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[Kim Seong-kon] Teaching is not simply a profession

May 15 is Teachers’ Day in Korea. Unfortunately, our inconsiderate politicians have ruined this special day by prohibiting the beautiful custom of students’ giving a red carnation to their teachers as a token of gratitude. It is nothing but a symbolic gesture of expressing students’ appreciation of their teachers’ teaching and guidance. For some inscrutable reason, however, our hopelessly opinionated politicians think of it as a bribe.

Last week, the US media reported an incident at an American elementary school. On a 7-year-old boy’s math test, his teacher wrote, “Absolutely pathetic.” Finding the hurtful comment on his young son’s test, the boy’s father was enraged and immediately took to social media to complain. The incident brought up lively discussions on the role of a teacher: “Is teaching merely a profession, or a divine calling?”

Many people believe that teaching is not simply a career, but a sacred calling. It means that not everyone can or should become a teacher. Only those who love and are dedicated to teaching children and youth should become teachers. In addition, only those who have a strong sense of responsibility and a code of conduct should become an educator, as well. James Rhine, who wrote the article on the above incident, argues: “Teachers must live up to a certain standard and a code of conduct that they must live up to and one in which even students are subject to.”

Rhine observes that when we hand over our children to teachers every morning, it is with the implied hope and expectation that our next generation will be better than the last. However, can we really trust the teachers who are in charge of our children’s education and future? What if they are politically radical and biased, and try to brainwash our innocent young children with their radical political ideology? If so, they might turn our children into parochial jingoists or ultranationalists, despite our era of globalism. Surely, such narrow-minded teachers would ruin the future of our young children.

We can tolerate teachers’ lack of knowledge, but we cannot allow them to distort history and misguide our children for political gain. Under no circumstances, should a teacher try to influence his fledgling students with his political ideology. A teacher should teach both the merits and downsides of political ideologies and let students have their own opinions after class discussions, group debates, and personal contemplations. Meanwhile, he should not impose his own opinions or force his ideological stance on his vulnerable students. Only teachers at a terrorists’ school would do such a thing.

Recently, Korean newspapers reported that an unknown organization clandestinely tried to brainwash secondary school students with radical feminism. Feminism is common sense and a perfectly acceptable viewpoint, so nothing is wrong with teaching it at school. However, when teachers try to dogmatize or indoctrinate their students with radical feminism as “an ideology” to instigate hatred between men and women, that is a different story. How something is taught matters just as much as the content.

Due to Confucian custom, teachers have been highly esteemed in Korean society. Therefore, Koreans seldom forget their former teachers and correspond with them long after graduation. Especially on Teachers’ Day, many Koreans remember their former teachers and write to them in appreciation of their teaching and guidance. In Korea, therefore, there is no such expressions as “She was my teacher,” or “She is my former teacher.” Koreans always say with respect and affection, “She is my teacher.”

Everybody has a memorable teacher. I, too, have two unforgettable mentors who have been my guiding constellations. Leslie A. Fiedler, who was my doctoral dissertation director at the State University of New York at Buffalo, taught me to stand in the middle, avoiding both extremes, whenever caught in a fight between the left and the right, or highbrow culture and lowbrow culture. He also taught me to “cross the border and close the gap,” a priceless lesson that I have cherished all through my life.

Edward W. Said, who was my academic adviser at Columbia University, taught me to become a spiritual exile and a border intellectual, standing in the middle. Therefore, he taught me how to become a man for whom every soil is his native one and at the same time, every country including his own is a foreign land. Said was a self-appointed exile. He was a left intellectual, but not a Marxist. He was of Palestinian origin, but not a Muslim; he was a Christian. Said criticized both Western imperialism and ultranationalism.

A good teacher would not train his students to be prejudiced extremists. Instead, he would encourage his students to become open-minded, global citizens instead of narrow-minded nationalists. Unfortunately, in our schools some of our teachers are exercising an overbearing ideological influence on our innocent children. They should know that a teacher is a pathfinder for his students, not a brainwasher. Teaching is much more than a simple profession. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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