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[Kim Seong-kon] The last thing we learn in this world

By Korea Herald

Published : May 15, 2024 - 05:31

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We keep learning until we breathe our last breath on earth. No matter how old and erudite we are, there are always new things we need to learn. Learning continues even after graduating from school and becoming a grown-up. Many things around us constantly change and we have to keep up with them.

Our language is a good example. The usage of vocabulary or verbal expressions constantly changes and we need to catch up. When I taught at Brigham Young University in the US in the 1990s, my colleague, professor Rhee Ho-nam, asked me one day: “Professor Kim, the students in my class keep saying, ‘it sucks,’ these days. What does it mean?” Although Rhee’s English was as good as a native speaker, he had to learn the expressions of young people that had become fashionable then.

We may assume that older people are wise and thus young people need to listen to their advice. However, older people’s advice may be often outdated and no longer valid in these rapidly and radically changing times. For example, older people might mistakenly advise young people not to drive right away after turning on the ignition, but wait for the engine to warm up. Equally erroneous advice would be: “You must be cautious of the engine overheating.” Modern technology has now taken care of these problems.

Instead of trying to give advice to young people, older people should perhaps try to learn from them. In his essay, “Borges and I,” John Barth, the late American postmodern novelist who had taught at Johns Hopkins University, wrote, “Sometimes, we learn from our students.” Barth begins the essay by reminiscing that, thanks to one of his students in class, he came to know the legendary Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who later became a main literary influence on him. Indeed, even teachers can learn from their students.

In his essay titled, “Spring,” the celebrated Korean essayist Pi Chun-deuk, too, wrote, “When you grow older, they say that you gain tranquility, free from the impetuousness and agonies of the youth. ... However, the so-called 'tranquility' of older people is often nothing but languor and indifference to the world. That is to say, it is merely a sad comforting remark on old people’s lethargic intellect and dull sensitivity.” He wrote this when he was old, and yet, he was modest enough not to boast older people’s wisdom.

Traditionally in Korean society, older people have enjoyed vested authority, privileges and respect, thanks to Confucian traditions, especially when they deal with the younger people. Unfortunately, those days are gone now. These days, young people do not revere older people simply because they are older. In particular, considering our ever-advancing digital technology, older people no longer look wise, but clumsy, in the eyes of younger people. In the past, the young learned from the old. These days, however, the old have to learn from the young.

Recently in Korea, older people in their 70s and 80s have become deeply disappointed in the perceived shallowness of younger people who are preoccupied with their smartphones all day long, seldom read books, and voted for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea in the recent National Assembly election. The old conservatives lament that younger people impetuously voted for what they consider to be pro-North Korean socialists simply because they do not like the ruling People Power Party, without consideration for their country’s future. Disillusioned with the young generation, older people lament that the young and reckless have become monsters that are ruining their country.

The older generation's complaints remind us of Richard Matheson’s insightful novel, “I Am Legend.” Matheson wrote the novel in 1954 amid the clashes between McCarthyism and communism in American society. The protagonist Robert Neville survives a strange virus that has turned all others into vampire/zombie-like monsters. It is, indeed, hard to avoid a comparison between the virus and a radical ideology that brainwashes people and turns them into monsters.

In the novel, Neville believes that he is the last and only guardian of civilization and that the monsters represent the madness to which society is descending. Later, however, Neville comes to realize that in the eyes of the monsters, he himself represents the extinct species that hampers a new civilization. He belatedly realizes that the monsters have already begun a new era and thus he is the one who is now obsolete and must vanish. It is then that he wails: “I am legend!” The novel tells us that older people should learn the fact that the future belongs to what they might consider “monster-like” young people, not to them, no matter what they choose.

Of course, young people, too, will become old someday. Thus, it is the sad, but inevitable circle of life. Perhaps, the last thing we all learn in this world is “I am legend!”

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 the writer’s own. -- Ed.