Tag Archives: school

Old School

17 Aug

Down south in Jeollanam-do, there is an old Confucian school, a seodang, that has been rebuilt on the site of its predecessor. The proprietor, an elderly gentlemen who tends to repeat himself and measures time only in ‘later’ or ‘today,’ has a few rooms to let to travelers. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay there.

Seodangs were schools primarily for boys, going all the way back through Joseon to Goryeo. Chinese characters were used to write the Korean language and thus memorization of their complex forms was necessary. This did not promote literacy to extent one would expect, however, as the creation of hangeul demonstrates; a simpler system was needed for the average peasant. The reading of the characters as well as classical works was an important foundation for anyone who hoped to take the civil service exam and thus rise up to the level of at least semi-nobility.

Worn out from a day of hiking, we spread a blanket on the planks and played hwatu (화투) as the sun went down behind the mountains.

The surrounding country has lush greens and big blue skies. Green is common in Korea: in the summer, weed, vines, grasses, and trees seem to grow in tangled silence, like an unruly haircut. Blue skies with a trace of pollution, though, are rare in the capital area where I reside.

We were the only ones staying here, it turned out. Even the old proprietor went home and left us be. We swung the giant wooden gates shut and barred the doors: in for the night, free to explore the school at will.

This seodang is still used during the summer for its traditional activities. Witness the banner on the rear wall: “예절” means manners or etiquette.  In addition to such customs, student learn 한자 or Chinese characters. Calligraphy is the method for integrating them, for great patience and self-mastery is required to make the correct strokes. The calligraphy brushes sat in a rack next to mats on the floor. Back issues of “The Confucian News” hung from a peg near the door.

I had awakened every morning to the sound of the teacher scolding her students harshly, be it for lack of attention or haste in crafting the complex characters with but a brush on thin paper. I doubt that it would have been much different a hundred-odd years or more ago. Here, more than anywhere else I have been in Korea, the past ways are not only remembered but intrinsically a part of life. The correlation between cultural and physical distance, between the remote Confucian countryside and the globalized urban jungles, is no coincidence.

To open up a student practice book is to realize why it was only the rich who could afford education in the old days. A great deal of time is needed in order to read, let alone write, the basic thousand Chinese characters, and time is something that a working man does not have. Yet one can also see the roots of the Korean attitude toward education: time and dedication are essential to mastery and sacrifices must be made by the present generation for the sake of the next.

The students at this summer seodang were from the city. They came to absorb the deepest and most traditional aspects of their culture, their parents spending much money and time observing. My girlfriend said that this is no isolated incident; it happens in other places besides Jeolla.

Korea is indeed hurtling down a path of globalization, hellbent on achieving the system we have already created and found lacking. But whatever their immediate material desires, something in their instinct remains firmly rooted in what has come before. It is an identification with the past and its ways which has virtually no parallel in contemporary America. I find it hard to imagine families from New York, Chicago, or L.A. sending their kids to Kentucky for a month in order to read Jefferson, till land, and learn riflery. Such would be the equivalent for us. Yet we do not believe in the necessity of virtue, let alone the virtue of those who came before and lived harder lives than we. Koreans, though, intuit that such virtues, whatever one’s personal feeling about them is, are a part of themselves. They have inherited them, whether they like it or not, and it is their responsibility to know them well.

The night had a crescent moon, which a local taxi driver told us meant that ghosts were out and about. As I walked about the courtyard in the warm air, I wondered if I would see the apparitions of Confucians past, treading the grounds with me. Perhaps, despite my white skin, they would not haunt but welcome me as one who, though not born of their ways, nonetheless understands and defends them all the same.

And defend them I do. Their tradition is not mine and I disagree with it on many points. But we are men all the same, men seeking to live as Men, not as ‘progressive apes.’ Our ways are manifold and our disagreements inevitable; yet we find common cause in seeking the course of good through the human heart. Behind these shuttered doors, in this renewed part of the past, in this small town, that cause lives on against the irrational powers of this world.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia