Looking at college students in Korea today, I know that when I was their age I wasn’t as learned as any of them are. Hardly any of the students I work with are native speakers of English, and though only a few of them have ever lived in English-speaking countries, and then rarely longer than for a couple of years, they all speak and write English well, for it’s prized in Korea to be good with English.
Taking the same classes with the Korean students at the university where I work are many students from China, from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, some from Mongolia, the Philippines, from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, many from the countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, from Iran and Turkey, from Russia, and students from all over Africa and the Americas. (Listening to the accents of students from Singapore and Hong Kong, you would think them British, and proper British, at that.)
Many students here are fluent in three or more languages, which itself is amazing, but what’s truly remarkable about these students is that as young as they are, already they’ve read broadly and well and have deep understanding about the world, and I’ve learned so much while being with them, that I feel I too should be paying tuition to the university.
Not counting the population of the urban areas around the city, some ten million people live in Seoul. The city has almost forty universities and colleges, both private and public, large and small. There are at least ten medical colleges in Seoul, and a few colleges teaching Oriental medicine as well (what we in the West know as acupuncture). There are law colleges here, fine arts colleges, and graduate and professional schools too. Having student bodies with significant numbers of international students is not unusual for universities in Korea, for students from all over the world come here to study. In fact, there are more than 350,000 college students just in Seoul, which makes this one of the biggest college towns on the planet.
Students everywhere these days have a tough time after they graduate trying to get the jobs they want, so more of them than ever are enrolling in graduate school. To support themselves, they work at part-time jobs such as tutoring children in English and math (and increasingly, Chinese), they work at retail stores, coffee shops, and at restaurants. “What else am I going to do?” a student asks. Only she didn’t mean it as a question.
The world is going to change more during their lives than it’s changed in the last four-hundred years, and even the most astute observers today can’t imagine how that change is going to take shape. One thing is sure, though, the students in college today will recast and rebuild the world with technologies that will make our most advanced and esoteric tools and devices seem crude by comparison. They’ll also have to solve the problems that we haven’t solved yet, not least of which are the obvious ones of pollution and global warming, and then there’s the looming crisis of not having enough clean fresh water for all the people of earth to drink.
Humanity has been in peril from the beginning, but we’re clever animals – engineers by instinct, you might say – always trying to find better ways to live. In the span of roughly six-thousand generations of us (around 120,000 years) our species has gone from living in small isolated family groups of hunter-gatherers barely able to eek out meager existences, to building a world of vast cities where the big problem that faces each of us is finding work that has worth for us and is valuable to society.
So that humanity will not soon destroy itself, students today – and not just in Korea but everywhere – will have to live their lives with more wisdom and courage than did all of the wisest and most courageous people who ever lived. Indeed, they will have to be much wiser and more courageous than we have been.
Looking at college students today, it strikes me that they have no choice but to do everything they can to become the women and men that their era will demand them to be if humanity is not just to survive but to prevail. In every way imaginable, they must become the most extraordinary human beings to yet set foot on Planet Earth.
For the last nine years, Lyman McLallen taught at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is a graduate of the Orchard School in Indianapolis, Indiana.