The Pervading Influence of Neo- Confucianism on the Korean Education System

| June 30, 2002
The Pervading Influence of Neo- Confucianism on the Korean Education System

Keywords: Confucius and Mencius, Korean education, filial piety, post IMF Confucianism, King Sejong

Paul Robertson

Bio Data
The author has worked worked for universities in Greece, Czech Republic and Korea.
Subsequently he went on to obtain 2 Masters degree (Education) (TEFL) and his Ph.D.

He is the author of three international novels.

Modern Korean education is based on two competing systems, that given by the government and that given by private enterprise. The later clearly dominates the students life from elementary school through to University studies. Hitherto rote learning had characterized the Korean education system, with students rewarded for pure memory as opposed to creativity. This system is under attack from progressive educationalists, however, no matter what reforms are brought about, the fact remains that Korean education,at all levels, is underpinned by the silent yet strangling force of Confucianism. Until reformists accept this and build it into the learning cycle, rote learning will pervade all levels of learning.


Modern Korean education is based on two competing systems, that given by the government and that given by private enterprise. The later clearly dominates the students life from elementary school through to University studies. Hitherto rote learning had characterized the Korean education system, with students rewarded for pure memory as opposed to creativity. This system is under attack from progressive educationalists, however, no matter what reforms are brought about, the fact remains that Korean education,at all levels, is underpinned by the silent yet strangling force of Confucianism. Until reformists accept this and build it into the learning cycle, rote learning will pervade all levels of learning.

Table Content





Confucian Influence in the Chosun Dynasty.

Filial Piety:

Korean History.

Current Korean Government Education.

Private Education.





The following considers the influences, positive and negative, that the historical Chinese educators, Confucius and Mencius are having on the South Korean Education system. For the purpose of this work, ‘influence’ means any apparent existing and observable fact or occurrence that maybe directly or indirectly affecting or shaping Korean educational policy.

It is difficult to span 2500 years and conclusively say the ‘influence’ still exists. It is suggested that given the time span, the question better raises the issue whether in fact any of the principles attributed to Confucius and Mencius can be identified as existing in any form in current educational spheres, and if so, to what degree? Secondly it must be assessed whether any influences are in the original perception or have undergone significant transformation within the same guise of Confucianism.

Thirdly, it may be asked if in fact Confucianism has survived, as Chen (1993:5) notes that it is “…challenged by great rivals with the advent of western thought and way of life, and a new social order, brought about by the industrial age.” It will be argued that Neo-Confucianism, has in fact, been reshaped post 1997 IMF 1 Korean financial crisis, and that it is ever more inherent and visible particularly in the educational sphere.

J.K. Lee (2002:45-61) arguing for the Confucionist survival notes that contemporary education policy is influenced by an intricate combination of factors, namely, Confucianism, Christianity via the ongoing medium of 18th century Missionaries, and the development of ‘private education’ institutes, though the author provides little supporting evidence on this second point. W.O. Lee (1996), likewise a proponent of contemporary Confucionist manifestations, concludes the Confucian influence is observable in Japan, (Korea’s neighbor) in 6 educational areas, and that Asia can be considered as a whole in terms of his conclusion. It will be argued that whilst the points can be connected to Confucianism, suggesting that Asia is a whole in terms of his opinion cannot be so.

I have opted to view the above ideas as seen in today’s Korea through two competing Education systems, namely (a) the government education system as controlled centrally by the Seoul Board of Education, (though decentralization is currently occurring) and (b) the ‘hogwon’ or ‘private academy’ system which can be defined simply as any Korean registered teaching institution for the purpose of providing extra tutorials in a variety of subjects to Korean students. This style school must be clearly distinguished from private education schools as commonly understood in Australia, U.S.A. etc. The Korean Government education system is non-profit, whilst market forces control ‘hogwons’.

It is also submitted, that based on Korea’s history, traditional Confucian principles have been remodeled post 1997 IMF Korea. And contrary to the gloss of Asian education espoused by W. Lee (1996) it will be argued that his belief “…Asian students are not only diligent, but they also have high achievement motivation” may have less to do with Confucianism than other factors, such as, according to Ko, (2002) being “…educational zealots.” W. Lee’s view (1996), however, finds support from J. Lee (2002:58) who talks in terms of the “…educational enthusiasm of Korean people…” However, like J. Lee (2002:62:end note 11) he only supports his argument with economic figures that fall short of the IMF crisis by one year. Asia is a diverse land mass and comprises many countries with fundamentally different cultures. One does not say all L1 English speaking countries come within the same rubric, and so with Asia, and clearly Japanese and Chinese traditions are far removed from Korean traditions. Arguably Confucian principles have retarded as opposed to advanced development within this country, and that such education systems as the Czech Republic or Slovakia, which are influenced by Comenius and his doctrines, clearly have educational advantages. J. Lee (2002) similarly supports this hypothesis but via different rationale, though this later argument is beyond the scope of this analysis.

To examine the question systematically, we need to outline (a) the educational principles and (b) what were/are the Confucian social aims, and finally (c) how the former impact on and within contemporary society. Confucius advocated social harmony, building of ethical virtues and an ideal state. As a means to an end, he emphasized ‘hsueh,'(learning) as the building tool.

“In the love of benevolence, without the love of learning, the defect is
foolishness. In the love of wisdom, without the love of learning, the
defect is vagueness. In the love of faith, without the love of learning,
the defect is loss…In the love of courage without the love of learning,
the defect is confusion.” (Muller 2000).

The word ‘learning’ according to J. Lee (2002:10) was used by Confucius as an equivalent to ‘education,’ and ‘the learning’ is interrelated with virtue and education. At the heart of the Confucian principle is the ideal state, and this can only be achieved by moral education and a social goodness. To achieve attitudinal development there is only one path, and that is through the tool of constant learning. The social aims of Confucius are similar in thought, that of building a harmonious and virtuous society. Thus his moral education principle is the backbone for his virtuous society. Only through Ethical Education can that ideal of a virtuous nation be attained. This ideal, as detailed here under , is very prevalent in contemporary Korean Education. However, not all Confucian approaches are applied with the same enthusiasm.

“Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?” (Muller 2000). Clearly here we have an ideal that has lost its relevance in developing or developed Asian economies (Beech, H. 2002). It is suggested that constant perseverance and application does not mean at the expense of the abandonment of family contact during the formative years nor the abandonment of curricula that employs extra curricula activities such as sport. This system of education, which sees students studying at six a.m. and finishing at midnight, six or seven days a week, is far from what is meant, but is the widely accepted precursor to the “exam hell” that student’s need to endure to get into university (Lee, W. 2002:211). However, given the competitive nature of the Korean education system and the extreme competition to get into university, the Confucian principle, literally applied (as it is) justifies current practices. Contrary to W. Lee (1996), yet according to Ellinger and Beckham, (1997), “South Koreans view education as they view the rest of life: a process of winning and losing. They have no concept of a game played well for its own sake. The family emphasis on educational achievement is so strong that it has been dubbed “education mania.””

Confucius said, “You can teach high-level topics to those of above-average ability, but you can’t teach high-level topics to those of less than average ability” (Muller 2000). Whilst W. Lee (1996) takes a contrary position with respect to Asian learners, a combination of economic and socio-educational factors combine to ensure it to be so, and further, Korea has just implemented a system of Elite Schools for the academically gifted. (The Korean Herald, 9th March 2002:3). Application of classic Confucianism, which had the effect of class distinction and thus caused social unrest, (Lee, J. 2002:59) once again appears with similar social unrest. (The Korean Times 2nd March 2002:3)

According to Ebrey (1993) the success attributed to Confucianism is due in part to the work of Mencius, (371-289 BC). Mencius makes mention specifically of learning a second language. His thoughts are centuries before their time, appearing in recent methodologies associated with L2 learning. Specifically he mentioned the need for a proper learning environment in L2 curricula. As the search for the theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) pervade academic research, (Ellis et al 1996) so do L2 instructors try to teach from within an acceptable environment.

However, there is a clear distinction in Government L2 programs and hogwon L2 programs that more or less attempt to build those proper learning environments. Compared to the Government schools that are over crowded and effectively inhibit or prohibit any appropriate learning environment in the L2 sphere, is a well-planned classroom that promotes the Mencius proper environment. Mencius said, “A carpenter or a carriage-maker can give someone a compass or a square, but cannot give them skills” (Muller 2000). This idea of Mencius, whilst relevant in Australian education systems, (Munro 1997), has yet to provide meaningful direction. Clearly Mencius is referring to work experience. That component is in certain local vocational high schools. However, if one considers that Korea was an economic miracle from the 1970s to 1997, and then suffered the ignominy of the IMF crisis, it has had little time to apply the concepts of work experience to its post IMF educational system. This Korean situation is quite the opposite of recent Australian experiments in this field (Munro 1997:39).

Further analysis of the above Mencius quotation also reveals that teachers, according to Mencius, are in an identifiable class above the workers. This may not reflect current day thought however (Education Commission of The People’s Republic of China, 1993). One of the Confucian principles which I argue is strongly influencing current day education is the notion of filial piety. Mencius promoted this, however the Menciun ideal was “…to bring peace to the Empire” (Beck 1988). However, the influence played a significant part on future Korean education under King Sejong.

Confucian Influence in the Chosun Dynasty.
Without doubt, the notion of filial piety has influenced Korean life in all walks. Confucius said: “If, for three years (after your father’s death) you don’t alter his ways of doing things, you can certainly be called ‘filial'” (Muller 2002). To fulfill the ideals, children, depending if eldest son or not, have set duties to the family, which clearly depend on the child attaining what is perceived as a good education and career. This is further elaborated below (p.11) and it will be suggested a wider definition is coming into being thus markedly affecting the education system as a whole.

During the Korean Chosun Dynasty 1392-1910, the Confucian principles of filial piety and loyalty were taught. Under this dynasty, Confucianism was a state religion. However education was for the elite and excluded women (Lee, J. 2002). Prior to 1450, Korea was under Chinese influence in language and the Chinese written word was employed.

King Sejong (1418-1450) is credited with inventing (1443) a new written form of Korean, Hunminjongum. Chinese characters were replaced with a simplified form of 24 consonants and 8 vowel characters. The written characters reflected the tongue’s position in the mouth. According to historical readings, this new alphabet meant commoners and females were no longer excluded from education as till then only the upper class of society had the resources hitherto to study Chinese characters.

Clearly it could be inferred that King Sejong was strongly influenced by the Confucionist principle that every one should be permitted to receive an education. Thus this event may be the most significant singular event in Korean history, yet little attention has been given to this point. A comparison of contemporary Korea and China shows the Korean economy and standard of life far in advance of China’s, and it is argued therefore, that the Confucian education principles influence, inter alia, significantly changed the course of Korean history.

Filial Piety:
In contemporary Korea the philosophy of filial piety is enshrined in Korean Statute law and runs through daily life. However, the erosion or collapse of this is well argued. Nevertheless, as the fundamental principle is the duty of eldest son to parent, then this duty can only be fulfilled once the son achieves a good education. Whilst a subjective standard, it is submitted the standard set by Koreans is still very high. Kim (1999) suggests that the fundamentals of filial piety have been substantially changed since the 14th century, in that now the duty not only goes from son to parents, but indeed in reverse. If this is so, it may explain wholly or partially the massive budget spending of Korean parents on their children’s private (hogwon) education with the resultant following major educational thinking shift. However, classic filial piety only involves the eldest son and a parent, thus the conclusion excludes younger sons and daughters. Conversely, it may well be argued, per Kim, (1999) the Confucionist principle has expanded to encompass all children.

Yet a certain conflict between the Korean government’s 6th and the current 7th curricula emerged in so far as ‘hogwons’ were not seen as a place of meaningful study by the Korean government. Parents were seen as wasting too much money on their children’s education and thus the 6th curricula was in part devised to draw students back to mainstream education away from private education. However, with the emergence of the 7th curriculum, (2000) combined with an impliedly expanded acceptance of the family filial duty, hogwon study took on a new relevance;

This, it is suggested, will become more apparent over the next few years as a combination of factors, post September 11, economic recovery, etc., come into effect.If we accept the existence and influence of two Confucian fundamentals, and as propounded by Mencius, namely the duty of filial piety, and the need for all to receive an education, we can argue that contemporary Korean society is deeply affected by these two principles resultant in a competitive education field. Secondly, given the absence of vocational training in the government sector, the private hogwon sector now fills this void furthering the ideal of Mencius.

Korean History.
No analyses of Korean Education and influencing ideas can be complete without reference to the country’s history. In the late 1500s Japan (1592) invaded Korea and destroyed much of the infrastructure. Admiral Lee, commander of the Korean navy fought a great battle at that time and temporarily defeated the Japanese navy. Today he is revered in history books and statues predominate such as does the ill feelings that runs through some strata’s of Korean society for all things Japanese. This reverence spills over to the uneasy inter country feelings in modern days which has turned into an argument over the teaching and study of history as seen through Japanese and Korean commentators (Kim, J. 2002). Here we have a conflict of Confucianism, namely the right for all to be educated, and the Menciun principle that morality and decency impliedly demands the facts are told objectively.

For 40 years from 1905 to 1945 Japan invaded and colonized Korea. Japanese rule was instituted, the language taught at school was Japanese, and Koreans had to take on Japanese names. The system of education, previously based on Chinese curricula, now came squarely within the Japanese education system during that time. It was forced education, (Lee, 1984). Following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, Korea, for five years, was again free until the Korean War of 1950 began, when North Korean and Chinese troops crossed the 49th parallel, a line demarcated by Russia and the USA at the end of WW2. Following the end of the Korean War, much of the country lay in ruins as the North invaded almost to the southern extremity of Korea forcing the seat of Government to set up in the southern port city of Pusan.

Following the United Nations intervention and subsequent cessation of War activities in 1953, South Korea has come under the influence of the United States and its policies, for the US. still has 37,000 troops stationed throughout Korea. Gibb (1998) offers this as the sole reason for Korean preference for Ge Am as their preferred L2 tongue without identifying how Koreans actually discriminate against RP or the Ge Am form, or even considering cultural/ cross cultural realties. He also dismisses the influence of Confucianism post Korean War and suggests education principles are following the same lines as the United States. In sum, his argument fails to address or identify underlying cultural/cross cultural fundamentals.

Current Korean Government Education.
Schooling is in three groups, namely Elementary, from grades 1-6, Middle school, years 7-9, and High school, years 10-12. Students can either go on to University Education once they have successfully passed the university entrance exam, or go on to a College education of 2 years. Schools are government funded, either from the Federal level or Provincial level. However, unlike Australia, private schools run by religious organizations do not occur in Korea. Within the umbrella of Government schools comes a sub-category of Government licensed foreign schools. There are but a handful in Korea at the moment and have few students to boast. They predominantly cater for the children of ex-patriots who are living and working in Korea. Korean children can attend but their English proficiency must be very high as classes are in English, and based on the U.S. schooling system.

The Korean government has entered its 7th Curriculum phase. The 1st curriculum began in 1954. School hours run from seven a.m. to varying finishing times from two p.m. to eleven p.m. for High school students. A major shift in this curriculum is the importance of etiquette and moral education, and shifting teaching principles away from teacher dominated to student centered. The fundamental goal of this curricula begins a radical departure from the previous six in that students are being guided to do their own research, either individually or in groups, as opposed to teacher centered education (Richards and Rodgers, 1986).

However, it could be argued, owing to the excessively large class size, especially in L2, that the neo-Confucian ideal that everyone receives a government funded education fails forcing many into the private school system where class size is 10-20. A subject entitled “Ethics” is taught at Middle School level. It is a model of the Confucionist principle of filial piety. It teaches aspects of Li, Hsiao, Xin and Jen. It is important to note this subject has received renewed importance since 1997 and continues to grow in importance, being an examinable topic. This is taught from Elementary school on. However, it must not be considered that Confucian principles dominate, for those of Buddhism cut across the teachings.

Private Education.
Korean Education is highlighted by the split in government education and the free market private education system known as ‘hogwons, alias ‘academies or institutes.’ According to J. Lee, (2002: 55) these schools, the first which is historically dated as of 1883, are the fundamental reason for the strong Korean education spirit, and marked the turning point in Korean Educational history, for it is said that till then, education was for the elite; these private schools paved the way for mass education. Thus at that time, the mix of traditional Confucian schools coexisted with the new private schools. The next conflict in education, the colonization by Japan, was only 20 years away. J. Lee, (2002:55-59) notes that traditional Koreans had little enthusiasm for the elitist Confucionist school, and even less enthusiasm for the Japanese system, yet had great spirit for the private schools that were set up by anti Japanese political activists of the day, this giving rise to an industry that has since grown enormously.

There are tens of thousands of hogwons operating in Korea. Hogwons begin at about six a.m. and run till ten p.m. The schools give the appearance of quasi schools. However, as opposed to Greece, which has an identical system, (PALSO) 2 schools are not government regulated nor self-regulated. There are two reasons behind the existence and growth of hogwons. Firstly it is perceived by Korean parents that the government schools do not provide a satisfactory level of Education, (note the similarity above to 1890 and the belief that Korean government schools utilizing Confucianism were only for the elite.) Secondly the Mencius principle of vocational education is somewhat absent from government schools yet is included in private schooling curriculum. Thirdly, in 1997 there were 133,249 students studying abroad in 69 countries, (Korea Herald October 29,1998), but since the September 11 event in the United States, it has been reported in the press that hogwon enrollments have soared whilst overseas students enrollments have fallen, (Korean Times, January 7th 2002). As noted above, if Kim’s (1999) premise is true and accepted, and as President of Korea, his words are respected, then parents will, as their duty within the newly defined filial duty, place more funds into private education for their children.

The question thus arises, namely, are post IMF Korean Confucian principles equivalent to 15th century neo-Confucian principles, or a by product of the IMF crises? W. Lee, (1996) et al, do not address this as their theories pre-date the unexpected Asian economic crises. 3 Their collective belief could be viewed, as thus, “In particular, the economic growth in the late 1960s and 1970s was the result of the expansion of the higher education.” (Lee, J. 2002:99) K. Lee (1986) states in his conclusion that students who fall within the parameters of the Confucionist state of education will “…if one tries and keeps trying, one will certainly get there sooner or later.” He cites 6 characteristics of Asian learners who come under the Confucian tradition, and relies on the Levine and White (1986, pp. 110-111) list of characteristics pertaining to students from Japan to justify links to Confucian modern day educational characteristics. However, it is neither logical from a practical nor historical view point to equate ‘Asian’ learners as one. It does appear, contrary to the above theories, that modern Japanese students are far from applying the maxim, and a large percentage of that society are now known as “freeters.” This group of youth has abandoned any hope of succeeding after school, and now prefer to drift from casual job to casual job (Otake 2002). Indeed, the term ‘Asian learners’ is of itself requiring further separate analysis to determine if there are any similarities between these diverse country’s learners.

The Korean Education system is in its infancy if we consider the appropriate start date as of the end of the Japanese occupation, August 1945. However, some educational principles seen in government schools date back to Confucius and those of his followers. Yet the applications of these principles, or those of Mencius, have been subject to 2 Japanese occupations and the imposition of Japanese cultural rules and styles, and the destruction caused by the Korean War, June 1950 to August 1953.

In the 1940s to the early 1960s, Korea was still an agricultural society. The 1960s saw a great leap forward to bring it into the 21st century. The pace of change is unparalleled in world history. By the early 1990s, Korea was deemed as one of the Asian economic giants, or tigers. 4 Combined with this is the fact that true democracy has existed for less than 4 decades since the fall of military style rule in the 1960s. Some argue that democracy only began in 1993 with the beginning of President Kim Young Sam’s reign. However, masking the outward appearance of success was an underlying economic system in chaos, which resulted in the October 1997 IMF crises. This nationally perceived shameful moment turned the clock back on all Korean advances and has generally been ‘overlooked’ by commentators who espouse the economic miracle of Korea. Radical policies, laws and plans suddenly came into being from early 1998 to rectify the economic wrongs.

Along with this revision came renewed thinking about the Education system in Korea, for it was apparent the ‘old’ system was but a part of the fault of the countries financial demise. Thus the 7th Curricula reflects this new thinking. If we accept this premise to be true, then by comparison to it’s neighbors, China and Japan, or compared to the United States or Australia, the Education system is but in its renewed infancy. As part of this renewed Confucionist departure is the principle of ‘thinking for one self,’ which according to Hall and Ames (1987) is not a Confucionist trait.

At the outset the question posed asked whether Confucionist or Menciun principles had survived the journey of time. It is submitted that a few influences of Confucius and Mencius are to be found in the Government sphere of education, which is directly under attack from the progressive private schooling system that sprang from an opposition to Confucian ideals, which perceives that ideal as elitist. However, these influences are very significant in the shaping of educational policy, and as argued, neo-Confucianism, or post IMF Confucianism/ Mencius principles are becoming more deeply entrenched in Korean government educational policy and social applications.

Noted, there are the resemblance’s of Confucionist thought, as seen in the Analects where Confucius himself did not pursue lines of questioning, (Scolon 1999), and thus traditional teacher centered learning in Korea has resulted in students rarely answering questions. Conversely, in Mencius, whose fundamental was that human nature is basically good, and there in is the teacher’s duty to be a role model in society and to ask and seek student’s answers to questions. And if the Confucian system can be accredited with the principles of the negativity of rote learning (Bol 1989), contrary to Lee (1996) then hogwons are applying this principle in reverse.

Secondly, as was asked at the outset, the inquiry must consider whether the Confucionist influences still existing are as originally written. It is submitted, based on the preceding, that the most fundamental issue, filial piety, has undergone significant transformation from its original principle, with the consequences of education becoming a higher priority. Secondly, if we consider a teacher’s status under Confucianism as deserving respect, and as listed in point (3) of Levine and White (1986, pp. 110-111), we can find clear evidence in China that this respect has been absent, but is being addressed as an issue of marked importance. Likewise, this past Confucionist principle has been severely eroded in Korea by military styled governments that jailed teachers who joined unauthorized unions.

Conversely it is also argued that the influences of Confucius and Mencius are but a part of a system that was seen as leading to the countries 1997 economic demise, for these principles restricted the true ability of a Korean to develop him or herself for it was the application of the Confucian top down system in all walks of life that is now undergoing substantial change. Changes since 1997 may now mean that any direct influences attributable to the aforementioned are being refashioned by socioeconomic events. Consequently we see the bold attempt of the 7th curriculum to teach students to be independent and think independently, yet still observe the principles of filial piety.


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