Berkowitz on Liberal Education and Korea's Future

After a week-long visit to South Korea to lecture on The Federalist at Yonsei University's Underwood International College (UIC), Professor Peter Berkowitz expressed his belief that historically informed liberal education will allow students in both America and South Korea to understand and benefit from the convergence of both nations' interests, while also recognizing the differences between representative democracy and totalitarian dictatorship.

The UIC is South Korea's only four-year, English language undergraduate degree program and represents approximately 200 of the Yonsei University's 29,000 students. Along with Seoul National University and Korea University, Yonsei is one of the nation's three most prestigious universities.

Teaching The Federalist in South Korea, National Review Online, February 29, 2008. By Peter Berkowitz.

"What, I wondered, did South Korean students and professors think about freedom and democracy, and what were their attitudes toward America? The conventional wisdom holds that, since the invasion of Iraq, anti-Americanism has soared around the world. At the same time, an all-too-pervasive multiculturalism implies that this anti-Americanism is perfectly reasonable, since all cultures are equal -- except for Western culture, particularly as embodied in America, which is peculiarly vulgar and unjust.

"But the classroom discussions and conversations that I enjoyed at Yonsei University confirmed for me that South Koreans do not fit the American intellectual class's complacent conceptions. What little anti-Americanism I found there did not run deep. Certainly, students complain about the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and about our large military base occupying prime real estate in the center of Seoul. But ask them what impact the departure of the U.S. military would have on young men's already lengthy two-year mandatory military service, and they will quickly acknowledge the importance of the America alliance.

"To be sure, South Korea's 680,000-man military is modern and powerful. And a wide consensus favors Seoul's continuation of the ten-year-old policy of engagement with North Korea: The main disagreement between the leading political parties is over how aggressively to proceed. Few doubt, however, that America's military presence provides a crucial deterrent to Kim Jong Il's one million troops, nuclear weapons, offensive missiles, and enormous installations of heavily fortified long-range artillery aimed at Seoul a mere 30 miles south of the DMZ.

"Nor is South Korea's alliance with America strictly military. South Koreans may complain about American presumption, power, and influence, but wealthy South Korean parents still spend lavishly to teach their children English and hope to send their children to the States for college. And South Korea's hypercompetitive young people still want to travel to America, buy American, and dress American.

"In the view of my host, Dr. Jongryn Mo, founder and dean of Underwood International College, these entanglements are good for South Korea. A staunch believer that South Korea's future depends on globalization and westernization, his fledgling program -- it opened its doors in the fall of 2006 -- aims to equip students to harness those forces.

"UIC's 200 English-speaking undergraduates represent only a tiny fraction of Yonsei University's 29,000 students. Located in northern Seoul, where that city of 10 million climbs into the jagged mountains surrounding it, Yonsei -- along with Seoul National University and Korea University -- is one of South Korea's three most prestigious universities. Graduate from one of them and your place in the elite is assured for life. Attend a lesser university, and you are forever barred from the best corporate jobs. This rigidity represents, according to Dr. Mo (who holds a B.A. from Cornell and a Ph.D. from Stanford Business School), a crucial obstacle to liberal and democratic development in South Korea.

"Liberal education is key to South Korea's future, in Mo's view. The UIC curriculum, with its no-nonsense focus on basics, could teach a thing or two about requirements and rigor to many American colleges and universities. Mo boasts that his students, many of whom learned their English abroad, are the equal of those in the Ivy League. On the basis of my exposure to them at welcoming and closing dinners, during eight hours of seminar discussion, and in the give-and-take at a public lecture, I have to agree."

Read the article