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[Opinion] Liberal Arts Week

Posted October. 08, 2007 08:05,   


“If we do not get to know more about Islamic culture, we will not be able to save any victims of foreign abduction just as we failed to save Kim Sun-il,” warned professor Lee Hee-soo of Hanyang University after Kim was abducted and killed by terrorists in Iraq in June of 2004. Unfortunately, his words proved to be true only three years later. When a group of Korean citizens were abducted in Afghanistan this summer, the Korean government failed to respond well to the crisis because of its meager understanding of the Taliban regime, costing the lives of two abductees.

Koreans generally know little about people from other nations apart from Americans and Europeans. By stark contrast, many advanced nations have accumulated vast amounts of knowledge on many nations and their people through constant area studies. Professor Lee argued that, though belatedly, Korea must encourage similar study and nurture regional experts. It would then be able to respond with more agility to a crisis such as the Afghanistan incident with these studies and trained experts.

The slump in liberal arts is mostly to blame for the lack of area studies in Korea. Although liberal arts are often thought to include only literature, history, and philosophy, anthropology is also part of the arts “family.” Exploring the language and history of other countries is exactly what constitutes area studies, and this is what liberal arts is all about.

However, many in the liberal arts confine their studies to mostly theories, ignoring the pragmatic side of liberal arts. As Korea’s current liberal arts crisis is a result of those studying it, some say the crisis should called “the crisis of liberal arts experts” instead of “the crisis of liberal arts.”

In 1997, Earl Shorris, an American activist for the poor, taught 31 people in the hopeless slums of New York including drug addicts and the homeless four hours of liberal arts per week by inviting renowned academics to teach them. They learned the meaning of life instead of receiving a piece of bread that would quell their hunger. Among 17 who completed the program, two became doctors and one a nurse. Some even went on to study in graduate schools. As seen here, the value of liberal arts, with its emphasis on human beings, can shed light of hope to the less fortunate part of our society.

Today is the start of Korea’s second-ever Liberal Arts Week. Some 74 events will be held in eight cities nationwide. Now would be a good opportunity to promote the importance of liberal arts. It is also the time for Korea’s liberal arts experts to roll up their sleeves.

Hong Chan-sik, Editorial Writer, chansik@donga.com