Ministry of Education, The Term Paper (Part 1)


This week I’ll be serializing my term paper for Professor Kim Dongjae’s class Global Organization and Leadership at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies.  It is an organizational study of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.  It was intended to be a study of an organization to determine whether or not said organization followed the criteria of excellence set out in such organization books as Good to Great, Built to Last, Good to Go: Pfizer and the Erection Revolution and my favorite Too Legit to Quit: The 3M Miracle on the Mississippi River.  The paper has some shortcomings, and I’m not one hundred percent satisfied with the way it turned out.  I did so much research that I was unable to incorporate into the final paper, and that which did make it in doesn’t hang together as well as I’d like it to.  I still expect to receive an excellent grade on this paper nonetheless.

Anyway, here is part one of five.


Click here to download the full pdf version

1 2 3 4 5


The Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology

All MEST up?


For historical, social and cultural reasons, education holds a special position in Korean society. A rigorous education, marked by years of single-minded study tested in the crucible of a life-changing, all-encompassing examination has been a rite of passage for the high-bred Korean for centuries. Since the advent of the Republic of Korea education has retained its central role in society while gaining a new significance as a means of social mobility through universal education and a perceived meritocracy brought about by the focus on standardized testing. At the same time, questions related to education have been applied to the other pressing issues of this modern nation. Two modern strains of thought have been especially influential on the development of the modern South Korean education system. The first of these is South Korean society’s the emphasis on codifying Koreanness, fairness and, in recent years, balanced regional development. The other is the focus on development, progress, and the development of South Korea as a leading nation with world-class institutions and human resources. No government agency better reflects the interplay of these two opposing drives than the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The Ministry has long been a battle ground over which the struggle between fostering the best and brightest and raising the standards of education for all has played out. In this highly politicized environment the MEST has wrestled with serving out its mission while at the same time facing uncertainty over what that mission is. The result has been stark, with Koreans seeking a startling percentage of their education from sources other than the public school system, including private institutions and, increasingly the education systems of other nations. Korean political institutions in general are highly reactive to public opinion, and the MEST is no exception. History repeatedly shows the Ministry initiating poorly thought out, hasty policies based on public sentiment only to discontinue or abandon them later. While the Korean Teachers Union and other civic groups offer concrete alternative visions of what the education system in Korea should be, the Ministry’s relations with these groups follow the general pattern of antagonism, protest and suppression found elsewhere in South Korean political discourse. In this paper I intend to demonstrate how the organizational structure of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology developed, how it reflects broader trends in Korean society, and why this Ministry consistently fails to satisfy the very public whose will it attempts to carry out.

Historical Background

The Korean people have historically taken great interest in education. The popular image of the aristocrat in the western imagination is a hunter, a sportsman, and a refined, active renaissance man. This image has left a great impression on the history of western education, with the concept of the scholar-athlete, the well rounded intellectual with a variety of interests and a rich active social life still the ideal in most western countries. The aristocrats of the Joseon period eschewed physical activity as unbecoming of a royal. The ideal yangban was measured in all actions, in control of himself, and wholly devoted to the study of classics, not for practical application to real-world problems (although such a school of thought did eventually appear) but because these traits were seen as essential to the rulers of an orderly society. The necessity of esoteric, impractical knowledge for success in Korea was made manifest in the nature of the gwageo, or civil service exam. This examination, which required years of preparation to sit for, consisted principally of ancient Chinese ethical and historical texts. In order to pass this exam one needed to not only be intelligent but also to make a massive investment of effort and time. Those who passed the exam were not the most intelligent. They were the most dedicated, and the most diligent, and the most able to afford years of full-time study. This diligence has remained the core element of the Korean educational ethos.

Following the opening of Joseon-era Korea to foreign influence, western education, often in English, flourished. These schools were typically administered by the government or by missionaries, and although their focuses varied, they tended to provide education to the children of the elite. The top universities of modern South Korea, including the SKY Universities (Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei Universities) were all established in this period. The focus of education in Korea shifted during the Japanese occupation period, beginning in 1910. The Japanese, in an effort to duplicate their own model of human capital development, placed their emphasis on offering more practical education to a broader segment of the population. This came at the expense of elite education, which dwindled at this time. Most Koreans seeking higher education in this period were forced to study at Japanese universities.

This is the background upon which the Ministry of Education was founded in 1948. The Japanese occupation behind them, the people of South Korea faced an independent future with a set of problems, including lack of infrastructure, poverty and political chaos, for which one of the answers was seen as universal education (Embassy of the Republic of Korea). The early Ministry of Education faced a series of challenges. Although an education system had existed under Japanese rule, much of the administration had either left Korea or been politically marginalized. The Japanese had installed Japanese as the language of education in Korea, which meant that the Ministry of Education would need to develop all new textbooks and curricula in the Korean language. The collapse of the system following the Japanese exit from the peninsula led to the Ministry taking a centralized approach to administration which has come to be one of its defining features and sets it apart from the education ministries of a majority of western countries and many non-western countries (e.g. Japan) which cede much of the policy making to local administrative levels. Today’s MEST retains a tight administrative grip, directly overseeing every aspect of the education system.

The Ministry’s sixty year history is as tumultuous as that of the South Korean government at large. As initially established, the Ministry of Education was devoted to education of the child as both a Korean citizen and a productive member of the industrial workforce, à la the Japanese model. Within the curriculum focus quickly shifted away from creative subjects and towards practical subjects (math, science) and subjects which served to shape the mentality of students and instill in the populace a unified vision of their own place in Korean society and Korea’s place in the world (social studies, ethics, Korean language and Korean history). This change is reflected in the early decision to de-emphasize education in arts and culture with these subjects finally falling under the control of the Ministry of Culture in 1968 (Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism). Two years later, the Bureau of Physical Fitness was established. Eleven years after that the Bureau was transferred to the Ministry of Health.

There has been much said about the social agenda behind South Korea’s social studies curriculum. One of the early thought leaders in this regard was Yi Pom Suk, who began organizing nationalist youth groups in 1946 and whose 1948 book Nation and Youth proved to be extremely influential on the composition of the Korean school curriculum. The early South Korean government used childhood education as its main means of communicating many of the nationalist concepts which eventually became part of South Koreans’ intellectual bedrock. These concepts include the theory that Koreans are a pure race (단일민족국가); that all Koreans share an essential “national consciousness (민족의식) (Cumings); that Korea had been established by the legendary figure Dangun; and that Korea’s history was defined by struggle against neighboring countries (“Shin Chae Ho”). The Ministry of Education was saddled with a central role in disseminating these ideas to the Korean populace.

Thus the South Korean education system has always suffered from this contradiction at its core. The goal of developing manpower through practical education clashes with that of reinforcing ethnic solidarity and societal order. Subjects representing both sides of this equation are tested in the same multiple choice format, an echo of the Joseon-era gwageo exam. In order to encourage competition the Ministry of Education oversees a single life-changing college entrance examination, called the suneung in Korean, for which students prepare from childhood and based on which options and opportunities are opened to students. This one exam occupies a key position in Korean life, and many come to view taking the exam as a pivotal point in their lives. It is the central place of this and other exams in Korean life which in many ways comes to bind all of the actions of the Ministry of Education Science and Technology, the subject of this paper.


~ by Joshing on December 15, 2008.

6 Responses to “Ministry of Education, The Term Paper (Part 1)”

  1. interesting reading. i wouldn t mind if you post parts 2 – 5!

  2. […] of rote memorization, over at the Joshing Gnome, Joe Mondello is posting his paper on the Ministry of Education. Looking at the historical influence of the civil service exam, he observes that the […]

  3. great beginning.
    look forward to reading more.

  4. Anywhere to download the full version in a single (doc, hwp, pdf) file?

  5. External features of Korean education, as well as criticisms of it, are quite common in other states with similar historical development. This would include Taiwan, India, even the Philippines, perhaps most of the world. While I realize your paper is about policy, very few of the issues you discuss are ‘Korean’ in any real sense. The inability to effect meaningful policy change on state organization is a characteristic of post-colonial, post-military states trying to achieve economic success. The single largest source of failure is the attribution of cultural origin to these problems. This inevitably results in ‘solutions’ that fail to provide sufficient incentive or bureaucratic structure to sustain change.
    Scott Sommers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: