[This special column was contributed by Cho Hee-yeon, superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education]
SEOUL -- "It could not be more perfect."
It was a comment from Yun Si-hu, a fifth-grade student who transferred from a school in Seoul to a Woldeung Elementary school in Suncheon some 294 kilometers (182 miles) south of the capital city. His words were the most comforting to people like me who are in a situation where we have to contemplate the efficacy of educational policies.
Students looked totally free when they laughed and giggled as they caught marsh snails, prepared meals after taking eggs out of the henhouse, and as they played with a ball in a massive nature environment that was rolled out in front of their homes. What would "studying in a rural part of the country" means to Si-hu who thinks that his life in Suncheon is one of the three happiest moments of his life?
It was also impressive to hear the story of a teacher at Woldeung Elementary School that the contents of the class became abundant as children came from Seoul and group activities became possible in classrooms. I think these scenes fully reveal the need for students to study in rural areas.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education's "Studying Abroad in Rural Areas" project is designed to establish an ecological transformation education plan carried out in response to the era of the climate crisis.
It is our urgent educational task that we let our future generations have a serious mind of reflection on modern industrial civilization in the era of the climate crisis and grow into eco-friendly-minded, naturally sensitive people. Studying in the countryside will be an experiment in South Korea. Studying abroad in rural areas is for students from Seoul, the capital of South Korea surrounded by high-rise cement buildings, to feel the changes in nature in farming and fishing villages, to step on the soil, and create ecological sensitivity.
The project also intends to create a second hometown for city students who are difficult to have the sentiment of a "hometown" surrounded by nature. It was also significant to respond to the phenomenon of local extinction, a serious problem in our society. The studying abroad in rural areas project was expected to revitalize rural classrooms where any activity was difficult due to the absolute lack of students.
Despite the project being rolled out with a lot of good intentions, we were not sure whether any student will apply for the program. However, my worries turned out to be unfounded fears. Because students were engaged in remote classrooms in 2021 when the rural studying project began due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and parents who were tired of prolonged social distancing showed high interest. 81 students participated in the first programs and now, two years since the project was kicked off, we have had 714 participants so far.
The total number of participants is actually much bigger as family members of participating students also moved to rural villages. The program expanded from South Jeolla Province to North Jeolla Province to cover more villages with themes such as a healing program for the body and mind and a Taekwondo program in the town of Muju. Starting this year, the area of coverage will expand to the eastern province of Gangwon.
Now is an era of challenges, risks, and chronic conflicts. In times like this, it is important to have the capability to create an environment where people, nature, and technologies can co-exist. It is also the reason why I suggest co-existence as an important principle that penetrates the idea of future education. Conflicts can never be resolved by dichotomous ideas. We can creatively solve such problems through a process of realizing the interconnectivity and interdependence between Earth and humans, humans and humans, and humans and non-humans beyond the dichotomous conflict, and creating a new universal story of co-existence.
I believe that the study-abroad-in-rural-village project will become a part of our educational sector's many important universal stories of co-existence. The project is an active educational policy that seeks co-existence and co-prosperity between cities, rural areas, and humans. More than 2,800 rural schools have closed since 1982 because of decreased number of students. The number of schools at risk of closing down continues to increase. In a country like South Korea where about 50 percent of the whole population is focused on the capital city and its satellite cities, the closing down of rural schools is directly connected to local extinction.
Some say that our project is a "downgrade" of the current educational system and some say that it is an "exile" but such comments overshadow the words of a local support agency's scholarship manager that "many people are struggling in this region to make rural life a wonderful choice to live properly, not a life of the defeated." In a sense, it could be degrading statements about the residents of rural areas.
In fact, in the village where our students study abroad, there are various programs customized for international students such as horseback riding and golf classes that are difficult to access in cities. Numerous people are trying to share the charms of rural areas. In South Korea, a country of fierce private education, people living in rural areas can get remote private education if they want to.
"Living together" and co-existence are not difficult words. It is a question of how to solve the problems of life we live. The sustainable future of humans and nature is possible when we have created a society that does not lose solidarity as global citizens and members of the South Korean community. I try to realize this through education on co-existence.
If you want to escape from the stark life of the city, I recommend you to follow the child's words, "It could not be more perfect," and study abroad in rural areas.
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