic pursuits are typically followed en masse by young Koreans, perhaps even more so than in some Western nations. This example of the many acting as one within the country is a feature of a Confucian state. It is my view, therefore, that such following of trends en masse is in reality a development of a Confucian element as a result of some of the events in Korea’s modern history, and is not a complete deviation from Confucian traditions. The OECD states that
“higher education merely becomes a tool for socio-economic enhancement.”
That is to say, in contemporary South Korea, the clear love of and desire for education is not always out of respect for education itself, but rather because education is seen as the easiest path to material gain.
There are other examples of traditional Confucian concepts that have also been distorted as a result of the rapid developments in Korean history. In the same way that the aforementioned factor does not fall squarely into the traditional Confucian respect for education, but is rather a distortion of this feature, the authoritarian style of leader within educational institutes also does not always converge precisely with the traditional Confucian ideal leader. J. Lee explains that the traditional Confucian-influenced ruler is one who shows benevolence towards those lower in the hierarchy than themselves, and commands respect by dint of being morally righteous and virtuous.
The Confucian leader must be the most suitable to lead, and do so with compassion, and according to a strict moral code. In this way, it is natural that a leader earns their authority. Leaders within the Korean educational system also command great authority, demand respect, and operate in a highly authoritarian way, whilst also refraining from opening channels of discourse with other staff or students regarding important issues and policy.
The issue here is that contemporary leaders of South Korean educational institutions maintain a Confucian style strict top-down hierarchy and operate in a very authoritarian manner, yet do not always show the benevolence or reciprocated morality that should be required in a traditional Confucian archetypal structure. Clearly this, too, is an example of not a reflection of traditional Confucian concepts, but rather a refraction of them. Moreover, the absolute dominance of rote learning within Korean education now means that there is less time than ever for teachers to encourage positive moral values, something that was traditionally of fundamental importance within Confucian philosophy.
In answer to the titular question, then, it is evident that certain traditional Confucian concepts and values are reflected in the contemporary educational system of South Korea. Prominent among these are a strict hierarchy, seen both in the structuring of the educational system itself and also within each educational institute. As has been seen, this hierarchy is based on the traditional Confucian concepts of the superiority of age and the dominance of men. Devotion to the group to which one belongs is also stressed, as is a certain “educational adoration.” The students do not look to question the actions of their teachers or the subject matter of their classes, compounded by rote learning that submerges more ‘western’ trends towards individual thought and opinion.
These Confucian elements are not only reflected in the contemporary educational system but are in actual fact enforced and encouraged. On the other hand, others are being eroded, replaced or augmented by what may be referred to as ‘western’ or ‘modern’ concepts. It could be said that using education for material gain falls into this category, as the rise in materialistic views in South Korea is often attributed to Westernization (Chua, 2000). The South Korean government also operates a policy whereby all are supposed to have equal and fair access to education. While in practice this has been proven not to be the case – with students studying in certain locations or certain subjects being discriminated when they want to advance into higher education and employment – it is a concept that was not held by the traditional Confucian thinker (Kwak, 2004, 15). In fact, the hagwon, or private tutoring institute, rose to popularity as the general population viewed the traditional Confucian schools as too elitist. So while this is not necessarily an imported western concept, it is also historically not aligned with the traditional Confucian system.
In structural terms, the South Korean education system is based on the American one, although in practice it is more centralized and in correspondence with the traditional Confucian model for any such public ministry or system. The value and role of universities in Korea is also outwardly similar, but in reality somewhat different.
In South Korea, being a university graduate is considered a requisite for a successful life, whereas a more western view would be that anyone can achieve success, despite not attaining at the highest level in all areas – such as standard education. However, study and teaching methods at university in Korea show little difference with those prior to higher education, and this is one of the contributing factors to the relatively low international opinion of Korean universities (Jambor, 2009). Rote learning remains abundant, and little prestige is placed on developing as an individual – both a Confucian and ‘western’ ideal – or on what the student actually does while at university. In the case of South Korea, the achievement is all in attending the ‘right university,’ something which is decided by a single exam at the end of high school. In contrast, western nations tend to place the highest amount of significance on a person’s most recent and highest level qualification – such as a degree. In Korea the examination at the end of high school fulfills this role, with the function of the universities being in name and to more clearly mark out class distinctions.
Looking at this issue as a whole it is incontrovertible that the contemporary Korean educational system reflects some Confucian concepts, but this is to be expected considering that the society as a whole is similarly influenced by Confucianism. What is more useful from an analytical point of view is that other Confucian concepts seem to have been altered slightly in arriving at the modern South Korean system, despite outwardly appearing to be quintessential Confucianism in practice.
An example of this would be the role of leaders of schools, and teachers, whose authority is to be taken unquestioningly, regardless of their moral aptitude for their roles, which was something originally stressed within Confucianism. Another would be a prevailing respect and profound desire for education, yet no longer for education’s sake, but rather for material gain. Finally, some few traditional Confucian concepts, like the cultivation of the self in regards to the student, seem to have disappeared from the Korean educational system entirely, replaced by rote learning and studying to the exclusion of all else until one has completed the university entrance examination. It is my view that certain ‘western’ concepts, such as universal education – primarily a concept of Comenius, often regarded as the founder of modern education – are of great benefit to the Korean educational system, whereas the effect of an increasingly materialistic society on the perceived function of education and the monetary outlay of parents to provide it for their children despite a lack of benefits aside from examination success have a distinctly negative impact.
This list contains all references made in the text. Also, all facts and figures and the like came from these sources below. I know there’s a lot, but it’s really only for anyone wanting to get to the very bottom of this issue.
Bray, Mark (2007), The Shadow Education System: Private Tutoring and its Implications for Planners, UNESCO: International Institute for Educational Planning.
Chua, Beng Huat (2000), Consumption in Asia: Lifestyles and Identities, Routledge
Deuchler, Martina (1992), The Confucian transformation of Korea: a study of society and ideology, Harvard University Asia Center.
Jambor, Paul (2009), “Why South Korean Universities Have Low International Rankings”, Journal of Academic Leadership: The Online Journal 7(1): available at: http://www.academicleadership.org/emprical_research/606.shtml
Kwak, Byong-Sun (2004), “Struggle against Private Lessons in Korean Education Context”, available at: http://iediis4.ied.edu.hk/pcc2004/F-K/PaperOnPrivateLessons.pdf
Lee, Jeong-Kyu (2000), “The Administrative Structure and Systems of Korean Higher Education”, OECD Journal of the Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education 12(1): 43-51. – I would recommend this as the best source for anyone wanting to get a grasp of the basics of the the Korean education system in practice.
Lee, Jeong-Kyu (2001), “Confucian Thought Affecting Leadership And Organizational Culture Of Korean Higher Education”, Radical Pedagogy 3(1).
Lee, Sunhwa & Brinton, Mary C. (1996), “Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea”, Sociology of Education 69(3): 177-192.
Li, Defeng (1998), “”It’s Always More Difficult Than You Plan and Imagine”: Teachers’ Perceived Difficulties in Introducing the Communicative Approach in South Korea”, TESOL Quarterly 32(4): 677-703.
Park, Insook Han & Cho, Lee-Jay (1995), “Confucianism and the Korean Family”, Journal of Comparative Family Studies26: available at: http://www.questia.com/read/5000358792?title=Confucianism%20and%20the%20Korean%20Family
Republic of Korea Ministry of Education Science and Technology website, available at: http://english.mest.go.kr/
Robertson, Paul (2002), “The Pervading Influence of Neo- Confucianism on the Korean Education System”, Asian EFL Journal 4(2): available at: http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/june2002.conf.php
Rozman, Gilbert (2002), “Can Confucianism Survive in an Age of Universalism and Globalization?”, Pacific Affairs 75(1): 11-37.
Sorensen, Clark W. (1994), “Success and Education in South Korea”, Comparative Education Review 38(1): 10-35.
Sung, Kyu-taik (1995), “Measures and Dimensions of Filial Piety in Korea”, The Gentologist 35(2): 240-247.