Matt Smith

A philosophical dilemma

Should getting a job be given precedence over pursuit of social justice?


I was quite interested in Steve Schertzer’s article this month, he eloquently made his point – I can readily empathise, too, with where he is coming from, considering that Korea is awash with teachers whose principal concern is not to stick with this career but rather to travel and/or make money, if you took things seriously you would probably want to throw your hands into the air. I can side with him a little on the issue of the left-wing ‘intellectuals’ as well – having landed on generally left-wing arguments as those most appropriate to the analysis of society myself, I must say that in furthering my knowledge of these things I have often had the feeling there are an extraordinary number of supposed leftists who at the heart of things are really quite mainstream, but who have learnt that ‘walking the walk’, and ‘talking the talk’ can earn them a kind of social brownie point. Or, perhaps I should say, who imagine that talking the talk and walking the walk elevates their intrinsic human value – if you are at the heart of it mainstream, but you want to don the mantle of progressivism (some would say alternavism, of course), your ‘resistance’ to the system can only be expressed in certain ways, any one of which a real enlightenment activist would point out fundamentally changes nothing of importance, or any one of which the same activists suggest is really a bourgeois pursuit because it is (quite apart from how these people identifiably retain core mainstream beliefs and behaviours) ‘resistance’ that is contained and controlled by, and that all too often has already been turned to the ends of, said system – any real increase in social status that accrues from this kind of colonisation of the left can only be because there is a club of like-minded people who are going to cheer you into the fold, and of course given the nature of such ‘left-wing’ aspirations we can only say that in combination this club are imagining there is something worthwhile about what they think and do. We can see, too, from where the momentum to congratulate each other derives – if I didn’t overlook your obviously brainwashed, self-interested and conservative core attributes, and coo excessively about how wonderful your hokey artworks, music, writings or supposedly progressive opinions were, then I would be removing the platform from the very tool I myself use (in relation to a worldview that says everyone is different, and that following on from this convenient ‘logic’, that says some people are better than others) to show how much better I am than everybody else.

Anyway, the thing is, I guess the more conservative the society in general, the more left-wingers there are that originate from it that are not in fact left-wingers at all, but who are in fact right-wingers masequerading as left-wingers to make themselves look good (or to obtain for themselves a sense of worth when otherwise they have failed to attain any of the usual benchmarks) – if a conservative society was going to actively encourage the resistance, we can assume that this is the type of resistance it is going to prefer, because if it pumps out this kind of ‘resistance’ in droves there is the opportunity to gain considerable agreement that this is an enlightened society, or to camouflage its real nature in this way, without heading in any truly enlightened directions at all. Furthermore, we might imagine that, in a world that for the most part has been dictated by hard-core right-wingers of late, who while they appreciate the excuse pseudo-left-wingers give them to look down on the left really have little other use for them…we might imagine that in this world a lot of these bourgeois leftists would find it difficult to get a job – when you look at the strata of Western teachers in Korea, we could perhaps make a fair argument that this kind of person is very heavily represented. And of course as I think Steve managed to very tellingly show, they do get up your nose, as I hope I have gone some ways towards explaining here myself he has every right to make an argument that their intervention in Korean society would likely be a very damaging one.

However (and here it is)…However, I do not think people should leave Steve’s article with the impression that the project of injecting a bit of enlightened feminism (or any sort of enlightened discourse around race, class etc.) into the Korean classroom is something we should altogether steer clear of. Or, that there aren’t Korean people in their education system who wished that somebody would come and save them by encouraging a bit more of this overall. He has brushed over Korean women’s body image issues as though they are a natural part of growing up, and yes I agree that a middle school classroom is hardly the place to focus on radical tertiary-level Western feminist writings – however, something that struck me as an absolute tragedy when I taught in Korea myself, and that continues to sadden me as I see how heavily my own wife’s behaviours are dictated by a psychological requirement to conform to Korean norms around beauty and female respectability (she is reluctant to chat with people on our webcam, for example, or to go anywhere, even to the beach, without ‘putting on a face’ - i.e. she readily forgoes enjoyment for the sake of appearance), is how from the earliest age Korean women are crammed into this draconian, super-conservative old-world social mould. I noted, for example, that on the girl’s desks at middle and high school they have, usually on top of their study equipment, a mirror, a hairbrush and cosmetics – they would frequently zone out during the class to toy with these things, or would become lost for hours contemplating and organising their personal appearance – that a focus on this in the classroom is considered as natural for them as a focus on education (and that it should retain sufficient value in later life to endorse the continuity of the behaviour), as I thought particularly Steve might have noticed, in my opinion subverts the course of their growing up, and if I condoned it wouldn’t, I feel, make me very much of a teacher. I guess what I am trying to say here is this – I thought, like the line our immigration and business leaders in Australia feed us, that Korea was a developed country (or, on the other hand, that if it was Thailand style developed, that like Thailand we would find it redeemed itself through a tangible social emphasis on co-operation and compassion). However, the more I have got to know about Korea, the more I realise how here is a perfect example of how the technologies that scientific enlightenment provides can be used to augment tradition, or give the old-world the semblance of the new – as a matter of fact, the conservative traditions of stratified agrarian society are more strongly represented in Korea than anywhere else I have come across, leading me to the conclusion that the best general depiction of this society at present is as a threat to global human progress. You can say of this what you will – the point I am trying to make is simply that science shows us that age is not a reliable indicator in this day and age of knowledge; that black people are not inferior; that a stratified society is not a natural or acceptable thing; that women are not biologically ordained to fit the miserable role capitalist society shoves them in; that our commitments to our species as a whole are more important than family or so-called racial ties; that the Korean people are not a homogeneous ‘race’ in the first place; and a whole bunch of other things that run very contrary to what the Korean people, in my direct experience and as I believe I could very easily demonstrate through analysis of their cultural products, are in general, or as a general population, very strongly thinking.

In short, in other words, the only thing that has in any way managed to drag my own society out of the terrible morass to which history consigned it are the principles of scientific enlightenment, and in particular how they apply to things like class, race, gender and so on – if we are to agree with modern anthropology and say that here in Korea we have exactly the same sort of society, but we are to observe that it has less developed critical traditions, the same responsibility we must take on in the Western classroom – that is, to give young people other options, or to show how enlightened people see the world – becomes just as important for us in Korea as it does back home. While it would most definitely be imperialistic, I mean, to say that Korea needs Western progress from a conservative or pseudo-leftist perspective – that is, while it would definitely be imperialistic to say you Korean girls need to become like Western girls if you’re the kind of Westerner who thinks that females in Western society today are in any real way freed from the chains of the past, or in any real way generally enlightened, as just one example…while I recognise the implicit imperialism in ESL teaching in Korea that people like Steve are worried about, can we not leave room to say that a teacher could gently obviate the faults implicit to certain traditional views in ESL classrooms abroad, while at the same time extrapolating on and encouraging more progressive understandings? Are we to forego altogether, that is, the concept of promoting enlightenment as a teaching ideal?

The dilemma we end up at, I guess, being this then – how much of a focus on combating tradition should we adopt? Again, I find myself agreeing with Steve – if challenging Korean tradition is more important to the teacher than efficiently providing students with the basics, or if this becomes the foremost goal in the teacher’s mind, something is definitely awry. We might even go so far as to say, in fact, that if one is so zealous about this project that you leave people in any way resentful of you, you’ve probably exceeded the limits of your job description (not to mention have let Korea get to you too much, it’s time to leave). Also, as mentioned already, middle school isn’t the place for strictly tertiary level discourse, the kids are still being built up to that level. But, there are other, more passive and more constructive things you can do. If you don’t like your students foregoing lesson time to primp, devise an activity aimed at their level that gets them to think about the comparative values of how the different types of activity they’re engaged in in the classroom are going to serve them later in life, and to discuss the social justice of this – use constructivist learning, familiarise them with the problem, and then get them to go through for themselves the possible solutions (if you can’t do this in a meaningful way for middle school students, I’d say lack of inventiveness and a patronising attitude towards your students has been plaguing your teaching all along). Probably, this would be the first step – then, the more general strategy it becomes sensible to adopt, one whereby we positively represent females in ways that are simultaneously out of the traditional mould, but that are very believable, in our course materials, would take on an added valency, because as you kept bringing up examples of females that didn’t fit the norm the girls might contemplate more seriously just how it is that they’ve escaped it (raise their metacognitive awareness of the issue, that is, then the steps one takes against it become more meaningful). It gets back to this, I guess – the argument in the ESL literature is that, for those who have the nous to spot it, often even the simplest materials we employ in teaching, and the simplest pedagogies we devise, are strongly enculturing students with dubious traditions. The solution isn’t, of course, to shove your objections down children’s throats, but to oh-so-gently rectify the imbalance.

And in fact there is a lot of evidence to show that students like challenging the status quo, because it is often young people who still retain the presence of mind to ask questions about why things happen to be the way they are, rather than simply consigning themselves to them – if you go about it in the right way, as well as being something that we should perhaps encourage on the grounds of teacher ethics, you will most likely find your students become even more interested in your lessons.

At any rate, there endeth the spiel – if nothing else I just wanted to make the point that not everyone trying to get a bit of progressivism in the classroom is perhaps a total idiot, surely there should be encouragement to do this, albeit in a well-considered way. Which might be what Steve thinks for all I know, he just got me to thinking.

Yours Sincerely,

Matt Smith




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