[KS] KSR 2002-05: _Modern Education, Textbooks and the Image of the Nation: Politics of Modernization and Nationalism in Korean Education, 1880-1910_, by Yoonmi Lee

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Fri Apr 12 01:26:20 EDT 2002

_Modern Education, Textbooks and the Image of the Nation: Politics of
Modernization and Nationalism in Korean Education, 1880-1910_, by Yoonmi
Lee.  New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.  2000.  160 pages.  ISBN:

Reviewed by Hyung-chan Kim
Western Washington University

[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 5.1 (2002): 100-02.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

Few books on Korean education in English are available for the English
reader who may desire to know about educational ideas and institutions that
have shaped the present educational system either in South or North Korea.
Still fewer books have been made available in English to inform the reader,
be they native or foreign, of the complex relationships between Korea's
modern education and the Korean process of modernization/ Westernization.
The present volume, originally written as a doctoral dissertation at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison under the able guidance of Michael Apple,
affords those of us interested in the social, cultural, and political
foundations of education an opportunity to read about a variety of
theoretical considerations concerning modernization as they relate to
education. Furthermore, this book will also draw particular attention from
the reader who is interested in examining the interlocking relationships
between how ideas are constructed in education to promote certain political
interests and ideologies and how they are put into textbooks for public
consumption for students in school.

The book is unique in its treatment of topics dealing with the way in which
modernization in Korea has been intertwined with nationalism during the
three decades when Korean independence was besieged by its neighboring
powers, namely Japan, China, and Russia. The book is divided into seven
chapters. Chapter One, an introduction to the book, entitled "Problems,
Issues, and Method," lays the groundwork for a variety of theoretical
explanations with regard to the concept of modernization. The author's
attempt to differentiate between Western modernization and non-Western
modernization deserves attention from those of us who are interested in
examining how non-Western countries such as China and Korea failed to
modernize, while Japan, another non-Western nation, successfully modernized
itself. Some scholars have argued that Japan was successful in bringing
about modernization due to its late entry into the world system of
capitalism, while others have suggested that China failed in its
modernization effort due to the Western capitalist intrusion that not only
constrained but also distorted its socioeconomic and political advancement.
Insofar as Korea's failure to modernize itself is concerned, according to
the author, this so-called dependency theory is unable to account for the
Korean case of modernization, because Korea entered into the world
capitalist system even later than Japan did. The author challenges the
"failure thesis," to borrow from her own words, and attempts to explain
Korea's modernization as a complex process of building or constructing
Korea's nationalism or national identity. To the extent that Korean
nationalism emerged in this process of modernization, Korea was successful
in its efforts to bring about modernization.

What is missing from the author's analysis of the modernization/Westernization of Korea, or of any country or people for that matter, is a deep understanding of what modernization entails. Certainly, we know that modernization is not synonymous with modernity.  The author seems to have developed the notion that nationalism in Korea was a positive outcome of modernization by means of modern education, but it is difficult to claim that the individual's freedom, autonomy, and rationality, the three pillars of modernity, have been enhanced by modern education in general. On the contrary, personal freedom and autonomy have been oppressed in many countries around the world in the name of modern education that is designed to teach school children to be patriotic and to follow the dictates of their leaders. In reality, modernization has misrepresented and
misappropriated the principles of modernity.

In Chapter Two, entitled "Theories: Modern Mass Education and the
Construction of National Identity," the author suggests that modern mass
education is mainly responsible for instilling in the minds of a people a
sense of cultural homogeneity and of identity within the nation-state.

This national identity, which is actually a myth, is constructed for
transmission in schools, as the author writes in this chapter. There is
very little argument against this claim.  But one has to question the
statement made by the author to the effect that "school knowledge is
neither a reality imposed by dominant social groups, nor the product of a
social consensus, but the result of a contest." A fundamental assumption
behind this statement is that dominated groups may construct school
knowledge, not the dominant groups. But if school knowledge is a result of
a contest between groups, and one group defeats another group in the
contest, it is logically correct to state that the winner gets to construct
school knowledge. In other words, the dominant group has the opportunity to
construct what is known as school knowledge.

In Chapter Three, entitled "The Emergence of Modernizers and Their
Ideology," the author makes a significant contribution to our understanding
of Korean modernizers' understanding of Darwinism then popular in the West,
within the context of their desire to modernize Korean society in order to
make it "fit" to survive in the world where only the fit survive. According
to the author, Korean modernizers interpreted this notion of "survival of
the fittest" in terms of social and political rather than biological
survival. In connection with Darwinism, there developed two rather opposing
ideas of nationalism and Asianism. The ideology of Asianism, originally
developed in Japan by those who feared the invasion of the East by the
West, was embraced by Korean modernizers who believed that Asians were not
inferior to Westerners; they fell behind the West mainly due to the lack of
certain characteristics that could help them win in the struggle for
survival. The ideologues of Asianism were believers in Asian solidarity
against Western aggression. With the Japanese colonization of Korea, this
ideology was met with strong resistance coming from Korean nationalists.

In Chapter Four, entitled "The Politics of State Formation, Nation Building
and Modern Education," the author seems somewhat confused over the concept
of tradition and that of traditionalism. On page 63, the author uses
"Traditionalism versus Modernization" as a subtitle, implying that the
politics of modernization was between those who supported traditionalism
and those who desired modernization. But on the following page the author
states that Confucianists' ideology was "pro-tradition and elitist." This
use of the term "tradition" is rather confusing. Tradition has to be
clearly differentiated from traditionalism.  The former points to
particular socio-cultural practices that have endured through time
sufficiently to be still functioning effectively in the lives of people,
while the latter suggests a strong proclivity on the part of those who
support anything that is embedded in tradition, be it functional or not.
There is a minor error on page 68. China was not defeated in Korea as a
result of the Shimonoseki Treaty, as the author claims; rather, the
Shimonoseki Treaty was concluded as a result of China's defeat in Korea.

In Chapters Five and Six, the author makes a thorough analysis of textbooks
published between 1894 and 1910. The author classifies and analyzes the
political and ideological messages of textbooks in order to find how
Korea's nation-state as well as ethnic identity were constructed by the
textbook writers for transmission to children in school. In Chapter Six,
the author states, "it is important to note how they [Korean modernizers]
perceived the Western modernity." But the author has not elaborated on how
they actually perceived modernity as understood and practiced in the West.

In the concluding chapter, the author suggests that today the two Koreas
might have to redefine or re-imagine through negotiation the common
elements of the nation in order to bring about unification of the divided
people. The author is right in suggesting that North and South Korea have
to redefine what common cultural elements would bind Koreans together in a
modern nation-state, if they are going to achieve a peaceful unification.

They may also determine that there are no major common cultural elements
that can hold them together in a nation-state, thus deciding to maintain
two separate nations. Either way, what Koreans in both south and north
should avoid is the ideological insistence that there are common cultural
elements holding them together, thus justifying the concept of unification
at any cost. Such a stringent ideological position might well lead to
another cultural and perhaps even military conflict.

Kim, Hyung-chan 2002
Review of _Modern Education, Textbooks and the Image of the Nation:
Politics of Modernization and Nationalism in Korean Education, 1880-1910_,
by Yoonmi Lee (2000)
Korean Studies Review_ 2002, no. 5
Electronic file: http://www.koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-05.htm

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