Kenneth M. Wells


Australian National University

Who For and Wherefore? Protestant Campaigns for "New Education" in Modern Korea

This paper examines the debates of the 1920s and 1930s in colonial Korea over the content, purpose, institutions, implementation, and leadership of what was regarded as "New Education." The focus of the paper is placed on the positions of the Korean Protestants who operated or supported new educational endeavors and of their critics, rather than on their relation to Japanese education policies, except where the latter impinges significantly on the debates among the Koreans. Further, although the initiatives taken by foreign missionary societies in establishing new schools and their continued close involvement in Protestant schooling are taken into account, missionary views are in the main called upon where they throw light on the issues that engaged the Koreans themselves.

These issues chiefly concerned whom the new education was for and what purposes it should serve, questions that naturally led to debates on the content of education and the institutions through which it was advanced. Among the Protestant educators, one important catalyst of debate was the energetic promotion of the Danish Folk School practices by Pak Indŏk, Kim Hwallan, and Shin Hŭngu, supported by the YWCA and YMCA but opposed by Kim Kyoshin and the Non-Church Movement. In relation to this internal debate, I will argue that the educational movements of the Protestants were critical indicators of their broader positions on social change and reform and as such bring into sharp relief their different visions of a modern Korea.

But externally, lines were drawn in the sand by left-wing activists, who accused the Christians of curricular and methodological elitism that left out the rural and urban workforce and inculcated bourgeois social values. In relation to this ideological dispute, the common view is that by the mid-1920s the Christians had adopted a politically quietist position and progressively lost their former status as leading-edge activists to the rising left. But the relation of Protestants to leftist ideology is far more complex than this common view allows, and I will argue that the loss of their political and social leadership was only relative and was a natural consequence of the success of their educational and other projects of the preceding three decades.