By Kyoung H. Park
As the unrelenting march of globalization transforms local communities into complex multicultural societies, it's become crucial to nurture global awareness in young minds to address the needs of tomorrow's world. Most of our daily lives are becoming affected by phenomenon that know no boundaries ― migrant diasporas, an erratic global economy, world-wide depletion of food, water, and natural resources, pandemic diseases, and climate change, are some of the key issues that will affect this generation and the next.
In 2000, UNESCO began its advocacy for arts education and cultural diversity, as a way to foster individual creativity, emphatic and imaginative individuals, and to build cultural awareness and tolerance in society.
By educating the young, it is UNESCO's hope to help today's youth to creatively consider the challenges and opportunities for the sustainability and development of the human society in the 21st century. This ambitious vision of the UNESCO was quickly put into practice in South Korea.
By 2004, the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education launched a joint Ministerial Declaration and Action Plan to provide and promote arts education nationwide. After the first UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education in Lisbon, Portugal, South Korea successfully bid to host the second UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education in 2010.
Meanwhile, Korea has instituted legal frameworks and allocated financial resources to develop arts and culture education, resulting in the training of artists to teach in public schools, partnerships between schools, cultural organizations and local governments, and research the best national and global arts education practices.
As Korea gradually takes a leadership role in the advocacy and promotion of arts education worldwide, we should take a moment to reflect on the meaning and impact of arts education.
As an artist and visiting Professor at Kyung Hee University's School of English Language and Culture, I've had the privilege of teaching contemporary drama and musicals to undergraduate students in Korea.
At first, I was taken aback when most of my students acknowledged they were studying the performing arts for the first time. I immediately noticed how the lack of access to arts education created a void in my students' capacity to both appreciate and learn from the arts. Providing in my lectures both theoretical and historical contexts to the works of art studied, the students' curiosity sparked when they realized ''Sweeney Todd'' was not simply a musical, but a criticism of industrialization, or that the play ''My Name is Rachel Corrie'' was based on the true diary and emails of a young American woman, not much older than my students, who had lost her life in defense of Palestinian human rights in Gaza. Having the tools to critically assess the arts and find meaning behind an artist's work, they learned to appreciate art not only as entertainment, but as a new way of seeing and discussing the world.
However, arts education is valued for varying reasons based on diverse theories and schools of thought. One segment of the field argues that industrialized societies are becoming knowledge-based societies, in which creativity must be prioritized to develop a flexible workforce capable of innovation in a post-industrial economy. In other words, as developed and developing countries, including Korea, witness a growing number of unemployed 20-somethings, arts education is seen as an economic imperative to cultivate new labor and products of value beyond the existing industries.
A second segment of the field argues that arts and culture education is a way of ensuring that the arts and ''mainstream culture'' become a social good for all citizens, reflecting the growing democratization of arts-practices from the select, few, ''creative geniuses'' to the artists in all of us. From this point of view, the goal of arts education is to provide children and adults access to both the knowledge and tools to develop their unique voices and particular forms of expression, in order to actively participate in mainstream culture.
A third argument proposed in the field is based on politics; by enhancing arts education in public schools and local communities, we can foster multi-disciplinary activities and creative challenges which can enhance the ability of individuals to participate in society at large.
Moreover, vis-a-vis aesthetic collaborations and dialogue among people who wouldn't necessarily come together on their own, arts education can enhance the democratization of societies by including marginalized sectors of the population into public debate, raising awareness of lesser known issues, and deepening tolerance for cultural differences.
The debate on how to best develop policies to strengthen arts education is even more complex. I often ask myself why should I engage with such educational reform when there are more evident needs in Korea's educational system? The answer to this question is not found in our educational practices or the expected outcomes of reform, but rather in Korea's evolving understanding of culture. South Korea's rapid economic development and increasing participation in the global community has not gone unnoticed, but it is recognized that the social and cultural development of the nation lags behind its prompt industrialization and economic achievements.
Then again, Korea's insular history and upholding of Confucian values make it a distinct case study of how western ideas, such as democracy and capitalist modernization, can be achieved by developing nations without compromising local values and traditions. In fact, Korea's ethnic ― perhaps even cultural ― pride is reflected not only in its ability to assimilate foreign ideas, but to adopt them and contribute to their development in the global community without losing sense of its own national identity. Korean society is becoming stronger in association and organization, increasing the role of communities in a participatory democracy, and legitimizing the voice of its citizens (including netizens) who practice their human right to self-determination in a vibrant, expanding Korean culture. Abroad, hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is a significant new trend in the arts through which Korea has been able to reverse negative stereotypes about its history and identity and instead celebrate the achievements of Korean people through films, music and other forms of creative expression.
I suggest that this new chapter in Korea's culture is deeply considered, as its history, identity, and role in the global community expands to provide significant new meaning to arts education and its impact in society. While developed countries have long-established arts education in their schools and communities, it is in the experience of newly developed countries that we can reassess the meaning of arts education for children.
Cultural diversity, social change, and participatory democracy can become possible only when we collectively form a world in which a child's imagination, no matter where he or she lives, can be free to express and create for him or herself a better world.
This feat would not be just art; it would be the imagination, dreams and hope we need for the future.
Kyoung H. Park is Visiting Professor at Kyung Hee University's School of English Language and Culture and 2008 Global Arts Village Fellow (New Delhi, India).