Monday, May 05, 2014

the Sewol disaster versus 9/11: a question of passivity

Something to consider when pondering the inaction of the kids aboard the Sewol: on the morning of September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked in the United States. Three of the four ended up hitting their targets; the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, apparently because the passengers on that plane decided to resist and go down fighting. It seems incredible that a group of men carrying only box cutters could have cowed three planes' worth of people. "I'd have acted differently in that situation," many of us tell ourselves firmly. But, really: would you have? Sheep-like behavior in crowd situations is neither uncommon nor incomprehensible. In such situations, most of us are inclined to disavow responsibility, simply doing what we think the situation demands.

In our search for possible "cultural" explanations for the Korean students' passive behavior while the massive ferry was sinking on April 16, we might do well to ponder the psychology of crowds. I'm in no way saying that the Sewol disaster and 9/11 are perfectly analogous events, but they do have this bizarre, almost sacrificial passivity in common.

The psychology I'm referring to may work on even larger scales: people abandon responsibility in a variety of major crises. Why, for example, didn't the Jews rise up en masse and throw off the Nazi yoke in those camps? This is a painful question that historians return to again and again. Why don't the North Korean people rise up and take back their country? Semi-plausible explanations are offered, but none seems to hold water. Why didn't the African slaves collectively rise up in the United States and give their masters a royal beat-down? It happened more or less successfully in Haiti, after all. Why didn't the French resist the Nazi incursion more vigorously? This remains a touchy issue for many older French people. The same goes for Koreans under the Japanese yoke for thirty-six years: how did they let that happen to themselves? In all of the above cases, there were isolated pockets of resistance, to be sure, but there was no system-wide attempt at a massive overthrow. From a God's-eye view, the landscape was, generally, one of passivity and resignation.

So it could be that, in our search for "cultural" explanations of the Sewol disaster, we might want to consider pancultural explanations as well. Resigning oneself to one's fate, while in a crowd or other mass situation, is more common, and more human, than we care to admit. Does this make such passivity noble? Not at all: in almost every case, the cause of the oppressed or the threatened would have been better served by proactive resistance. I'm not arguing that passivity in a crisis is morally justifiable, but I am suggesting that it's not as incredible as some observers of the Sewol disaster are making it out to be.

Nitpickers will say that I'm conflating different phenomena: an airplane-hijack situation is nothing like having Nazis stationed in your French village. Let me preempt that accusation by strongly disagreeing. True: a sudden disaster is not the same as systemic oppression (in the form of wartime occupation or slavery). But I've zoomed my perspective back to speak more abstractly about crises and masses, and the psychology that binds these disparate scenarios together. I think that's a perfectly legitimate analytical move to make.

Like a lot of expats and Koreans, I'm weary of the explanations of the Sewol disaster that try to reduce the horror of the event to the effects of cultural dynamics like Confucianism. I don't believe that culture is irrelevant to the picture, but I also don't think it's the most fundamental explanation for three hundred deaths.



John from Daejeon said...

Do South Korean ferries stress safety instructions and locations of safety devices (lifeboats, life preservers, etc.) in comparison to U.S. serviced cruise lines, and would young students even bother to look up from their jacked-in lives to bother listening to this life-saving information? Even with the safety lectures and precautions given on U.S. conveyances, most U.S. kids I've taught and know aren't big on paying close attention to much due to their short attention spans to anything not smart phone or tablet related and the fallacy that they are pretty much sure they are invincible.

Kevin Kim said...

Interesting that you should mention this, John. A coworker of mine sent me a link to a video of the Sewol disaster. The video was taken by a kid in one of the Sewol's cabins, and for several minutes it provides a slice of surreal dialogue as the kids, all of whom are part of this jacked-in culture you mentioned, discuss (and even joke about) the unreality of what's happening around them. They really don't seem to realize that their lives are in imminent danger, and they display absolutely no common sense about moving themselves out of harm's way.

So, yes: I suspect that the teched-up culture is part of the problem, too. If something doesn't seem real to you, you're not likely to get up and do anything about it.

To answer your question about safety lectures and such: I imagine you're right—safety is more explicitly focused on in the West. Living in Asia always involves flirting with danger on some level. As you know only too well, even day-to-day transportation, as with large or small buses and vans, can be deadly.

John from Daejeon said...

Your 9/11 theory of passivity regarding the passengers can also be traced to a lack of training and fear of hijacking. I know I was under the assumption that hijacking mostly a thing of the past and not a thing to fear in the U.S. in 2001.

Hell, I don't know of any airline that addresses how to deal with a hijacking with its boarding passengers today. I know I haven't seen any safety cards or onscreen safety videos that deal with it on of the airlines I use. Then, there is the fact that the hijackers picked a great time to proceed as most people are very passive and docile early in the morning and definitely aren't at their best.

When it comes to understanding people's varying responses when faced with crisis situations, it isn't that difficult when you look up the definitions of hero, coward, disbelief, horror, shock, resignation, self-preservation, etc.

As a 9th grade high school student, I sat in stunned disbelief and shock as my Algebra teacher suffered a severe heart attack and died right in front of his class of 30 students. I wasn't alone as 27 of my classmates reacted in unison, while only two had the necessary strength to rush out and summon help. I never thought, at the time, that I should be ashamed of my inaction because it seemed to be in the majority of human nature when dealing with similar situations, and I've seen it several times since when someone is in need of CPR, the Heimlich Maneuver, or extreme first aid (gushing blood and very bad injuries). Not everyone is cut out to be a first responder, soldier, doctor, air traffic controller, etc.

Some extraordinary people are capable of rising to the most nightmarish of occasions, but it seems that the majority just want to be left alone to deal with their own varying hardships of life without ever having to worry about every needing to be in a situation where being a hero is needed. It would seem that such situations induce a state of shock and inactivity in this mass majority until a strong leader pushes them down whatever path this person directs (be it a good path or an evil one in the case of Hitler).

To this day, I am rather passive concerning my own well-being, but put one of my kids or family members in any kind of danger and I quickly spring to action in their defense. It is perplexing to say the least.

Kevin Kim said...

I was wondering what relevance the Bystander Effect might have to this discussion.

John said...

While I agree with your points overall, I think the 9/11 hijackings are an inapt comparison. John touches on my reasoning for this in his second comment. Every hijacking prior to 9/11 had been just that, a hijacking. More a matter of inconvenience (a detour to Cuba for example) than a life threatening situation. In fact, the brave souls on United 93 rose up in revolt only after they discovered the other flights had been intentionally crashed. I don't believe any flight could now be commandeered with only box cutters. I note that any unruly passenger nowadays is promptly subdued by his fellow travelers. So the lesson has been learned. I thought it interesting that the passengers in the line 2 subway wreck ignored the command to stay on board (which may be the wrong lesson learned, but still).

To your broader argument, I think a fair percentage of the Americans "bitterly clinging" to their guns do so precisely because they recognize the government is ill-equipped to protect them in a crisis, not to mention that it seems increasingly likely that one day Americans may have to defend themselves against an overbearing government. It's worth remembering that one of the first acts of Hitler was to disarm the general population. The recent events in Nevada seem to demonstrate that a fair percentage of the population will take a stand against perceived oppression. I suspect things might be different in North Korea if the citizens were armed.

Kevin Kim said...

I think it's a fair point to note that, in "acute" crises like hijackings, it's possible for people in groups to learn from the experiences of other groups (e.g., post-9/11 hijacking victims and the recent Seoul subway accident victims). But whether this is evidence enough to claim a disanalogy is, I think, at least open to debate.

Assuming something like the Bystander Effect is at work in both acute crises (hijack, ferry disaster, etc.) and chronic crises (slavery, wartime occupation), we can see how people might become passive: there's confusion, not to mention diffusion of responsibility when there's no apparent command structure. For an acute crisis, this might lead to chaos when trying to get people off a ferry; for a chronic crisis, this might lead to people in spread-out villages who are unable to communicate with each other, and thus to organize into a significant resistance. So I still think the analogy holds.

If anything, there's historical evidence that not all people do learn their lesson when disaster strikes: the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge and Sampoong Department Store wasn't enough to prevent the building collapse, this past February, that killed 10 college kids in a snowy part of Gyeongju. In fact, a chronic lack of concern for people's safety has been a major theme in current discussions about the Sewol disaster. Time and again, Koreans seem not to learn the crucial lesson they need to learn.

Regarding armed North Koreans: I find it interesting that, according to defectors, oppressed North Koreans have gotten very good at squirreling away all manner of contraband, up to and including cell phones, tiny TVs, and CD/DVD players that connect NK citizens to the outside world, confirming suspicions that they live in a hellhole. One wonders why, if these folks are so good at smuggling, they haven't managed to smuggle and store a significant quantity of weapons. Something doesn't add up.

Sperwer said...

The problem with the Confucianism `explanation is not that it is wrong but that, as deployed by the usual suspects, it's an empty abstraction that explains nothing - rather, I'm afraid, like big talk, aka theorizing, about crises and masses. What's needed is more attention to detail. Hannah Arendt's work on totalitarianism and the Holocaust offers some interesting hypotheses that then get spun out of control as theory. Better to read Tim Snyder's "Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin" if you want to learn something that is satisfyingly (if depressingly) explanatory.

Kevin Kim said...


That may be, but I think too fine-grained a theory will sacrifice wider applicability because it's too entangled in its own minutiae.

I haven't read Arendt or Snyder, but I was thinking about some of those psych experiments from way back when—the ones that show how easy it is to get people, who are eminently manipulable, to do things that are stupid or even morally wrong: the Smoke-filled Room Experiment, for example, and the Milgram Experiment both come to mind.

I don't know when I might get hold of Snyder, but if what he writes is too specific to the German/Russian situation, I'll have to do some gymnastics to distill any sort of general theory of human behavior from his work... which will put me right back where I am now: in the realm of the general and universal.

Sperwer said...

The point is that there is NO "general theory", just history (which is not a "fine-grained theory" - although I agree that some of what gets passed off as "history" is just a tiresome compilation of one damn thing after another (which, however, imo is more valuable than grand theories)

Kevin Kim said...

I'm wary of following the path you're indicating because that way lies postmodernism: no "totalizing metanarratives," i.e., no general claims can or should be made about anything, especially about human affairs, which are so enrobed in contextuality that no situation or event can ever serve as an analogy for any other. I call BS on that, because the logical implication is that people have nothing in common with each other, which is nonsense. As long as there are commonalities and regularities and universals, there can be theories about them.

Theories have value as a way of navigating the world, of making it intelligible. They're obviously imperfect models, but they allow us to make out the salient features of reality and note some important interrelationships. I applaud your support of history, but even historians themselves are given to theorizing.

Sperwer said...

Boy that's the first time anyone has called me pomo! And that's not my position. Yes, we all make generalizations about the world; that's how, as you say, we navigate it. But THOSE (very low order) generalizations are firmly grounded in our quotidian experience. The repository of that is history. It's a very different thing from the sort of thing done by self-described "theorists", among whom the latest representatives of the sickness ARE precisely post-modernists.

Kevin Kim said...

For what it's worth, I know you're not PoMo, but once we started wandering dangerously close to the badlands of There Is No General Theory, I was having flashbacks to grad-school PoMo indoctrination.

All I'm fighting for is the room to be able to theorize, at an admittedly superficial level, about certain human phenomena without being told that such theorization is somehow illegitimate—because, as far as I'm concerned, it isn't.

A more detailed theory, one that was more specific to Korean culture, would run counter to the point I was trying to make about how we might need to look more at pancultural explanations than at culture-specific explanations to understand the Sewol disaster.

Incompetence isn't unique to Korea; neither are cowardice, venality, or the urge to score political points in the midst of a deadly crisis. Obedience to authority isn't uniquely Korean, either. The bar for allowing specifically Korean culture into the discussion of the Sewol should, in my view, be set pretty high.

But I'm not saying that Korean culture has absolutely nothing to do with the disaster; cultural factors are undoubtedly part of the complex constellation of causes of the ferry's sinking and the loss of so many souls. But reducing the disaster to "Confucianism," etc., seems utterly simpleminded.

Sperwer said...

I agree, as I said before, that Confucianism in the hands of the usual suspects is just an empty abstraction signifying nothing. On the other hand, the specific history of Confucianism in Korea, including in particular it's double derogation, first as the legitimating ideology of the Chosun dynasty where it masked the rule by an aristocratic/bureaucratic elite that perpetuated itself in contravention of ostensible Confucian norms, then (after a period of criticism) as a legitimation of the authoritarianism of the Park Chung Hee regime in which the system of corrupt privilege of the Chosun era was perpetuated in the guise of a mercantalist/bureaucratic elite that also perpetuated itself in contravention of the ostensibly meritocratic norms, has a lot to do with what happened of Jindo Island. Turns out the the official of the maritime safety organization that was responsible for certifying the Sewol was a former employee of the shipping line - among other evidence of other instances of interpenetrative corporate and politco-bureaucratic corruption. This Korean culture of corruption is the offspring of Korean confucianism - not in the ideal sense of a tradition of discourse, but in the practical sense of a tradition of actual behaviours imprinted over long periods of time that was able to flourish in spite of - but in a very important sense precisely because of the deficiencies of - confucianism as practices in Korea. Sure, one can make pan-cultural comparisons - but I wonder if there could ever be an accident just such as this in, say, Germany but then they really arent "cultural" at all; they point to the frailties of "human nature". Which I think is as otiose as ascribing Sewol in a simple-minded way to Confucianism, because it provides no basis for making changes that will reduce, if not prevent, the likelihood of such disasters in the future.

Kevin Kim said...

The tool has to fit the task, I suppose. If the task is to fix a specific problem that occurred in Korea—in this case, making sure that no ferry disasters like this ever happen again—then yes, it makes perfect sense to dig into the specifics of Korean culture and history to look for practical answers. If, on the other hand, the task is to provide some sort of comprehensive explanation of what happened, then caution is required, as it's too easy to fall into the trap of saying, "This situation is unique and no insights gained from it can be applied to other contexts anywhere." Surely whatever is learned about the Sewol disaster can be applied elsewhere; other countries can take note and avoid similar pitfalls. Koreans are engaging in that speculative exercise right now, comparing this incident to what happened with the Costa Concordia and other such vessels.

Sperwer said...

What can be learned about Sewol - take proper safety measures - can be applied elsewhere. But how to ensure that they are in fact applied - and HOW that can be made to happen - depends entirely on local circumstances.

Kevin Kim said...

I'll assume this means we're in at least partial agreement.

Sperwer said...

I guess, but I don't see any "theory" involved in figuring out that safety standards and procedures are needed and need to be enforced and followed.

I wonder whether if someone remarked the absence of these sorts of accidents in Germany and someone attributed it to German culture if anyone would be confused about the meaning or object?

Kevin Kim said...

Getting back to my original post, the "theory" had to do with human psychology: the masses/crises notion that you had pooh-poohed earlier. I was looking for an explanation (just one among many) of the Sewol kids' passivity in the face of imminent danger.

My point in putting forward the pancultural-versus-local notion was to respond to the misguided, facile argument that the disaster reduces itself to elements of Korean culture ("Confucianism" and other so-called "magic words," as noted by Rob Ouwehand in his post on the topic of expat commentary on Korea).

There'd be a risk, in talking about "German culture," for stereotypes to take over—German mania for order, rationality, precision, and thoroughness, often to the exclusion of those qualities that make life worth living, such as joyfulness, beauty, and so on. So, jawohl, zee Germans vould be vairy scrupulous in zeir safety checks!

Or maybe I'm the only one who'd traffic in such crass stereotypes. Heh.

Sperwer said...

I've never really understood the fixation of those who try to connect` the kid's supposed obedience to Confucianism. If Confucianism is at play here, it's in many more fundamental elements - though, of course, it has something to do with the specific quality of obedience in Korea.

Is there anything more facile than the reduction of what happened to some generalized human nature. Both "theories" are equally risible.

I agree that stereotypes could take over in the German case - in fact they usually do when the discussion is, say, about WW2. But being familiar with a lot of the literature, I don't think it's reasonable to claim that it didn't in very important ways. Even the Germans accept that. Why do Koreans, who pretty regularly claim Confucianism as the root cause of things they consider good about their society/culture, so vociferously reject the notion that it also has something to do with what it despicable about it.

King Baeksu said...

The reason why the focus on Confucianism is such a distraction in this debate is because Korea's education system is obviously Prussian if anything:

"Modern compulsory schooling began in Prussia in 1819, the first time in human history that education was foisted upon a nation by force. The goals were simple: obedient soldiers to the army, subservient workers to the mines, submissive civil servants to the government, compliant clerks to industry and citizens who thought alike about major issues. The results were no doubt pleasing to the Prussian ruling elites; industry boomed and warfare was successful."

Sound familiar, anyone?

Forget Confucius, remember Fichte!


Kevin Kim said...

Are you going PoMo again? Postmodernists are the ones who deny that there's a human nature (ask Steven Pinker). They have fits when people start talking in terms of universals. They don't want to hear that people might actually share things in common. Come back to the light, Sperwer!

I reject that an appeal to a universal human nature is in any way risible. True: if challenged to define what that nature was, I'd have to think carefully and take a long time to delineate it, but I don't think such a nature doesn't exist.

The question, for me, is: What is it that you find objectionable/risible about the idea that people become sheep in crowd/mass situations as one possible explanation for the kids' behavior? Is it too trivial an explanation? Is it somehow wrong?

I think it would be hard to argue that such a speculation is wrong; history backs up the idea that people en masse often abdicate responsibility and go with the herd. The kids on the Sewol are themselves Exhibit A.

If the speculation is risible because it's trivial (a synonym for "screamingly obvious, thus not needing to be said" in this instance), I would disagree. Quite obviously, the Sewol-disaster commentariat has avoided pancultural explanations in favor of simplistic, 101-level observations about "Korean culture," whatever those folks actually mean by that. So, far from being trivial, I think my observation is an important corrective for those who are staring in the wrong direction in their search for sense.

Sperwer said...

Who said there was no human nature? My point is that, while as a bio-chemical-mechanical construct the idea of human nature has some legs, as a "theory" of social behaviour it's either trivial or just wrong. It's a classic case of "magic words" - "well, it's human nature after all. It's the same everywhere. SO much for that, let's move on ; (nothing to be done - except perhaps to remake human nature a la some techno-totalitarian scheme). As should also be clear, I'm not defending the "commentariat's" nonsense, but I find appeals to human nature, mass society, modernity equally fatuous.

Kevin Kim said...

Just as there's a right way and a wrong way to rope something like Confucianism into a discussion about the Sewol, I'd submit there's a right way and a wrong way to talk about human nature in the same context. A person could be heedless and sloppy, in the manner you describe, or he could appeal to the concept with due caution and proceed from there. My own appeal didn't go into any grandiose yarn-spinning about what I thought human nature was, nor did I imply that it was a vague and ghostly catchall term. Like you, I'm trying to be careful. We are, after all, talking mostly about dead kids.

King Baeksu said...

Commenting on the Prussian model that was brought to America in the 19th century, educator John Taylor Gatto writes in "Dumbing Us Down":

“The whole system was built on the premise that isolation from first-hand information and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers would result in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary orders.”

The Prussian model was also imported to Japan (and eventually to South Korea). Continuing with Gatto, another Japan-based commenter explains:

"He says the American educationists imported three major ideas from Prussia.

"The first was that the purpose of state schooling was not intellectual training but the conditioning of children “to obedience, subordination, and collective life.” Thus, memorization outranked thinking.

"Second, whole ideas were broken into fragmented “subjects” and school days were divided into fixed periods “so that self-motivation to learn would be muted by ceaseless interruptions.”

"Third, the state was posited as the true parent of children. All of this was done in the name of a scientific approach to education, although, Gatto says, “no body of theory exists to accurately define the way children learn, or what learning is of most worth.”


It would be interesting to investigate whether the importation of the Prussian model to South Korea happened mainly via Japan or the US. Anyone with knowledge in this area have thoughts on this?

In any case, I feel this is a far more relevant line of inquiry than the influence of Confucianism, especially since we are mainly talking about hundreds of high school students here whose behavior during the sinking of the Sewol largely followed the above described characteristics.

Kevin Kim said...

King Baeksu,

It's a tempting line of inquiry, but I wonder how far it can lead. I see, especially in my beginner classes, evidence of willfulness in many of my students, who often remind me of immature American high schoolers. They're easily distracted, have to be reminded multiple times not to use their cell phones in class (most are OK about this, but some seem truly addicted), and sometimes even act a bit surly. Some of them, the goofier ones, also have such trouble following directions that one wonders how they'd have the mental capacity to comply with announced directives.

Anyway, the Prussian theory does indeed sound like an interesting line of inquiry. I guess I'm just wondering whether it's a perfect match for squiggly, squirmy, often-nonlinear Korean kids. (Of course, it doesn't have to be a perfect match to be a workable theoretical model.)

King Baeksu said...

You are comparing 사과 with 귤.

We are talking about an emergency situation, not a classroom scenario in which bored students passive-aggressively rebel against a non-Korean teacher for whatever personal reasons they may have. In the military they are not going to behave that way, in the company or office they are not going to behave that way, at least not when their supervisors are around, and during a life-and-death emergency they are certainly not going to behave that way, either.

Interestingly, however, even though they followed the main "command" that was given them, they certainly were goofing off in the early minutes of the video you mention above. In that respect, they might be comparable to students who passive-aggressively goof off in class, even while following the larger "command" of keeping their ass in their seat instead of simply walking out the door.

King Baeksu said...

"Third, the state was posited as the true parent of children."

Although the present national mood of blaming Park Geun-hye for this tragedy has an element of political opportunism to it, at least in certain quarters, if we apply the above observation to the current situation here, quotes like the following make a great deal of sense:

“A government official stepping down to assume responsibility is not important,” one relative told Park. “They are your children, president. Of course they belong to me, but they also belong to you.”


Shouldn't a "mother" be held responsible if she doesn't take proper care of her "children"? Especially since she never married herself, what other children does she have than those of the nation, anyway?

Kevin Kim said...

But doesn't the Prussian model apply directly to classrooms, and doesn't that, by extension, somehow apply to the Sewol? Otherwise, why bring up the education model at all? So I think it's perfectly legitimate to bring up a classroom situation since we're talking, essentially, about an educational paradigm.

The argument seems to be this:

P1. A Prussian educational paradigm, exported to Korea, has had social ramifications beyond the academic context, including heedless, automatic compliance with directives in non-scholastic areas of life.

P2. The Sewol disaster is a non-academic context.

Conclusion. Korean students aboard the Sewol behaved in a "Prussian" manner.

I'm questioning P1 by noting that Korean kids don't always color inside the lines, as might be expected if they were truly following the Prussian paradigm to the letter. This same point was brought up in "What Not to Say About the Sewol Disaster." To wit:

"Are Korean students, generally speaking, somewhat more obedient than students in the west? Probably. But anyone who has taught them knows that they are far from being mindlessly obedient. And it is not hard for me to imagine a parallel situation, and so know how they would have acted.

If, for instance, I was teaching a classroom of Korean kids, and the school caught on fire, and I told them to stay in their seats, I am sure they would comply. But if we were on the ground floor, and there was a window in the classroom opening onto the playground, it would be a matter of seconds before my students started suggesting that maybe we should just go out the window. If I told them to stay in their seats as the flames continued to approach, they would argue with me fiercely. When it became obvious that my instructions were idiotic, they would ignore me and climb out the window."

Guys... it's after midnight and I'm still at the damn office. Gonna go home and get some sleep. If you want, I'll slug it out with you sometime tomorrow. Feel free to pile on the comments in the meantime. I can't guarantee I'll address every single point made.

Kevin Kim said...

Oh, yeah: if you comment while I'm asleep, then your comments obviously won't appear until I wake up and approve them. Sorry, but I have a comments policy and I weed out both spam comments and assholes.

King Baeksu said...

I think you need to reread the quotes about the Prussian model I gave above. Its principles or methods are implemented and applied in the classroom but they are meant to instill socialized behavior that carries over into adult lives: Their function is to produce a docile workforce for big business and the state, essentially. School is not the end, it is simply a means.

Kevin Kim said...

[Part 1 of 2]

Home from the office. Thought I'd pound this out.

I think that items 1 and 2, in the quotes you gave me, support the idea that the Prussian model starts in school and has ramifications that radiate outward, which is how I summarized it ("social ramifications beyond the academic context"). Item 3, however, is different in nature, claiming, as it does, that the state serves as the mother. That's an all-pervasive dynamic, so I'll concede, at least to that extent, that something more is going on than just intramural indoctrination that leads to socialization. In the Prussian system, the socializing forces exist beyond the school's walls.

But the evidence needs to be there for the Koreans-as-Prussians theory to hold water. There is indeed some evidence that Korean kids are following the Prussian model, but as I quoted above (from the Waegukin's blog), Korean kids don't act Prussian in all contexts. The Waegukin specifically addresses your apples/oranges remark by providing a hypothetical emergency situation (school fire) and plausibly describing how actual Korean kids would act in that situation: as thinking, free beings. In other words, it wasn't inevitable that the kids aboard the Sewol would suffer the fate they did. They could have acted very differently.

Granted, freedom and its absence are key issues. Koreans themselves often recognize the stifling sociocultural situation in which they find themselves. One thing I find incredible is how openly the emigration services advertise themselves in Korean newspapers. As an American, I find it unthinkable that I'd ever give up my US citizenship, but droves of Koreans long to do just that with their own citizenship, probably because they're sick of stifling, rat-race conformity. Perhaps they're sick of being trapped inside the Prussian model, but if enough people are that exasperated and that desperate to get out of Korea, is the model itself a good descriptor for what's happening in Korean culture? Korea is a society with a strong desire for more freedom. Paradoxically, it commits itself to the rat race while also yearning for liberation from it.

Kevin Kim said...

[Part 2 of 2]

Surely the Prussian model assumes not merely conformity but a certain amount of "buy-in" to the system: good Prussians want to be Prussian. Koreans don't necessarily buy in to their own system.

So again, I say that this is an interesting theory, but I do have my doubts as to how well one can map Koreans onto Prussians so as to be able to predict their behavior, consistently and reliably, in crisis situations.

It's funny, because I feel almost as if I'm arguing, with you, the flip-side of what I'm arguing with Sperwer. With Sperwer, I'm appealing to universals and saying that insights from one culture can indeed map onto another culture, assuming those insights are at a high enough level of abstraction. With you, I'm not exactly rejecting the Prussian theory, but I'm expressing caution as to its overly hasty application to the Sewol disaster.

I am large; I contain multitudes. And I have a career in politics ahead of me.

The best test of rigor for a theory is whether it can consistently predict something. Theories of human behavior that can predict the behavior of large numbers of people (several dozen to several billion) are the Golden Bough for many thinkers in various fields. Alas, the Prussian theory would require us to follow disaster after disaster in Korea if we're to confirm it—and those disasters would have to have much in common with the Sewol disaster for the data to be at all meaningful: we'd have to be looking at the mass death of many teens in situations where an authority figure (or figures) has ordered compliance that leads to greater harm.

It's a real question, then, as to whether such a theory can even be confirmed. What would count as evidence for the theory? Where would our control group be? Is there a helpful algorithm for predicting the place, time, and nature of subsequent disasters? Even the thought, "Let's see whether this theory holds water," seems somewhat ghoulish.

So along with evidentiary difficulties, there are methodological difficulties. As fascinating claims go, this is one of the most fascinating. But as testable theories go... how do we even begin to test this?

King Baeksu said...

The Prussian model is just a factor to consider, an important one, to be sure, but not a totalizing theory.

What I will say for now is that while the Prussian model has been widely implemented in the US as well as Korea and Japan, in the US there are the countervailing forces of racial and ethnic diversity and a tradition of individualism. Japan and Korea, on the other hand, get the hierarchical social model of Confucianism on top of their ethnic homogeneity. So it's a triple whammy of fairly rigid social control for the both of them.

Anyway, I'm not so interested in The Waegukin's example. He's not Korean and is presumably young, so kids will interact with him differently, and his example is purely hypothetical. How does he really know how kids will react in an imaginary situation, anyway? It's just a guess, I'd say.

I think there are other factors that can be added to the mix, such as the Baudrillardian theory of present-day hyperreality: How well were the students trained or conditioned growing up to differentiate reality from fantasy? Watching that video suggests that some of them did not really grasp the reality of the situation they were in, and again one is reminded of the Prussian model as described above: "isolation from first-hand information and fragmentation of the abstract information." There's no doubt that it was an overwhelming experience for most of them, and the reason they perished is because they were unable to see the bigger picture in their own minds.

And so the question remains: Who's fault was that?

Sperwer said...

Wow, this excursion into the (supposed) influence of the Prussian educational model is a great illustration of my point about the vacuity of "theory". Baeksu starts out proposing it as an hypothesis with some appropriate qualifications. And although he winds up with a few more cautions about taking it as a totalizing theory, he ends with the claim that the Prussian model has been widely implemented in the US as well as Korea and Japan. All without a fly speck of actual evidence or even references to such.

To be fair, I think there is evidence of its adoption, adaptation and implementation in Japan. The Imperial Rescript on Education promulgated by the Meiji Emperor in 1890, like the Japanese Constitution itself and the Japanese Civil Code, was explicitly designed to bring the perceived advantages of German models to the task of Japanese modernization - although it's important to bear in mind that the German models were chosen because it was deemed more in keeping with the Japanese framers' pre-existing predilection for creating a highly centralized unitary state and using the monarchy and education to bind people to it in a sort of exercise in internal colonization; i.e., Inoue and Motoda et al didn't get the basic idea from Prussia; only some programmatic guidelines to be adapted to produce a similar but still pretty uniquely Japanese result.

Did the Prussian model thus affect Korea through the medium of Japanese colonization. Not so much. Bear in mind that Japan maintained two systems of schools in colonial Korea - one for Japanese officials' and settlers' families and one for Koreans. Also bear in mind that the Korean system didn't go beyond primary school, and didn't really get rolling until late in the Great Pacific war, when Japanese manpower needs prompted expansion of what heretofore was a system that only reached a very small percentage of the Korean population to produce conscripts capable of following orders in Japanese. Meanwhile, despite pressures that increased as the war progressed, the principal modern (Western) educational "system" was really a loose network of schools run by various American, Canadian and English Protestant groups (and a much smaller and infinitely less modern" effort by the French Catholic missionaries) according to their own respective lights.

Which brings us to the alleged American transmission belt for the importation of Prussian schooling into Korea. As should be obvious, however, the principal extraneous influence on the Protestant and Catholic educational missions was religious, and rather than serving state interests they generally actively or passively resisted doing so (the Catholics being an exception in just trying to stay aloof). That's why there was so much resistance to them by orthodox Confucians and even would-be modernizers during the late Chosun and why the Japanese colonial authorities increasingly made life difficult for them. Most of the bona fide opponents of Japanese colonialism after 1905 were Korean Protestants. Moreover, imo it's a bit of a stretch that snaps credulity to claim that Prussian education was widely implemented in the US. Although it had some outspoken proponents - if I remember correctly Horace Mann was one - America, remember, had no single govt instrumentality interested or capable of enforcing a single educational orthodoxy in 50 states each with sovereign control of local matters such as education, actual responsibility for which was usually devolved to the city and county level. The only area of American education that was thoroughly Germanized was post-graduate education, where a cadre of American scholars who had obtained PhDs in the German university system imported the system into the US wholesale.

Kevin Kim said...


For what it's worth, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has talked up the "reparadigming" of American education by noting, in interviews, that our education system owes much to the Prussian model (both Prussia and Horace Mann are mentioned here, for example, along with "Mann's Americanized Prussian model"). Reynolds, for one, seems convinced that the Prussian paradigm infuses American education and needs to be eradicated.

But I'll let King Baeksu speak for himself. You're both sufficiently intellectual that you can provide each other with hours of entertainment. All I ask is that you gents keep it civil, respectful, and well-reasoned. You're both on my foyer, so I'm responsible for keeping things running smoothly.

Kevin Kim said...

King Baeksu left the following comment, which I've redacted.


I have another essay to write and consider Sperwer a humorless, condescending interlocutor in the main, therefore I'm out of here. For the record, however, I've been working as an educator in South Korea since 1996 and have wide experience in the Japanese and American education systems as well. To dispute the influence of the Prussian model on all three countries merely illustrates your own ignorance on the subject -- or more likely intellectual bad faith -- more than anything else.

But thanks for the history lesson, anyway. Not that you had anything of interest to say about the Sewol tragedy itself.


I debated whether to even publish this comment, then decided to invoke a murky clause in my comments policy that permits me to edit comments as I see fit. This comment required a tiny bit of de-fanging, for civility's sake.

KB, you said you're outta here, so I'll wish you happy trails. Everyone else, Sperwer included: I think it's time to close up shop on this thread, so I'll be deactivating comments for this post. We're all talked out here.