Cultural Clash: Neoliberalism, Global Educational Migration, and American Evangelical Pedagogy

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A review of Fragile Civility: An Evangelical American School Meets Korean Educational Sojourners in Neoliberal Time, by Hye-Young Park.

The trends among South Korean youths of “Early Study Abroad” and “English Fever” have been  hot-button topics of discussions and analysis since the full-scale onset of neoliberal globalization in South Korea in the 1990s. There seems to be a consensus that, in contemporary South Korean society, a caste-like system is implicitly (and often not so implicitly) in place based on one’s college affiliation, and that English proficiency is almost a sine qua non requirement in the post-graduation job market. Accordingly, the entire educational system, including a thriving market of privately tutored after-school cramming courses, is geared toward drilling students to score good grades in one-shot college entrance exams. And all aspiring future job-seekers, from pre-school to college level students, invest time and effort honing their English skills in order to get higher scores in standardized English proficiency tests. Without doubt, all this puts a great burden on young students and their families, and a significant number of them have actually set out on an educational exodus toward the United States with the hope that this so-called land of freedom and opportunity would offer them a better chance to acquire English in a more humane schooling environment. Will they end up in an educational paradise, so to speak, and fulfill their American dream? Is the American school system ready to take in and teach the young migrants from Korea with adequate multicultural sensibilities? These questions are the starting point for Hye-Young Park’s case study of the struggles that some South Korean international students have to face every day at a private evangelical secondary school in a small Midwestern town in the United States.

At the heart of Park’s ethnographic narrative is a dissonance of mutual expectations or a cultural tug-of-war between the relatively free-spirited (and, yet, compulsively aspirational) South Korean teenagers from more or less affluent family backgrounds, on the one hand, and the abstinent, almost Puritanical, white American teachers who represent the family-centered and faith-based values of American middle and/or working class, on the other. Granted, the tensions have seldom come into an open conflict. The legal status of the foreign students, after all, solely depends upon the school’s volition to take them under its wings, and the Korean students generally try to stay away from any trouble that might send them back to their home country. Besides, the school administration in this case study considers it a central mission to transform the lives of students by way of a biblically-based education. Thus, any ad hoc policies of the school vis-à-vis the Korean international students are adopted in the spirit of Christian benevolence to implement what the school administrators think is best for students with “special needs.” For, many of these students seem to have a difficult time assimilating to American culture, but enjoy too much after-school freedom with little supervision from their geographically and emotionally “absent” fathers, mothers, or both. Nevertheless, Park’s extended interviews with the teachers, the students, and their parents reveal an undercurrent of tension, which she argues has been masked by a thin veneer of civility and pedagogical-disciplinary convenience.

As for the Korean students’ discontent with the school, Park finds that the Korean students are at once both prisoners and carriers of neoliberal subjectivity, or what Michel Foucault calls “homo oeconomicus,” obsessively preoccupied with accumulating “human capital” in their bodily materiality. Originally, the students’ decision to go on an adventure of Early Study Abroad was motivated by a desire to seek a way out of South Korea’s excessively competitive educational and socio-economic setting. Nevertheless, most of them brought the same neoliberal ethos to the other side of the Pacific. Their ultimate goal is still to increase their human capital based on the premise that English proficiency and a bachelor’s degree from an American university would take them a long way toward surviving in this competitive global economy. Their sojourn in this small American private evangelical school is, then, nothing more than a stepping stone to climb up a ladder to success under the shadow of American imperialist hegemony. Unfortunately for them, the evangelical school they attend falls far short of their educational and economic ambitions in many respects.

As a culturally conservative evangelical institution, the school tries to instill evangelical values in the minds and practices of its students by requiring them to take classes on Bible, Christian Worldview, and Life Curriculum, as well as subjecting them to a set of strict codes of dress and conduct. From the perspective of the young teenage Korean students, all these religious requirements and ethical regulations seem to represent the stifling, out-of-date values of cultural conservatism that are oddly similar to what they left behind in South Korea. More importantly, the worldly success-driven Korean students—although most of them are church-goers—find no practical utility whatsoever for their immediate goals of improving SAT scores and getting into American universities in the religious aspects of the school. In fact, they are frustrated with the school’s lack of concern for academic excellence and guidance, while putting too much stress on religious cultivation. As Park puts it, these young entrepreneurs from South Korea seem to feel that they have come “all the way to the U.S. only to find [themselves] in another insular little world” (p. 118). The result is that they tepidly attend the school paying little or no attention to its gospel-based education, instead concentrating most of their energy on what they think is important in terms of academic advancement.

In a similar but different manner, Park comes upon a different narrative about the Korean student-school relationship from the school’s perspective. It turns out that most of the school administrators and teaching staff have some concerns and even suspicions about the motives and behaviors of the Korean international students. For example, the admission board has a discomfort with the Korean students’ (and their parents’) half-hearted or feigned acknowledgement of the school’s commitment to an evangelical-based education. In fact, the parents’ decision to send their children to this particular American evangelical private school was largely based on a utilitarian calculus: the school not only provides a safer environment for the students than public schools, but the acceptance rate is higher than it is for Catholic private schools. While acknowledging that many American “white” families also choose this school for similarly non-confessional reasons, the school administrators are nevertheless particularly disturbed by the Korean students’ undivided absorption in academic success at the expense of interest in the school’s evangelical standing.

Worse still, Park reports that the school’s fundamental misgivings toward Korean students haunt almost every teacher-student encounter. Many of the teachers have negative stereotypes about their Korean students: they are so obsessed with grades as to frequently cheat in exams or school assignments; they often sleep in classes in which they have no interest; they have a tightly-knit ethnic-linguistic clique through which they secretly (which means, in Korean) exchange answers during in-class exams or speak disrespectfully about school authorities right under the nose of the instructors. The school has tried to reassert control over the Korean students’ “unruly” behaviors by establishing a set of specific disciplinary measures, such as an “English Only” policy (banning nearly all Korean speech within the school vicinity) and requiring Korean students to be supervised by at least one proper guardian (that is, an adult figure serving a parental role) in residence. As an engaged participant-observer, Park recounts her efforts to arbitrate this fraught Korean student-school tension by talking to each party separately. However, when she finds that misconduct by the Korean students generally receives more scrutiny than that of American students, Park contends that the school is not free from the charge of “institutional racism” (p. 175).

Overall, Park’s Fragile Civility is an ambitious attempt to delve into the macro- and micro-politics of cultural clashes that reflect power relations at multiple levels of global secondary education in terms of class, language, nationality, and, particularly in this case, religion. Granted that the interpenetration of neoliberalism and education has been much discussed recently, this dissertation nevertheless makes a unique theoretical contribution in showing that, contra Max Weber, evangelical Protestantism (at least, its small Midwestern city version) does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with neoliberal capitalism. On a more practical note, anyone who is interested in the subjects of educational migration as well as evangelical schooling in the United States, including educational practitioners and policy makers, will gain many helpful insights and suggestions from Park’s research.

Myung-Sahm Suh
Divinity School
University of Chicago
mssuh@uchicago.edu

Primary Sources
Interviews
Observations
Reflection Journals

Dissertation Information
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2013. 325 pp. Primary Advisors: Violet J. Harris and Nancy A. Abelmann.

Image: Hye-Young (Lisa) Park. Amorphous Identities: Global KoMericans. Amazon CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

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