Please excuse the over-simplicity of the title.
Since I've been wanting to talk about more than just Black folks these days, as well as share a little more of the interesting things I've been finding in my dissertation research, here I offer my readers an excerpt from a 1994 copy of a first-year middle school Doduk (Morals) textbook, taken from the chapter talking about "Present-day Society and Citizen Ethics." On this particular page, the book talks about ethical codes and behaviors that are worth learning from other countries. This whole argument takes place within an argument assuming the reality of "national character traits" and essentialist ways of thinking. It also is awash in sweeping, sometimes dangerous generalizations. Here's an interesting one below, which talks about the "German people." Funny, when I hear folks these days talking about the superiors traits and unity of "das deutsches Volk," I reach for my gun. Well, I would, if I had a gun.
For those of you who read Korean, the page is offered below, along with my underlining and notes made back in 1996, when I wrote a paper on the Doduk curriculum for a graduate seminar. Interesting stuff, people. Here's the general gist of what it says (making a word-for-word perfect translation is too much work for this blogger, but a 90% approximation will allow me to simply do it without the stress of perhaps getting flamed or making a small mistake:
"Germany – In Germany, a responsibility to the community has been emphasized more than personal freedom. Because their group consciousness is so strong, ignoring the community and only thinking about oneself and engaging in chasing luxuries or waste is considered a sin. Because Germans think of one's work as a mission that has been decided by God, they possess the best possible attitude about one's work. As the result of this kind of 'work consciousness', Germany was able to achieve the surprising economic success that became the 'Rhein River Miracle' out of having been defeated in World War II and being reduced to a lump of ash.
In addition, the Germans have a pervading sense of frugality and conservation. Just as one example..."
"The Germans' sense of frugality and conservation brought the 'Rhein River Miracle.'"
Here, it's pretty obvious to see where some of these generalizations come from, especially if you are familiar with the other parts of the book. In a previous section (as well as in the World History curriculum), the textbook authors place great stock in the legacy of Martin Luther and John Calvin as the dynamic duo behind the "Protestant work ethic" that Weber so famously argued as the cultural component explaining capitalism's rise in the West. In the mind of Korean textbook writers, Germany = "birthplace of the P.W.E" and this carries over through time, no matter what major historical breaks there may have been in this tradition, or whatever other problems may have arguably been claimed to have resulted from it, e.g. the rise of fascism, the particular impact of Nazism and WWII on the German psyche, the resultant disillusionment and modern culture of guilt extant in German identity, and especially the suspiciousness with which many of the modern Germans talked about in this book now look at the concept of "group consciousness" and placing the group above the self. One might argue that it's dangerous to uncritically laud the lemming mentality as a postwar national trait, especially since it's safe to say that this is the very "group consciousness" that got Germany reduced to "a lump of ash" in the first place. Umm, to put a fine point on it.
This book's arguments – and I'll give more examples later – is dangerous because it relies on completely dehistoricized cultural arguments to explain the concrete rise of things like economic indices, standards of living, per capita income. In this book, the inherent hardworking and self-sacrificing nature of the Korean people is lauded as the dependent variable – the one element that, if you removed, would completely change the outcome – in the whole equation. It's not being deprived of democratic rights under a dictatorship, the brutal suppression of organized labor in Korea, nor the exploitation of feminized labor. Put another way, in this kind of argument, the only explanative factor – inherent cultural traits – is necessarily removed from any concrete consideration of history; in this way, the only conclusion one can come to is that Koreans achieved their own "Han River miracle" purely through the virtue of the will, not because of anything concrete.
Similarly, as we shall see in posts to come, Americans are regarded as worthy of emulation in terms of their "frontier spirit," the French for their "frugality," and the English for their class-conscious attitude of the "gentleman." So, you combine American aggressiveness, French penny-pinching, German group-think, and the the Englishpeople's success in having preserved old social hierarchies despite all this – and you get traits Korea can and should use to strengthen and bolster its own social norms. Ah, "morals."
What should also be clear is how grand, sweeping generalizations are par for the course in Korean textbooks; what is most disturbing, however, is the length to which the textbooks authors blatantly pick and choose to represent the desirable "national traits" of other nations to fit into a picture of what Koreans want their nation to be. Alas, this is the project of the doduk curriculum itself, so I guess it's no surprise; but what it unfortunately teaches students who read this book (to the extent that they swallowed it) is to think in sweeping generalizations, to regard outside countries through a strictly Korean lens (the World History curriculum reproduces this view), and most dangerously – to think of "Korea" and "Koreans" and their "national character" in a similarly simplisitic and reductionist way.
You ever wonder why Koreans always brag about Korea having four seasons? Because textbooks – including this one – are always talking about this as a special attribute of this country.
You ever wonder why Koreans think all Westerners (i.e. white people) are physically incapable of eating spicy foods and have an inherent hatred of fish? The fact that I saw this bluntly stated as fact in elementary school textbooks surely can't have been a coincidence.
You ever wonder why Koreans think real American = white? Surely the fact that I've never seen anyone non-white represented in language textbooks must be part of this greater, overall pattern of other materials doing the same thing.
The list could go on forever. I hope you see my point – especially in a centralized education system in which all students are literally on the same page in the book at any given time during the year, combined with the fact that disagreement with the teacher's – and textbook's – word is still considered a near-sin in the classroom, general Korean attitudes and stereotypes become much less mysterious.
And this is in 1994. If you've ever seen textbooks from the 1960's – whooo, boy. North Koreans with horns, tails, sharp teeth – oh, my!