Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Korean "Core Values"

I've blogged about my American Culture co-teaching class this year multiple times. It's been a big challenge for me, since I'm not really trained as a social studies teacher, but also the class I've learned the most from teaching this year.

In class, we've been using a textbook, American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture by Maryanne Kearny Datesman, JoAnn Crandall, and Edward N. Kearny, that asserts three basic "core values" that traditionally all Americans share and value and three consequences of those values that also have become essential defining characteristics of American culture. Although not all-encompassing, I believe that they are a fair assessment of traditional American ideology.

The values are individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and the pursuit of material wealth (I would probably call this "prosperity," as the American Dream is not exclusively about materialism, but whatever) and the three American traits that stem from these values are self-reliance, competition, and hard work, respectively. Say what you will and feel free to disagree, but most Americans (myself included) hold most of these values near and dear--especially individual freedom and self-reliance.

Throughout the year we have studied how these values help us understand the features of American culture, such as religion, family, education, and diversity. It's been a nice framework for the students because it was a way to connect each individual unit together (something not commonly done in Korean courses where students tend to memorize for a test and then promptly forget everything they've learned). Sometimes we've had to introduce new values (such as "can-do" optimism and inventiveness), but generally they were either not as essential to the American character or they were not really as universal for Americans.

The last chapter in the text deals with the future of these values (which have, of course, changed slightly from how they were originally conceived) and modern challenges to America (such as health care and illegal immigrants). Reflecting on the idea that one of the main reasons to study another culture is to learn about our own, I asked the students this week to come up with Korea's "Core Values."

I was impressed. These kids have moved from thinking about Korean culture in terms of "kimchi" and "hangeul" at the beginning of the year, to being able to express and reasonably explain in a very thoughtful, critical way the main precepts that create the Korean identity. This week, I've learned a lot about Korean culture from these bright budding young sociologists and anthropologists--some things I already knew, but hadn't really found a clear way to express. For example, this post from a little over a year ago sums up a lot of my thoughts along these lines.

So, from the mouths of babes, here are some of the core values they identified, along with my attempt to re-create their explanation of it:

1. Confucianism/Neo-Confucianism -- The influence of Confucian values, such as respecting elders (they often called this a separate value of "Politeness" or "Courtesy," defining relationships (and the obligations within that relationship) clearly and hierarchically, and the prizing of scholarship as a mark of success were all cited by students as part of Korean values from the Joseon dynasty and could be a problem in the 21st century as the population ages (due to a low birth rate).

2. Sense of Community/Jeong (정, hanja: 情)/Cooperation -- This concept, students explained, comes from Korea's agricultural roots where the community would share their land to grow food and divide food according to the needs of the families in the community. In modern times, students pointed out that this leads to Korean people actively seeking group relationships and maintaining these networks with great care and that, if taken too far, sometimes creates the pervasive regionalism in politics and tendency for companies to only ever hire graduates of one or two universities. (Although many students were quick to point out that South Korea is NOT Communist, I do think that perhaps the existence of this concept in both Koreas' histories probably provided some fertile ground for Marxist ideals back in the 40s and 50s.)

3. Patriotism/Korean National Identity -- This is one of the more modern values they identified, although many students also connected it back to Confucianism. Like #2 where Koreans value group identity, they see the nation of Korea (well, South Korea... and sometimes if the political rhetoric suits the occasion, unified Korea) as one big group. Therefore, the successes and failures of each Korean personally affects Koreans more than it might other nationalities. This value was blamed for the homogeneity and racism that sometimes manifest here, but also cited as inspiring the unparalleled national and economic development of South Korea over the last 60 years.

Other contenders for a "core value" were: Education Fever/Eagerness (one student argued that this might come from a false belief that education means equal opportunity), The Faster the Better (빨리 빨리)/Convenience, Diligence/Hard Work, Conservatism/Traditions/Love for "Original" Things, and Family/Child-centered.

Not the work of a Ph.D. scholar, but not bad for high school kids in a 20 minute discussion group.

In strangely related news, the Korean expat blogosphere (yes, this is a thing that actually exists... like some grotesque hybrid between real blogging and the insanity that is Korean internet culture, which I briefly discussed in this post), has been a-twitter with the proposal by one politician to require a Korean culture class for foreign teachers issued an E-2 visa. If you are curious about the issue and subsequent "netizen" attempts to blow this issue out of all proportion, I recommend Brian's entry about the subject.

Perhaps we should enlist my students to write the curriculum.


  1. Good Man has that book. Same third edition, too. He studied that book in a class taught by a French Canadian at his university.

  2. I found this very interesting, and I have been able to recognise these traits/ values in my own interactions with Korea and Koreans over the past 10 years. It is nice to read a thoughtful blog entry about Korea that makes sense instead of some superficial/ throwaway commentary about 'face' or taking your shoes off to go in the house - obviously the product of substantive hard work and discussion. You and your students are lucky to have each other. Thanks!

  3. Amanda--it's a great book; it summarizes the main analysis/commentary about American culture in a very accessible way. The level is probably around that of a first-year college course or AP class, so at times my students definitely struggled with it, but I love using it and would again.

    Last night Min Gi started reading it, and we ended up having a really great discussion about learning about other cultures.


    Thank you for the compliment. I was just so darned impressed with how much these kids have actually learned this year in terms of critical thinking... Damn!

    Also--Ha! I've been following Dave's Evil Shortsighted Lameness (ESL) Cafe, also. I must say it's generally more tolerable than it was when I quit reading it a year and a half ago... But not by much.

  4. I agree with anonymous's post. That was a thoughtful blog entry.

    Sometimes it's hard to believe that most of the participants at Dave's are college graduates.

  5. Funny how "equality of opportunity" is so different from "equality".

  6. Eli-- Yep, we spent a lot of time explaining that one. :-)

  7. Clearly your students are not as cynical as I am. (Although I should admit that I did have to take a few seconds to think about what "equality of opportunity" means.)



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