Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Election in the Classroom

I often come up with ideas for lessons from conversations with other teachers. Of course, the election has been on the forefront of many American minds. A few of us in the office have even been keeping up on the debates by watching online. This has sparked a lot of discussion and one teacher recommended that I talk about the election in the classroom. I wasn't so sure, since I felt American politics isn't as relevant here as Korean politics. That is when she told me about the Korean election. Once again, I was oblivious. I really try to keep up on the news, too. I skim the world news headlines daily and usually pick up anything about Korea, but somehow I missed out. Fortunately, she was quickly able to fill me in on the situation.

Lee Myung-bak
Right now in Korea, the president is Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party (which recently changed its name to the Saeunuri, or New Frontier Party). He was elected for a term of five years and is not allowed to run again. Right now, there are three candidates. My friend was excited because she felt there were two excellent choices and one bad choice. 

Moon Jae-in
Park Chung-hee
The opposing liberal Democratic United Party is running Moon Jae-in as their candidate, who first gained prominence as a law student by protesting the military dictator-president Park Chung-hee

Ahn Chul-soo
The other liberal candidate, Ahn Chul-soo, is running as an independent. He is a millionaire who made his money in the software industry. He is a philanthropist as well and gave everyone in Korea a free version of his Ahn Lab Antivirus software. It is no coincidence that this came pre-installed on my Samsung phone. Since he is new to politics, there is virtually no dirt associated with him. However, it is also difficult to know where he stands on issues or what his policies will look like since he  has no political record. 

Park Geun-hye

The candidate she didn't like was Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee. She is popular among older conservative Koreans who remember her father's presidency as a time of great prosperity. Indeed, Korea did grow tremendously during his reign, even if it was a time of limited speech and torturing of opponents. In 1999, Time named him as one of the top ten "Asians of the century." Right now, these three candidates are more or less tied so unless one of them drops out it will likely be too close to call right up until the election in December.

It turns out that this election has a special connection for both the United States and Korea. Since presidential elections in the United States are every four years and in Korea every five years, this type of coincidence only happens every twenty years. What a great opportunity to learn about both systems! I took my friend's advice, and now I am in the midst of a unit plan on the election.

The first week we began with a survey to determine whether my students were conservative or liberal. Since I didn't know a lot about Korean politics, I stuck with issues that would be divisive in America. These were issues like abortion, the death penalty, environmentalism, global warming, free speech, gay marriage, national security, taxes, business regulations, welfare, and so on.

However, as I suspected the students didn't find every issue divisive. Gun control was almost a non-issue. I only ever got one or two students in every class to agree that Koreans should be able to own guns for personal defense. Indeed, fellow teachers are a little disturbed when they see pictures of me holding a gun. It's just not something that is done in Korea.

Overall students are overwhelmingly liberal. I think I only had two conservatives in three classes and they were just one point over the edge and did not consider themselves conservative. My students (and I think everyone else) here really dig Obama. Actually, according to this poll, the majority of the world wants Obama to win the election. This isn't really surprising. The rest of the world is far more liberal than we are on most things so they would prefer any liberal. Not only that, but Obama has built-in name recognition and happens to have made history with his election into office. 

One of the other "agree" or "disagree" statements I wrote was "Takeshima should be given back to Japan." Takeshima is the Japanese name for Dokdo, a group of rocky islands off the coast of Korea. Korea has been occupying them for years despite Japan claiming ownership. Dokdo is a huge source of nationalism for Korea. People have t-shirts printed up saying "Dokdo is ours." In case you don't know, Japan and Korea have a lot of bad blood between them, mostly because of the atrocities committed by Japan upon Korea during World War II and several previous wars. Koreans think of Dokdo as a slap in the face after their bad history and a lack of apology from the Japanese government. Of course, with all things political, it has to do with money too. There is a huge deposit of natural gas under those rocks.

Now, getting back to the statement on the survey. The first class just quietly disagreed with it. No one got really upset. We talked a little bit about how some issues like these are not liberal or conservative but vary greatly by geography instead. Americans wouldn't really care, but Koreans and Japanese would have solid, opposing answers. The next class had to clarify first to make sure I was serious. They wanted to make sure I knew that no Korean would EVER agree to this. I told them it was a joke, meant to show bias. They laughed it off, disagreed, and moved on. In the third class, one of the brighter, quicker students asked right away where I got this survey and if it was from Japan. There was an outcry from the class. Many students refused to even answer the question because of its blatant bias. One student whited out Takeshima and wrote Dokdo in Korean over the top and then put a huge circle around "Disagree." I had to spend a few minutes settling everyone down, but I think it was a worthwhile experiment. Now I know a little bit more about the boundaries with this political issue.

This week I took the information from their surveys and formed them into politcal parties. Each class will have six candidates for president. They will have real political issues to debate and topics to choose as their primary focus. This is definitely an experiment for me. Next week we will be writing speeches for the debate. I can already tell we are off to a good start. It will be great to see what they come up with for the finished product.