[Kim Seong-kon] Elegy for the humanities

By Kim Seong-kon
  • Published : May 7, 2019 - 17:11
  • Updated : May 7, 2019 - 17:11

Recently, I read a perceptive article that the famous basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote for the Guardian. It was entitled, “The way Americans regard sports heroes versus intellectuals speaks volumes.” In this insightful article, Abdul-Jabbar defended the hopelessly waning humanities, lamenting Americans’ infatuation with famous athletes and disrespect for intellectual giants. It was a pleasant surprise that an internationally well-known athlete emphasized the importance of the humanities and the intellectual in his article.
The intriguing article begins with the following passage: “On 9 April 1980 more than 50,000 Parisians marched through the streets to mourn the loss of one of their own. Was it for a famous pop star, a beloved politician or a nationally treasured athlete? Nope, it was the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existential philosopher and the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.” Abdul-Jabbar continues, “In America, that mass public display of grief and affection is reserved for pop culture icons, not unapologetic intellectuals.”

Perhaps it is only natural that Americans admire pop culture icons more than intellectual giants because America was born as a pop culture country from the beginning. It was Leslie A. Fielder who pointed out that even the American revolution was a pop revolution, the first of its kind in human history. Indeed, unlike the French Revolution, which was inspired by noble causes such as equality, liberty, and fraternity, the American revolution was ignited by the Boston Tea Party, a conflict caused by the heavy tariff imposed by the British government on America’s imported tea.

On the contrary, Korea was a country of the humanities until recently. In fact, people’s respect for the humanities was predominant in Korean society for 500 years from 1392 to 1910. Under the heavy influence of Confucianism, Koreans valued the humanities and its education at home and school. Therefore, intellectual heroes were much respected and admired in Korea in the past. At that time, pop culture or sports belonged to the lower-class.

Unfortunately, those days are gone now. These days, most Koreans are crazy about sports, especially soccer and baseball, and admire athletes very much. Sports stars are not only icons and role models for the young but also enjoy all kinds of privileges. For example, if an athlete can kick a soccer ball skillfully or swing a baseball bat well, he will be exempted from his mandatory military duty. On the contrary, scholars of the humanities cannot possibly have such a privilege no matter how outstanding they are.

Pop-culture idols, too, are worshipped by young people in today’s Korea. When a K-pop star comes to a university to perform on a stage, it is always standing room only. However, when an intellectual giant comes for a lecture, students are not interested at all. Most of the time, they have to be dragged into the lecture hall, threatened by attendance checks that will affect their grades. Naturally, they would not listen to the scholar no matter how eminent he is; they just sit there, texting or updating their Facebook or Instagram until the lecture ends. Sometimes, they do not even bother to lift their faces to look at the famous lecturer during the entire lecture.

To make matters worse, graduates of the College of Humanities find it very hard to get a job these days. Few companies would want those who majored in the humanities. Employers tend to think of those humanists as useless employees who do not have any useful skills. Moreover, students are reluctant to enter graduate school, because it will take many years to earn an advanced degree, and yet there is still no guarantee of becoming a faculty member at a university these days. Alas! Our great tradition of the humanities seems to have vanished completely.

The situation is equally bad for American universities. Professor Michael Szalay, chair of the English Department at the University of California, Irvine, recently told me that when there is opening for an assistant professor, there are usually 400 Ph.D. applicants pouring in. But he also said that about 40 percent of UCI Ph.D.s are landing on a tenure-track position. Thus, you still have a chance if you belong to the upper 40 percent at UC Irvine. In Korea, it seems much worse because you need to wait for a long time until you find an opening.

The problem is that if we disrespect the humanities, we lose humanism and humanity in our society. Then our society will falter from the lack of ethics and morality and suffer the consequences such as extreme materialism, sexual dissipation, and social corruption. The so-called Burning Sun scandal is one good example. In fact, there are a plethora of social problems derived from our disrespect of the humanities, such as contempt for elders and minorities, embezzlement of public funds and swindling. Indeed, all sorts of indecent and unethical things can happen in a society that disregards and dismisses the humanities. To build a better society, we desperately await the renaissance of the humanities.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.