Sunday, November 20, 2005

Korean self-criticality and other cultural issues

I've heard it said by certain expats (and seen it written on blogs as well) that South Koreans have no capacity for self-criticality. I think this is demonstrably false: the Korean news is filled-- as far as I can tell, given my limited Korean-- with critical commentaries about Korean society, politics, and culture. Westerners who don't speak much Korean might not be aware of how deep this self-criticism runs.

On Friday, I gave my advanced conversation students copies of one of Dr. Hodges's blog entries, in which Dr. Hodges juxtaposed his own reflections on Korean society with those he'd found in an article about Cho Se-mi, an international business consultant.

Dr. Hodges distills the article down to five claims (by Cho) about Koreans:

1. Koreans lack initiative
2. Koreans don't pursue excellence
3. Koreans don't think
4. Koreans are closed-minded
5. Koreans don't listen

I'll agree with Dr. Hodges that my own classroom experience dovetails with his. However, Korean society and culture have been in rapid flux since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and it's my belief that some or all of the above claims will, sooner or later, no longer be true.

My focus in this post, however, is on how my students reacted to Dr. Hodges's post-- or, more accurately, how they reacted to Cho Se-mi's claims. My students knew from the outset that the above five contentions were made by a Korean, i.e., this was a critique coming from within the culture, making it somewhat harder to dismiss than the standard Western complaints.

Regarding (1), the claim the Koreans lack initiative, my students contended that this depended on the person. I agreed that this had been my experience as well: many Koreans are passive, especially in teacher-student relationships, but there are more than a few who do take charge.

My students laughed at (2), "Koreans don't pursue excellence," not because they thought Cho was wrong but because they thought she was right. One student used a personal example: she had been given a certain type of project to do, and had planned to expend a lot of time and energy to put together a magnificent presentation. Her classmates, however, were wise to the professor's biases, and told her that, with only a fourth of the effort she planned to make, she could cut corners and get the "A." My student confessed that she opted for the easier route. After all, why bother going to all that trouble if your classmates can get the same grade with no sweat?

"So," I joked, "You were thinking only about the grade and about getting whatever your classmates got."

"Yes," she replied, unblinking.

I told her I didn't blame her, and I don't: in a system that favors laziness, laziness represents a certain wisdom, especially if you've spent most of your educational formation worrying more about the grade than about the education you're receiving. Teachers, if they are honest, will all remember instances from their pasts in which they, too, sidestepped the challenge of learning for learning's sake, opting instead to grab the "A" via the path of least resistance.

My students unanimously found (3),"Koreans don't think," offensive. I explained that the verb "think" likely referred to a certain style of thinking. Dr. Hodges, in his comment on that contention, writes the following:

Koreans really do have problems here. Although my students can usually draw conclusions in clearly defined problems requiring deductive reasoning, they tend to lose this ability if they have to define a problem for themselves. They also show weaknesses in using inductive reasoning, being unable to generalize from similar cases. I think that this latter weakness stems from weakness in thinking analogically. Many students lack ability to transfer insights gained in one case to another, structurally similar but superficially different case.

In his book The Geography of Thought, psychologist Richard E. Nisbett takes a nuanced stance in comparing Eastern and Western thinking patterns. He is quick to note, for example, that the claim that "Asians can't think logically" is manifestly false given the number of Asians who excel in areas requiring logic, such as science and math. However, Nisbett also notes that Asian culture in general doesn't inculcate the same style of inductive, categorical, analogical thinking strategies learned at an early age by most children in the industrialized West.

But Western friends of mine who deal with Asians in science (I'm thinking in particular of a buddy who's an aeronautical engineer) report that many Asian scientists, logical though they be, lack the ability to "think outside the box," or, even more basically, to move from textbook-style reasoning to practical reasoning when faced with difficulties in the lab. Obviously, this observation isn't meant to apply to all or even most Asians (one grand exception sits on my blogroll-- I wonder if he noticed that I'd changed the sidebar image), but it does apply to many of them.

Nisbett's data also seem to confirm the Asian difficulty with analogical and inductive thinking. He notes, however, that Western tendencies to apply categorical thinking to problems can be nonproductive, too. He cites some classic intra-Western debates that have generated "more heat than light," as he puts it.

From p. 154 of The Geography of Thought:

The obsession with categories of the either/or sort* runs through Western intellectual history. Dichotomies abound in every century and form the basis for often fruitless debates: for example, "mind-body" controversies in which partisans take sides as to whether a given behavior is best understood as being produced by the mind independent of any biological embodiment, or as a purely physical reaction unmediated by mental processes. The "nature-nurture" controversy is another debate that has often proved to generate more heat than light. As evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander has pointed out, nearly all behaviors that are characteristic of higher order mammals are determined by both nature and nurture. The dichotomy "emotion-reason" has obscured more than it has revealed. As Hume said, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of passion"; it makes sense to separate the two for purposes of analysis only. And it's been suggested that the distinction between "human" and "animal" insisted upon by Westerners made it particularly hard to accept the concept of evolution. In most Eastern systems, the soul can take the form of any animal or even God. Evolution was never controversial in the East because there was never an assumption that humans sat atop a chain of being and somehow had lost their animality.

Perhaps my girls have a right to be a mite offended by the claim that they can't think-- after all, there's no agreed-upon, universal definition of thinking. As with (1), my students' feeling is that much depends on the individual.

As for (4), "Koreans are closed-minded," my students didn't like how this claim was worded, but they found themselves nodding in agreement as we reviewed Dr. Hodges's elaboration on the claim. "Yes," they confirmed: many Korean teachers train their students to look for a single "right" answer to questions that might have multiple and/or interrelated answers. Obviously, the search for simplicity in the midst of complexity can be convenient, but it can also be dangerous, whether we're talking about the hard sciences or the humanities-- fields that both require an appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of Reality as she reveals herself.

The students ended up disagreeing with Dr. Hodges on (5), "Koreans don't listen," because they strongly felt that part of the problem, at least in the case of Korean students sitting in on an English-language lecture, was simply the language barrier.

I, however, think Dr. Hodges may have a point about Koreans in general. Koreans don't listen, and it's one of my major gripes when I'm trying to explain something to a Korean in detail. Perhaps I'm just an over-talkative windbag, but very often I find myself cut off by my Korean interlocutor, who has determined that I've given him or her enough information, and that the matter is now closed. The signal for this, especially if the conversation is in English, is a brusque, rapidfire "Okayokay"-- said just like that, in that almost offensively dismissive manner. Bugs me to no end.

Koreans who are familiar with the West and/or who grew up there generally don't have this hasty tendency. But here on the peninsula, it's quite common to see people leaving conversations half-cocked, convinced they now know enough to go about their day. They don't, and the attitude underlying the "Okayokay" mentality is what gets Koreans in trouble with each other and with foreigners. Michael Breen, in his book The Koreans, remarks on the incredible Korean capacity for hard work and post-haste action. The result, he says, is often great, prompt service... that usually turns out, over time, to be poor in quality. Breen marvels at what appears to him to be massive incompetence at every level of business and industry, compensated by the hasty and unceasing post-hoc repair work Koreans do.

I began this post noting that Koreans are indeed self-critical, and that Westerners, especially those who don't speak much Korean, may not be clued in to this. I can imagine rebuttals from Western Korean speakers, many of whom are more fluent than I, who will doubtless note that Koreans seem wrapped up in a culture of blame and victimhood. To some extent, I agree, but my basic point is that Koreans are constantly engaged in critical reflection about who they are and where they're going. The fact that a person like Cho Se-mi can offer such critiques of Korean culture is, in my opinion, laudable. And she's not alone. Koreans might not be reflective enough in areas where I think they need to improve, but who am I to impose that viewpoint on them? Koreans will, I have no doubt, figure things out on their own, and I'm sure the world will learn something from their example.

In fact, let me end this piece by citing an article (found through Oranckay) about two Korean sisters in America who explore the question of superior academic performance by ethnic Asians in American schools and on standardized tests. In something of a reversal from the Korean-on-Korean critique by Cho Se-mi, these two sisters offer their own "critique from within the culture"-- this time, American culture-- and come to conclusions that Americans, if they will listen, are sure to find valuable.

One interesting irony, though: the sisters' basic contention is that parents should instill in their children a love of learning. I happen to agree, and I agree with the Kims that the American system, especially through high school, isn't particularly conducive to instilling that love. But as bad as that problem is in the States, it's far worse here in Korea: very few students, in my experience, do what they do simply because they love learning. For most students, effort is about achievement, and achievement is defined fairly strictly in terms of grades. True, there are plenty of grade-grubbers in the States (and everywhere else), but for Koreans this is a special problem, and the next step in Korea's cultural evolution will involve breaking the intellectual shackles and truly inculating a sense of the value of education: a value not tied to a distant material goal, but to something occuring now, a spiritual progress the student herself can notice and track with joy.

*I've been guilty of this dualism, too, but in my defense I'll point out that I did explore a more nondualistic approach to the mind/body problem in a brief post here.


1 comment:

  1. Kevin,

    I know you already know this, but the term "not thinking" applies to the way Korean students study and then apply what they've studied to a particular problem.
    Instead of typing a long post, I've give you a classic example:
    On numerous occasions, I've had the KT technician at my apartment to troubleshoot an internet problem. Even though most, if not all of these guys have advanced certifications in hardware/software and networking, I'm always amazed at how they approach any problem they encounter. It's always "Check "A", then "B", then "C" etc...even if the symptoms have absolutely nothing to do with the problem. They go through their memorized troubleshooting checklists, and if nothing they try works, then they have to call the office for help. They can't seem to think about the problem, and then think about what might be causing it. One does not check the settings on Outlook or the browser when there's obviously no connectivity between the apartment router/equipment and the computer. It's like checking the air pressure in a tire when the car won't start. I saw the same thing when I worked in our main office up in Seoul - many of those guys are very well educated in the IT field, have numerous certifications and years of experience, but they lack the ability to think creatively to figure out some problem that they've never seen before. They would rather reload an entire hardrive before trying to figure out what was causing some piece of software to behave buggy (Unless they've seen the problem before and know already hat to do to fix it).



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