Finding Human-Heartedness in the Most Extraordinary Places

I ventured to Asia for the first time in the summer of 2015. My wanderlust has been around for a long while, but until last summer, it hadn’t taken me to Asia. In truth, European countries offer an added layer of comfort for me, as even when I have no idea what I’m saying, I can still attempt to say it. Languages that use symbols have always scared me. Another unfortunate reality of being human is that being in a minority is often uncomfortable, and as a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian visiting Asia, I was hesitant about being in the visible minority as well.

[In teaching my students the importance of discomfort, I also often need to remind myself that growth comes from the very same discomfort that fear does.]

Despite my initial hesitations, when presented with an opportunity to experience Korea for the first time, I jumped at it. Sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, The Korea Foundation, the Kim Family Foundation, and H.F. Lenfest, 24 other American teachers and I ventured to experience Dynastic and Modern Korea.

An incredibly polite people who don’t particularly care about or notice your hair or eye color (let that be a lesson to my future preconceived notions…), Koreans live with the ever-present “threat” posed by their northern neighbors in a way that doesn’t make sense to Americans (and especially doesn’t make sense to the American Media). One of the most informative conversations we had while in Korea was about the “only move” that the North has; were they ever to use nuclear technology, that would seemingly be it for them as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though supremely interesting (pun intended!), I’ll save those stories for another day.

The most profound experience I had, of the many thought-provoking and meaningful moments this eight days had to offer, took place inside a Confucian Academy. Oksan Seowon is a Confucian Academy built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). It is one of the Seowons on the tentative list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its significance to Korean history and global culture.

There are signboards over most buildings in Confucian academies; the signboard pictured above was over the lecture hall; a large space students congregate for lessons.

Translated roughly, this sign designated the space as “The Hall to Seek Human-Heartedness.”

I was floored. Our knowledgeable guide had translated many things for us over the past few days, but I just couldn’t get past how meaningful this particular place was; I was transfixed by it. While others explored the area, dressed in traditional Confucian apparel, or played a traditional Korean game, I contemplated what it meant that THIS was the place in which, and the means by which education was meant to be imparted. Growing human hearts. Not growing CEOs, college graduates, or low-level government employees, but human hearts. What an idea.

Confucianism is a complicated belief set that I will struggle to meaningfully understand, likely for the rest of my life, but this made sense. In the middle of rural Korea, with 24 people I had known only a matter of days, this made perfect sense to me.

The importance of education, and its fundamental purpose, truly transcends belief systems, nationalities, regions, and languages. I had just experienced that truth in a profound way.

Borrowing a phrase from one of my most formative experiences as a teacher and as a person, I believe education is the primary means by which we can truly become more fully human. Apparently, 16th century Confucians in Dynastic Korea did too. What a world. I can’t wait to experience more of it.

MC Lean