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[Reporter’s column] Government's half-baked plans on 'character building education' turn up more questions than answers

The Education Ministry on Tuesday rolled out a series of measures to increase “character building education” for students, some seven months after it adopted the initiative to incorporate character evaluations into public education.

It included mandating the government to come up with a comprehensive plan for character-building education every five years and forming an advisory committee, requiring education offices to set up yearly plans for the same purpose, and funding programs to foster what they called “character-building experts” to give lectures at schools.

But it left out one element that garnered nationwide attention when the policy was unveiled during a briefing to the President Park Geun-hye: applying character evaluation to college admissions.

Upon release, the plan had raised eyebrows as teachers, students and parents all asked how it would be possible to “prepare” for character tests. Is grading one’s character in the admissions process even feasible?

Private education institutions, meanwhile, did not shy away from an opportunity to cash in on the plan. On the coattails of the announcement, local institutes started offering classes on how to prepare for character examinations.

With the plan seeming to have more negative effects than positive ones, the ministry said in Tuesday’s media briefing that applying the character evaluations in college admissions had officially been shelved.

“The character evaluation should not be calibrated for evaluation in college admissions. Although we maintain that character assessment should be an important factor in the admissions process, we are leaving it to the discretion of respective colleges and universities,” said a ministry official.

While the ministry continues to stress the importance of character building, it “might as well give up” on including it in the college admissions to avoid problems, he said.

The decision sparked criticism toward the ministry’s half-baked plan, and the fallacy of attempting to universally apply such abstract and individual virtues into mass education.

The education circle pointed to the lack, or impossibility, of indexing “characters” into education to be applied at all schools, and that stipulating it in the law would only prompt cookie-cutter education.

Plans like fostering character-building experts raised questions as well, as it lacked clear criteria. A ministry official explained that virtually anyone could apply to become one, save convicted felons, a standard that hardly appeared sufficient.

“Having a law on (character building) makes it easier to enforce it on all schools. But there is also a risk of all schools just copying a system that seems to work,” Yang Jung-ho, a professor of education at Sungkyunkwan University. He explained that the character education process was likely to become standardized and ineffective, becoming just another subject students are forced to study.

“It’s not a custom-fit education for each student, but a one-for-all model enforced by the law,” he said. “The best thing right now is to ensure that students receive character-building education through various experiences, not just via books.”

By Yoon Min-sik