Some Issues on Modern Education in Korea

Education is always an important issue in history, and I regret that I have read works on the history of Korea’s modern education only sporadically. As I try to organize my notes while reading both secondary and primary sources recently, I get confused about exactly what issues are on debate back then and now. I am hoping that other people will give me clearer thoughts on this. (I’m writing this off the top of my head so my apologies for not providing specific names of historians as much as I should.)

I realized there are two very common topics in the historiography. One is how we conceive traditional and private 서당 (書堂, sodang) vs public elementary schools (普通学校). It is a fact that, compared to Taiwan, the spread of elementary schools in Korea was very slow during the colonial period, and sodang continued to sprawl even in the 1930s. Traditionally, historians see this as the failure of Japanese education, and/or the flourish of strong ethnic-centered education among Koreans. Many of the city history volumes and local history articles (written in the 1980s-2000s) I read emphasize this point. So this is an indication of the “undying national identity” for them. Historians like 渡辺学 also use the numbers of those schools as evidence that the Japanese colonial government was not the main agency that provided modern education. The fact that the Japanese forced to shut down many night schools and private schools in fear of socialist activities helps their point on the antagonistic relationship between sodang and elementary schools.

On the other hand, more recent scholars like 板垣竜太 show complementary relationship between  sodang and elementary schools. Many Korean children studied in both schools, and many of the same local elites donated money and negotiated with the local office to establish a sodang and to upgrade it to an elementary school. Both 板垣竜太’s work on Sangju and 김영희’s work on a village in 충청남도 show that the government depended on those local elites in introducing modern education if not an elementary school itself, and these two parties were more cooperative in making sodang into a modern institution. I myself also was surprised to find that, in 1922 when their concern for socialist activism was heightening, 『全羅南道青年会指導方針』regarded sodang more ideal for training rural youth than elementary schools. I just realized that those historians who use the government’s sources emphasize the conflict between sodang and elementary schools, and those who study local cases see more cooperation between the two.

The other issue is the emphasis to 実業教育 (practical education or vocational training). I find this issue more confusing in the historiography. Many tend to consider practical education the emblem of modern education, and discuss that Korean enlightenment thinkers already emphasized the importance of it before the Japanese rule started. There is some ambiguity about how to judge the Japanese call for practical education in the 1920s, but starting the 1930s, historians usually find an excessive amount of 実習 (on-site practice), and an neglect of knowledge-based education. I know 実業教育 does not necessarily mean 実習, but 実習 was justified as an integral part of 実業教育. To my confusion, many historians (again, I’m sorry for not specifying who, but in general) cannot make up their mind regarding whether the overall emphasis on practical training should be celebrated (as always is when they discuss Korean enlightenment thinkers), or considered oppressive when implemented by the Japanese, given a long tradition of Confucius training of Korean intellectuals. Reading 『文教の朝鮮』 and 『朝鮮社会事業』, I find that even among the Japanese activists, emphases on 実業教育 and Confucius thoughts coexisted for a long time. I suspect that the issue at stake was more about class differences, rather than how “modern” it sounded or how “Korean” or “Japanese” practical education represented. By “class differences,” I mean more than just “the lower class appreciated 実業教育 more than the elite.” I read an article about a diary written by a relatively well-educated young guy in 1930, in Dongbok, Cholla Namdo. He owned his own land, which made him upper-middle class already, but he was always disappointed at his farming job and had to remind himself of the importance of 実業主義 over and over. In his case, the emphasis on practical education and hard labor was supposed to help him fill the gap between the dream of obtaining higher education and the reality in front of him.

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