With so few buildings left standing during the Korean War, exasperated teachers asked my grandfather where they should hold class. He told them to teach outside. “Hold classes on riverbeds, on mountainsides — anywhere,” he said. Without books, he instructed teachers to “teach from life.” And so they did.
In 1950, the Korean conflict escalated into an international war. Later referred to as the “coldest winter,” it was a time of frostbite and bloodshed. Soldiers and citizens died in brutal, subzero temperatures while threats of atomic warfare and World War 3 loomed. About 40 percent of school buildings in South Korea were destroyed, and schools across the country closed.
During this time of destruction and uncertainty, my grandfather — then South Korea’s Minister of Education — ordered the schools to reopen. While the devastation of the Korean War and the current coronavirus pandemic are very different, I can’t help thinking of my grandfather as school closures throughout the world disrupt and derail the education of hundreds of millions of students.
This aggressive move on schooling during the 1950s reflected South Korea’s steadfast dedication to education. Students’ health needs must come first, and current U.S. school closings are necessary. However, as the coronavirus crisis continues, the United States would do well to explore South Korea’s war-era dedication to education.
More than 50 million K-12 students in America are learning from home in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. Many schools will not reopen this academic year, meaning that parents should anticipate months of shouldering responsibilities usually held by teachers. The transition has been difficult, straining internet connections, districts’ limited resources and parents’ patience.
But, as South Korea demonstrated, times of crisis can also present dramatic opportunity.
With so few buildings left standing during the Korean War, exasperated teachers asked my grandfather where they should hold class. He told them to teach outside. “Hold classes on riverbeds, on mountainsides — anywhere,” he said. Without books, he instructed teachers to “teach from life.” And so they did. Students learned in dried-out streams, and in bombed-out train stations. They learned on hillsides and inside tents. Communities worked together to raise funds and rebuild schools. By the spring of 1951, 60 percent of schools had reopened, and two-thirds of the country’s kids were once again in class.
South Korea’s commitment to learning did not fade after the war, and its almost myopic, even maniacal, focus on education helped transform the country in a single generation. In 1945, the country’s literacy rate was 22 percent. It now hovers around 99 percent, one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It is a perennial leader on international academic assessments like TIMMS and PISA. South Koreans commonly assert that education is the reason their country has grown from one of the poorest in the world to the 12th largest economy, and increased the average lifespan of its citizens from 35 years in 1950 to 83 years today.
George Paik, the audacious Minister of Education who instructed schools to reopen all those years ago, did not create South Korea’s commitment to education; he was a reflection of it. Decades later, he would name me Woodrow, after Woodrow Wilson, who — as my grandfather explained — was not only a president but also a scholar. He handed me, at just 7 years old, a biography of Wilson that I was incapable of reading at the time. That action was a glimpse into the lofty educational ambitions that reflected both his character and that of South Korea.
My parents told me that “education saved our family, and education saved our country.” I grew up hearing about Koreans’ reverence for teachers and of an entire nation’s unwavering commitment to education, no matter the circumstances. Koreans recognized that teaching children is a shared responsibility, and the war cemented their dedication to this mission. Their stubborn devotion to education lifted a nation.
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