By Yang Sung-jin
A recent controversy has erupted in Korea by a class of sixth grade primary school students who called for the dismissal of their teacher, questioning her method of punishment and teaching ability. The threatened authority of teachers and education itself is the talk of the town. Ironically, a similar incident occurred during ancient times when the authority of a teacher was rarely questioned.
During the Choson Dynasty, the symbol of education was Sungkyunkwan (National Confucian Academy), the country’s highest education organization. Sungkyunkwan is still standing in its original site near Taehangno, central Seoul under the changed name of “Sungkyunkwan University,” celebrating its 600th anniversary on Sep. 25 this year.
Of course, 600 years is quite a long period. Some might duly question the validity of the grandiose 600-year-long tradition, citing the fundamental differences in terms of teaching method and social recognition between the Choson era’s standards for higher education and today’s university scene.
However, historians generally agree that Sungkyunkwan played a central role as the highest educational institution throughout the Choson period.
The origin of the government-led education, in fact, goes far back into the early days when King Sosurim of the Koguryo Kingdom established “Taehak” (National Confucian Academy) in 372. The Silla Dynasty also set up a similar institution named “Kukhak” (National Confucian College) in 682.
Continuing the tradition was Kukchagam (National University) of Koryo Dynasty, established in the capital of Kaesong in 992. Like today’s university, Kukchagam contained six colleges within it. This backbone of national education was renamed Sungkyunkwan in 1308, which continued into the Choson period.
King Taejo, who founded the Choson Dynasty in 1392, felt the need to change the capital city. In the process, he ordered the construction of a new site in Seoul for Sungkyunkwan, which was completed in 1398.
Initially, the number of teachers appointed by the government was 38, with 150 students attending the school. Later, as many as 200 students were allowed to receive high education at Sunkyunkwan.
Privileges With Strings Attached
Sungkyunkwan enjoyed widespread popularity across the nation because students were given special advantages and other tempting incentives when they took the state examination to become public officials.
Predictably, entrance into Sungkyunkwan was permitted mainly to those members of the yangban literati class. Students were classified into two different groups, namely “sangjae-sang” and “hajae-sang.” Sangjae-sang indicate students who already passed preliminary state examinations; hajae-sang were young students without office or descendants of prominent government officials.
Sunkyunkwan students studied mainly Confucianism, reading the Four Books (Analects of Confucius, Works of Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning) and Five Classics (Book of Odes, Canon of History, Book of Changes, Book of Rites and Chronicles of Lu).
Students of the yangban class based in the countryside were eager to attend Sungkyunkwan where they could learn the writing style favored by the authoritative teachers, a precondition to pass the state exam.
The crucial advantages were largely devised by the government in order to promote the Confucian rule of the nation. And students were able to enjoy the privilege as long as they abide by the rules of the school.
At the center of the school rules is a strict attendance requirement. Every morning and evening, students had to sign in the roll book at the dining hall of the dormitory to prove their attendance. Daily attendance added up to one point and 300 points were needed to qualify for sitting for the state examination.
Students were allowed to read only Confucian scriptures. Those found reading Taoist and Buddhist scriptures were severely punished. This rule demonstrates how much the government-led education was centered upon the ruling ideology.
The Annals of the Choson Dynasty shows the narrow perspective of Sungkyunkwan only allowing Confucianism, while excluding other schools of thoughts. In 1464, Sungkyunkwan student Choi U-sook offered to King Sejo the relics of a Buddhist monk of Sokri Temple. A historiographer of the Annals said, “Alas, in the past, Sungkyunkwan student Lee Young-san appealed to King Sejong about the danger of paganism. However, today’s student Choi U-sook offered the remains of a Buddhist monk, which is more than ironical and truly lamentable.”
Twisted Role Model
Concerning the role of Sungkyunkwan, official Lee Kye-chon urged King Munjong to strengthen the country’s highest educational organ in 1450: “Sungkyunkwan is the foundation of civilization. Nothing is more important than its role of setting an example in society. But these days, people say that some teachers are lazy, undermining the school’s original function. Therefore, we have to appoint new teachers.”
In 1482, a scandal broke out in the compound of Sungkyunkwan, deeply angering the king. The incident was about an anonymous poem criticizing Sungkyunkwan itself and incompetent teachers.
One of the teachers found the poem posted on the school bulletin board and tore it apart out of shame. But the news got to the king as a group of teachers lodged their resignation.
“Since the national education is the basis of civilization, only those who are wise and intellectual should serve the post of teachers. Yet, we are not qualified for the job, as the poem shows. Therefore, we want to quit our teaching position,” said one of the teachers who went to the royal court for resignation.
All of which infuriated King Songjong. “The nation is educating students at Sungkyunkwan in hopes of recruiting them in the government. But how can they serve the king with this arrogant attitude?” the king said.
A comprehensive investigation was ordered by the king and all the students under suspicion were put in prison, followed by a thorough inquisition to find the author of the sarcastic poem.
But the efforts to find the suspect turned out to be fruitless. Later, officials filed numerous petitions asking the king to forgive and release the students so that they could sit for the state exam. King Songjong relented and said, “Nothing is more serious than damaging the social norms by some students criticizing their own teachers. Although I have to find the suspect, investigating all the suspects in prison to the end, I pity those innocent, yet suffering there. So, let go of the suspects.”
About 10 years later, another incident related to Sungkyunkwan took place. Student Hwang Pil bought some brassware at the request of his mother living in Kyongsang-do, which violated the rule of the school banning the act of commercial trade.
Other students, especially those who had long harbored reservations against Hwang, reported to the government officials in the hope of putting him under severe punishment.
But the result was the reverse. Instead of punishing Hwang, King Songjong put those 14 students who filed a joint protest under investigation and penalties.
Officials asked the king why Hwang was exempt from the investigation and the students who protested Hwang’s misconduct should be punished.
The king replied, “They brought their personal concern to the royal court, causing a fuss. That’s a crime.”