Education: Paik's Progress

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When South Korea's Minister of Education George Paik first ordered his country's schools reopened last December, teachers and principals alike were ready to throw up their hands in despair. Nearly all of South Korea's schools and colleges had been closed during the Communist invasion; 40% of their buildings were bombed and shelled beyond repair; many others were left in shambles by retreating troops. But when principals protested to Paik that there were not enough school buildings left to go around, the minister stood firm. "Start schools outdoors," he commanded. "Hold classes in riverbeds, on mountainsides—anywhere."

By last week, as superintendents arrived from all over South Korea for a special education meeting in Pusan, they had surprising progress to report. As a result of Paik's insistence, some 60% of Korea's pupils were back in classes and nearly two-thirds of the nation's schools and colleges were back in operation. It was a record that a few months before had seemed impossible.

Open-Air Classrooms. The teachers had taken Paik's orders literally. Pusan's temporary Union College was meeting in the civil auditorium, studying up to the moment when movies were shown in the afternoon. On one hillside just outside of town, a girls' high school was holding forth in the shadow of a Japanese shrine, primary classes were meeting in a dried-up rivulet, and a boys' school was holding classes in a glen at the foot of the hill.

Elsewhere in South Korea, there were schools in railway stations, in gutted houses, in tents and in cemeteries. With or without books ("Teach from life!" Paik had ordered his bookless teachers), students were flocking again to classes in geography, math, English, science, art and civics. The girls helped to support their schools by raising chickens and selling eggs; the boys were beginning to rebuild their classrooms. At Andong, students have already made themselves three new school buildings of basket-woven sides plastered with mud.

Changing Spirit. For Minister Paik, the reopening of the schools is only the first part of a long-range plan he has for Korea. A Protestant educated in China and the U.S. (an M.A. in history at Princeton, a Ph.D. at Yale), he is doing his best to pull the Korean school system out of its old ruts. So far he has been unable to convince the National Assembly that local schools should be run and financed by their own school boards. But he has succeeded in restoring the study of Chinese characters to the curriculum—a reform designed to reduce Korean provincialism by teaching the universal writing of the Orient—and has already started introducing vocational training ("one skill for each person") in all high schools.

In time, Paik hopes to change the whole spirit of his country's schools. Students still suffer from the habits left by the 4O-year occupation of the Japanese. They still bow low to their teachers, rarely dare to question them. They still wear uniforms and caps marked with their school grade. They depend entirely on formal lectures, only to parrot them back on examinations.

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