What I Never Learned in School

In my schooling I don’t remember learning anything about North Korea. At all. If anything existed in my U.S. History book about the Korean War and its aftermath, it was not only glossed over by my class but also completely ignored by myself since we were promised that it wasn’t necessary for the AP History Test (it was, to my dismay). All I ever knew about North Korea was based on a magazine cover that was held by push-pins onto the bulletin board in our history classroom—an ominous cartoon of Kim Jung Il and lots of nukes. In college I didn’t learn much more—in my class in Korea I learned about the Korean War and resulting separation of the Koreas, but nothing about North Korea after the fact. All I’ve learned about North Korea has been from an International Relations class that had a week focused on dealing with nuclear war and the internship this summer.

After talking to other students about what they knew about North Korea, I also wanted to hear teachers’ perspective on the experience of teaching about North Korea, and to find out how much what my friends knew was from an American school curriculum. One teacher, Mr. Zele, was a 7th grade world culture teacher and the other, Mr. Nash, was a 6th grade U.S. History teacher. While Mr. Nash was able to talk about the scheduled school curriculum he has about North Korea, Mr. Zele was about to give me some insight into a school project that provided one group of students a great platform for learning about North Korea.

In 7th grade Mr. Zele’s class makes projects for the 2011 World Affairs Challenge, through which teams compete state-wide and nationally with essays, plays, and projects about the topic of the year. Last year the theme was food and sustainability and four 7th grade boys in his class decided to focus on hunger in North Korea for their project. Because other teams chose topics like organic food and fast food, Mr. Zele was struck with the originality of their topic. The fact that even at the Twin Cities World Affairs Challenge at Macalester last March they were applauded for their originality says something about the rarity of topics on North Korea.

However, as Mr. Zele said the boys found, this was greatly due to the lack of open information on North Korea. Their main resource was a database and a website sponsored by Global Cengage, but they could not find any print resources in our well-stocked school library. As Mr. Zele said, “Simply put, there is a dirth of reliable information available to the average American when it comes to researching what is going on in North Korea.”

However, with that they found, they were able to create an impressive skit about “traveling” from the school cafeteria to different scenes in North Korea. They met with many different characters “secretly” in the scene for fear of reprisal. Some of these characters were a military man, who said that the army gets first pick for food in order to keep the masses hungry and help the government maintain greater control, a young boy who talked about hunger so severe that they resorted to eating tree roots and twigs, and a businessman who talked about their need for foreign aid. In the end, Mr. Zele added that “their perspective was probably ‘typical’ [of what American students think] in that much of the information was culturally biased and presented a very extreme picture of life in N. Korea. Then again, I have never been there, so I don’t really know what it is like.” Many of us should probably remember to make similar disclaimers, since certain information about North Korea is always hard to verify.

Mr. Nash was about to give me more information about a formal teaching plan for American students. His students’ 6th grade textbook gives a short introduction to the Koreas—about 25 pages, covering the general geography of the peninsula, a description of the climate and natural resources, a brief history, including just a couple pages on the Korean War, a section on culture and religion, and finally a compare/contrast on the two countries. “The text depicts North Korea as a country very centralized and controlled by the government, Korean Worker’s Party and Kim Jong Il, and its economy is said to be struggling, with many funds aimed toward the military. The agriculture is also depicted as struggling and helped by international aid. Reunification is mentioned as a goal of the new South Korean constitution, but points out the many obstacles in its way, especially the development of different cultures and ideology.  The shared Olympics participation is listed as one example of the positive efforts in place.  I would say that our 6th graders know little about Korea and have barely heard of the Korean War.” He also said that this was a new program this past year, and that he plans to expand a little on teaching about North Korea this upcoming year. What was taught about South Korea was also fairly vague, focusing on the process of democratization after the Korean War and the current economic differences between the countries.

It’s reassuring to know that teachers at my school have pushed towards a more global approach at teaching history, and therefore have helped to bring Korea into the curriculum. Though one might assume that simply expanding the scope past America would make Korea relevant to students, unfortunately, that is not always the case. However, I plan to talk to these teachers again sometime soon to hear if any students have taken interest in Korea in their classes, and well as hopefully hear back from some High School teachers about their curriculums on the Korea War. Also, though the information for their project was limited, Mr. Zele’s students’ project sounded really interesting, and I asked him if I could take a look at it. Hopefully I can also give Mr. Nash some tips on how to make the Korean part of his class curriculum exciting to his students, using media that compares to the two countries. For now, it seems that the curiosity of students continues to be the best learning tool!

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