On the Failure of Education
Updated: Apr 16
I am becoming someone else at this point and I’d like to record and share something from the being that I am now, at this point in time and in the course of my development. If it is not done now, it could never be done the way it would have. It would be something else. Plus, I am ready to move on.
I recognize the process of becoming now, having done so many times before. Sometimes it’s me. Oftentimes it’s just the options presented to me given the situation.
It is like shedding a skin. A new form emerges from the old. But the old was critical for the new to be born. The old was so formative to the core of the new. The old always belongs to a whole people.
Am I mixing up my metaphors? Do I sound generic? Sloppy? I ask myself these things whenever I write in my own voice. I am assessing myself, I know, against a set of standards created by people who occupy centrality in the world, who aren’t like me, don’t think like me, don’t care for the mish-mash ways that are natural to me (or someone like me).
None of that matters, anyhow; I am going to start now. I am going to start here, where I am now. Given the world as it is, and the paths that were available to me, it will have to do.
Deep breath. I try to prepare myself to say what I got to say. What’s stopping me from gaining exact clarity on what that is? Why can’t I figure out what it is that I am trying to say?
Is it that I wonder: How do I communicate in English without feeling like I am catering to, or like I have to cater to, the majority-English speaking audience? If the language I feel most adept in is English, is it permissible to speak of a culture, a people, that linguistically pertain to another? Or is that a sort of betrayal to the true nature of the subject?
No, this isn’t it, though it’s all tightly intertwined. It has to do with multiplicity of being, with how I am perceived, with communicating… No, actually, it might not be that, or even that complicated. Maybe I am simply reacting to one world and seeking answers in another. Maybe I am angry at one, or confused, or trying to reconcile with it, but seeking distance in the other. Maybe I am ashamed for one, collaborating with it, hiding it for it. No, this is all too complicated to explain this way. I will try another way.
[Comedic interlude: cue fanfare]
There was once a town. Through its center there flowed a bountiful river of crystal clear, blue water called the River of Knowledge and Critical Thought. This river was the source of bountiful growth and life in the town. The river provided vital water to all the town’s living creatures for consumption and cleansing. It also provided them with critical nutrients through the trees that it watered along its banks. There were many different kinds of trees. The trees bore fruits through which the townspeople could consume Knowledge and Critical Thought. The magical aspect of the river was that the more that the citizens of the town consumed from it and were strengthened from it, the fuller the river flowed, and the more that the citizens looked after it preciously.
A certain robust kind of tree, which bore apples, was particularly valued for the nutrients that it provided the people of the town. When people ate from this tree, they were strengthened multiple times more than when they ate from any other kind of tree.
This type was called the Elite Education tree. Those who ate apples from the Elite Education tree had more nutrients from the River of Knowledge and Critical Thought. Therefore, they were relied on to apply its benefits on behalf of the whole town, and to ensure that the river continued to flow bountifully so that others could also benefit from what they had. However, they forgot about the source of life that fed the roots, the great river. They only saw the trees and the luscious red apples hanging from their branches. These people ate from the Elite Education trees, and used the nutrients they consumed in order to advance themselves. Soon after, they made a private group of only those who had access to these trees, and closed off access to them to everyone else.
Following the lead of these most well-resourced people, the rest of the townspeople started to forget about the river and its pure, lush bounty. The River of Knowledge and Critical Thought waned, and became but a narrow and weak stream, barely existing. Other trees grew starved, stunted. Without even realizing it, the people themselves were becoming weaker.
There was a town. There was a tree in the center of the town. It bore oranges. It was called the Tree of Wisdom. All the townsfolk loved the tree, and ate from the bounty of its fruits. It was a hardy and drought-resistant tree, so that even when the River of Knowledge and Critical Thought had waned, the Tree of Wisdom was deeply rooted and ever strong. This would be the last hope for the town when it would forget about the River.
Reader, I am going to tell you a story. But we have to start with some agreements, first.
First, the story will be told to you in English but you must read it as though there aren’t any associations or inherent value to the fact that it is the English language, which carries a specific history and origin to a certain people. You must read the English as if it were simply language. Pretend as though you’d only adopted it by happenstance, because you happened to be in a world that became dominated by this language and never asked the others whether that sounded like a pleasant idea. (If English is your only or primary language, then you are in luck, as this doesn’t mean that anything should significantly change in the way you read this. But this is important to me to say, and, in fact, it is important to say).
Second, you should know the facts surrounding the story before you hear the experience of it.
Despite my unweighted 3.8 GPA and four years at a competitive high school in Chicago, IL, I could not qualify for financial assistance for university. Therefore, I attended community college for 2.5 years, obtained an Associate’s degree in Arts, then transferred over to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Business, where I obtained a Bachelor’s degree Accounting in 2014. I commuted from home and worked all throughout.
In December of 2016, I married my husband, a doctoral scholar and son of academics. In 2017 through 2019, I attended a master’s program at a “prestigious” university, the same one where my partner was obtaining his PhD, I obtained a master’s degree in social work. Just this past January I left a job at an Ivy league university.
Third, you must understand the world view that I am writing this from. There is nothing that I regret about the life or education choices that I or my parents made up to where we are now, given the choices we were presented. I am immensely proud of my immigrant family and all we have achieved in this country. I am proud to be, along with my two sisters, a first-generation college graduate. I am thankful for each and all of the opportunities that I have had, including but not limited to all the education I attained. Nothing I write here is done without awareness of many privileges that I was afforded by a system that unjustly robs the very same from so many others who deserve it as much as me, if not more. In fact, what I write here is directly in response to this discriminatory system that fails so many.
We consume a lot of bullshit narratives in this society. We’ve been consuming them for so long and in such large quantities all the time, that they’ve become part of our body’s constitution. Have they become 40% of our being? 70%? 90%? There is no way to know.
When you realize that you’ve been taking in so much bullshit, you try to purge yourself of it whenever you can. The purge happens most often, in the way of a catapult from the depths of your guts, when you’re confronted with someone who seems to really revel in it. But even after you’ve had a throw-up, you don’t know if there are remainders of this foreign material still in your guts, and if so, how much of it. You’re afraid that the continuous consumption from so long has broken down the BS to the smallest of particles mixed in your veins; you might be contaminated forever.
The biggest bullshit narrative I’ve ever been fed was that my worth was tied to the elite status of what undergraduate educational institution I’d attend. Given the potency and prevalence of this lie in this entire country and world, it was difficult and took me a long time to name it and trace it back to its source. The lie was told to me by many corroborating parties. Those most blamable would be Those In Power in the US government, media, culture, arts, and education. Those from whom I came to resent hearing it the most would be Those Individuals on the Inside, Who Should Know Better.
This Biggest Bullshit Narrative was closely tied to the Second Biggest Bullshit Narrative, which also defined my worth. It was this idea that I only deserved being in this country if I proved that I merited it by essentially getting into Harvard for free. As an undocumented immigrant, the only validated and circulated narrative of the “good” young undocumented immigrant is that of the “Dreamer,” the young immigrant that defies all realistic odds and attends an Ivy league university on a full-ride scholarship. They did things the “right” way. They “got in line,” and good things happened to them. They –and what is not said but implied, they alone, even separate from their own parents-- merited their victory, out of sheer individual hard work in a supposedly meritocratic country. Together, these two narratives that I drank by the jugs during high school were closing in the walls around me.
These narratives were laden more heavily when adding them onto the very real situation I was in. As a Korean child, my worth was tied to my family’s, and my family’s was tied to mine. It’s just the way we form identity, as natural and standard as how a Christian celebrates the rise of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. As an immigrant and daughter of immigrants, it rested on me to make my parents’ immense sacrifices to migrate to the land of opportunities worthwhile. My parents didn’t have any money, and neither of them finished a 4-year college education. In conclusion, my worth and my entire family’s worth, and the tremendous sacrifices we had already made even by then, were dependent on whether I attained an elite undergraduate education, with little tuition help and no guidance.
I didn’t make it. I fell. Those who felt the pain unspeakably more than I did were probably my parents.
This story isn’t about what prevented me from attaining this marker to prove my worth. This story also isn’t about whether I even wanted this marker to prove my worth. That I had no access to financial aid as an undocumented immigrant, or subsequently suffered other systemic barriers for getting ahead, is inconsequential to the final outcome. Moreover, the condition of being undocumented merits separate regard in the way that it causes disempowerment and devastation of the likes far greater than the failure to obtain a fancy bachelor’s degree. As to why I did not even think to question this way of valuing myself, the pressures presented by legitimized and normalized societal expectations are far too great to see past their legitimacy as an outsider in various regards, including legally. There are numbers to show that I am not alone in my experiences. But there are other times for that story.
No, I just wanted to tell my story. The story of how a combination of two bullshit myths affected me throughout my life, from the time I arrived in the United States at the age of 10, or even before, through now. The power of the myths was so strong, and their effects still so fresh despite years of combat, they affected my world view even until last week.
The story I want to tell here is closely tied to a set of questions I’ve been confronted with all my life -- “who are you? What are you doing here? How shall I perceive or assess you?” or perhaps, that last question would more accurately be, “How should I categorize you?” – and why these questions were particularly difficult to answer.
The questions weren’t asked like this, ever. But I have been greeted and distressed by them in the questioning look of a fresh new face a million times. No matter what new job or career I took up, no matter what new corner of the world I occupied, if I’d only had the right education, I thought, I’d have been able to fight through all the other narratives about me as an Asian-American woman (based on the attributes that are immediately apparent), an immigrant (which I was proud to believe distinguished me from most other Asian-Americans), or an undocumented immigrant (which, after gaining political empowerment, I’d often freely disclose for activism purposes) that quickly filled the blanks in their minds as they waited for an answer. If I’d only had the right education, would I be able to harness language and culture at the exact level of precision to wow them at their own game. If I’d had the right title attached to my name, I could reveal the key word to instantaneously drop the tiresome need to constantly prove myself as worthy enough for their regard and attention, for my position, and for the space I take up in this territory.
Pretend there is someone that I’ve had a chance to observe in social spaces. I’ve been able to deduce that they are a good, likeable person. They are smart, kind, creative, honest. They are charming and well-regarded by peers. They have a strong sense of awareness of and responsibility for the world. They are engaged in society and see their civic duty to be engaged productively, effectively. They might show awareness of the incredible frailty of life. All in all, they seem great, and, as a matter of fact, I would delight in talking to them, getting to know them, maybe even becoming friends with them.
This all might sound laughable and ridiculous to you, an American. You might think, “Geez, I just go up to someone and talk to them. Do you really approach people observing all these things? How can you deduce so much character from brief observation? You’re… different.” Well, yes, I am. I’ve seen and been in different parts of the world, and I know what I am doing.
The truth is that I’d be lying to you if I told you that that’s all I am taking into account and noticing about someone in order to make a portrait of their character. Oftentimes, when someone seems this confident, at ease, and social in the most appealing and natural poster-perfect way, they have had at least several systematic advantages. One particular systematic advantage has been a thorn in my side, one adjacent to class, income, whiteness, geographical location, and legal status. It is education, by which I mean level of higher education, level of prestige of the educational institution, and experiential opportunities the school provides for real personal growth.
Education has been a source of sheer, unmitigated envy for me, for knowing full well that I did not have an army of faculty, staff, and resources in my undergraduate experience to help ensure that I can exude as much worldliness, knowledgeability, and confidence as some other person –all due to systemic discrimination I could never escape or bypass. This is why the schooling that one received would never escape my notice in learning about someone interesting.
Which of the many wonderful liberal arts or elite schools creates this sort of personality? Did they get this sort of colorful, bubbly, light, genteel, compassionate, fun, wacky, intense, observant, judgmental, competitive, broody, or otherwise interesting personality due to their schooling, or in spite of it? How much might they owe it to the multiple hands extended to them that might not have been if it weren’t for their educational institution?
Anyway, there is that person. They went to, say, beautiful-campus-Berkeley. To add more detail, let’s say they double majored in Women’s Studies and Anthropology. I am meeting them because we went to the same high school, or graduate school, or family church, or activism group, or workplace, or something like that (each of which are applicable). Let’s say that for some reason, we have occasion to finally directly engage and introduce ourselves. They’ve turned their gaze to me. They introduce themselves to me. They are regarding me. Allow me to freeze time for a moment here, to explain what it feels like to be me.
What I feel in such moments is not intimidation, per se, though I’ve been calling it intimidation all along. I’d thought that what I felt was intimidation. Supposedly I was being faced with an embodiment of all the bullshit narratives that each of these schools themselves sell to the masses. But, actually, this descriptor is not merely oversimplified; it is wrong.
What I felt at such times would be an overwhelming rush of desperation, of urgency, and of anticipation of a certain inevitable outcome. I would be faced with the immediate realization of the vast ocean there existed between where I stood, far outside of the establishment, and where my interlocutor stood, well within it, while simultaneously faced yet again with a puzzle that I hadn’t yet figured out how to solve: how to explain the ocean between us, and how to do it in a way that doesn’t show unsightly desperation? If only I could solve this puzzle. Then they understand me the same way they would understand a young white man who might smile, stretch out his hand, and say, “hey, my name is Donovan.”
In this metaphor, my interlocutor would be happily going on a roadside jog, unaware of the ocean next to them. They’d think they’re as landlocked as could be, say, as Paraguay is.*
With the anticipation, there was fear. One might say fear is a form of intimidation, a stronger form of it, at that. But fear, unlike intimidation, can come about without willful cause, and prompted by no single or clear person or force. My fear didn’t have to do much with my interlocutor, or anything they’d say or do, but rather with preexisting forces and associations. My fear was that I’d be assigned a category before I could seize whatever narrow window I had (or ever thought I had, even if there actually wasn’t and there never had been a window at all) to prove several things at once. First, in that narrow window, the onus was on me to show that I was worth at least as much as them in the space I took up to be there, and in deserving the regard of someone like them (though maybe not necessarily them).
Second, I felt I had to show that I was something else; “better,” as they might see it, but actually for me and my sake –different, unique, than just another member of a category. I had to prove my individuality beyond the narratives that surrounded me as an Asian-American woman, an immigrant, an accountant, etc. Individuality for an Asian-American is a tricky thing; individuality in the form that is defined and viewed through the western lens goes against our heritage. Nevertheless, it was important to me to show that I, too, knew how things worked in this world, and that I was not a consequence of my surroundings. There were so many myths pertaining to me that had to be broken, that I had to break. I had to make it clear that I knew they are there.
Third, and most strongly and importantly, I needed them to know I wasn’t ready for their judgment –not like that cis/het consultant Donovan from Brown might be. Their elite or liberal arts education afforded them rights: to stretch their minds, to figure out who they were, to explore/be challenged/express/fail and try again/be, simply, young. Whatever rights they received were rights I hadn’t had. I hadn’t even had a chance to discover the extent of what they were given and what I could not possibly access. I took pride in having carved out my own way in any way that I could. Still, I was sure that I must have glaring holes that I hadn’t caught that gave me away perhaps as a fraud, an ignorant savage, or a bore, in ways that I was not aware.
When I formally entered the world of social justice through my Master of Social Work program, my fear of being judged for my ignorance took yet a new form. In this realm, I learned that those who had gone through elite education could harness their power over language and knowledge as a weapon. The weapon was one of moral judgment; it was created with knowledge, took language as bullets, and would be used to put down anyone who did not have the same knowledge and language. I could not be sure whether I was more surprised when this was done by someone in my program who came from an educational background closer to mine, or an elite school. I carried identities that protected me in many ways from myself being a target for this sort of judgment. But I began to observe how people –often, to my dismay, young Asian-American women—would deem that not using certain learned (read lear-nehd) words or not showing a certain understanding of complex dynamics (especially expressed in certain particular ways) meant that one is on the moral wrong side of history. More damningly, it meant one is personally morally corrupt.
This pattern at first shattered me and appalled me, then rapidly grew an ire inside me. I had already resented privileged young Asian-Americans who had received an elite education and didn’t seem to combat the narratives that I felt were their responsibility to combat, and theirs alone. Now, I despised young Asian-Americans who further used this privilege to lay judgment on the moral character of those who did not have the same education. Their lack of self reflection when they entered the field of social justice on how their words and behaviors might affect others –others who are often relatively underprivileged, almost always already deeply hurt-- was inexcusable.
So, it was the elite or liberal arts educated and likeable person that would effectuate such a reaction in me. There were also strict groupings of people who definitely would not have such an effect on me. I didn’t care for, say, what a cisgender finance bro whose primary concern in life is getting this season’s Bulls or Cubs tickets might think of me. I didn’t care for what second-generation Korean-Americans who grew up in the quiet suburbs in their 2+ bathroom houses and attended overwhelmingly white schools to then achieve some other normative definitions of success thought about me. I gave up on what a Korean from Korea might think of me.** These people could not understand me even if I forced them to listen to my explanations for days on end. As cruel as it may sound, I also didn’t care much for the regard of those in my own undergraduate program. As much as I’d try to connect with them, no one seemed to understand or share in my plight. My mind was elsewhere. My heart was in campuses with green pastures instead of the ubiquitous concrete and steel of either my community college or state university.
It was all emotionally exhausting, and it is only now as I write this recounting that I realize the extent to which I’d been searching so desperately to simply be understood all my life, despite all the complications related to my state of being. I would be delighted when I would meet someone closer to, supposedly, my own kind. A driven Korean-American millennial. A driven Korean-American millennial woman. A driven Korean-American first generation immigrant millennial woman. A driven Korean-American first generation immigrant millennial woman who was previously or is currently undocumented. The closer they were categorically to me, and the identities that were most impactful to and defining for me, the greater my hopes that we might understand each other, and get past the hellish narratives surrounding us. And when my interlocutor had an elite degree, my hopes would be greater that they might understand The Biggest Bullshit Narrative. After all, if you’re smart, you should be able to see past such things. Right?
It turns out I hadn’t yet cleanly distinguished between critical thought and elite education.
When I’d meet someone like this and they revealed that they hadn’t yet seen past the bullshit, the disappointment would be shattering. This personal disappointment has critical and systemic implications when said person has gained power in a social movement for social justice, whether by social dynamics or institutional position. The greatest such fall for me happened after a conversation with someone two weeks ago.
* I bet you didn’t know that fact about Paraguay. Well, sure, go ahead and look it up if you don’t believe me. Now you do.
**Unfortunately, I could not find another Korean immigrant from Paraguay, or all of Latin America, in the Midwest, which would have been delightful. They tend to gather in Southern California or the Korean areas of New York City/New Jersey.
The most ideal way of being for me has been embodied in all the traits that I listed earlier in individuals I could like, individuals who had had opportunities and seized them to the maximum. The way I could tell they had seized this most precious of opportunities, a fancy educational experience, lies in the way they were. More than anything else, they –especially admirable when embodied by a woman*—knew who they were and what they wanted. To be precise, this is the envy I speak of when I speak of educational envy: the opportunity to be more fully figured in oneself, in awareness of all that the world presents. But that I covet what they had and I did not does not mean that I dislike, or resent them. I’m very careful to not place blame or resent people unfairly. The question is, do they afford the same consideration and care in regarding and understanding me?
*I just can’t remember having met any gender nonbinary people that have had such a fancy degree.
A group of very dear friends and I are in the process of creating a new community of Korean-Americans. It began with a discussion group we started now almost two months ago, when we were closer to acquaintances than friends. It’s called KALBI*, and its central offering is closed and safe discussion in small group settings to process our Korean-American identity and experiences together. I’ll be making a separate post on this exciting endeavor, but the creation of this organization with my co-founders has been incredibly enriching towards developing a more confident Korean-American identity for even myself, the lead cofounder.
The Biggest Bullshit Narrative is well and alive, perhaps stronger than anywhere else, in the Korean immigrant community. My undocumented coming of age experience would not have been nearly as difficult if it weren’t for the ways that our community has internalized bullshit narratives in our own ways, tying together belonging to peoplehood with a certain systematically oppressive social hierarchy based on various categories. Two of these that are not as commonly acknowledged as gender or age are legal status and education.
In various ways, each of my KALBI friends have helped me combat the narratives on education from each of their own positions in the Korean and Korean-American cultural context. This has been particularly helpful as I’d also been simultaneously navigating not-so-encouraging and safe conversations around the topic.
FOUR WEEKS AGO
After consultation with Won Joon, I am explaining to Jay, who went to Seoul National University for undergraduate school before we met at our Master of Social Work program, that he intimidates me. I tell him it’s because of the combination of his age, education, and maleness. He says he does indeed get that a lot in Korea, and that the effect comes about by yet a fourth added attribute: his height. Jay is over 6 feet tall. Anyway, when it comes to figuring out the point of the conversation that I am trying to raise, as I somewhat expected, he is pretty confused. I try to explain to him that I’m needing to get over this feeling myself, and that I just wanted him to know. He kindly understands.
THREE WEEKS AGO
Yeonju is speaking as part of a discussion panel at a new members’ event. She talks about how her Cornell undergraduate program set her up to feel like working at her current workplace is a failure. After having attended our MSW program, she is now a development associate at Korean-American Women in Need (KAN-WIN), which serves immigrant women survivors of gender-based violence. She’d been taking my dark jokes against her and Won Joon for being ivy league grads like a true champ (and still does).
Importantly, in the same event, someone shares about the intense sense of shame they feel for not having finished their bachelor’s degree at the age of 27.
TWO WEEKS AGO
“Koreans are sooo hellbent on getting their kids into Harvard,” says Dong Yoon while we’re chatting seemingly out of nowhere, much to my surprise (and mild annoyance; I think, “you’re telling me this like you’re all awed by it? A former undocumented immigrant Korean-American? C’mon DY, you should know better”). We weren’t talking about education at all. This was not prompted. As a 1.5 gen Korean-American who has spent his life actively engaged in various Asian-American social justice organizations in different states, I do not take his observation for granted.
TWO WEEKS AGO
“Kevin, on a scale of 0-10, 0 being never and 10 being all the time, tell me this: how many people are intimidated by you and the fact that you went to Cornell?” I ask Kevin, whom I also at times address by his Korean name, Won Joon.
“0,” he responds.
I don’t believe this. There is no way. I (rhetorically) ask him how many actually feel it but don’t tell him.
And then, out of nowhere, “I think in Korea, 10. Here, 0” I believe the truth value of the Korean rating. I still don’t believe the American one.
I am chatting with Minhee (more commonly known as Stella) over Kakaotalk, who chooses to call me 언니(literally, “older sister,” a term of endearment used to refer to an older female by a younger one) and I sweetly view her as 동생 (literally, “younger sibling.” She’s actually older than Yeonju, but the beauty of KALBI is that we can regard each other and present ourselves using either, or both, Korean and American ways. In contrast to Stella, the default for Yeonju and I has been to regard each other as equals. It is all good in the neighborhood). She’s down with a real bad case of 몸살 (the flu). But this does not stop her from reassuring me that she regards something I tell her as more valuable than if it had come from any ivy league graduate. This makes me laugh, and smile.
*KALBI stands for Korean-Americans Living Their Best Identity. For a peek, check out our Mission, Vision, Values, and Beliefs document. To learn more and get involved, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader, we are approaching the end. You might be wondering, “what? Where was the story? Was that the story? Which part of it was the story? Isn’t a story supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end?”
This is where I wear my sage cap and tell you, “Yes. That was the story. There is no single story. There are multiple stories, and they are all one. There are a lot of simultaneous floating narratives that vaguely take form in the middle, and are otherwise smoke, or loose threads, so that you’re not exactly sure where and how it begins or ends. Isn’t that what all stories are actually like? And by the way, that’s kind of how research works, too. Fact placed outside of context is done so arbitrarily, and you can only hope for it to be done as least arbitrarily as possible.”
I am writing this now for various reasons. (Father James O’Gara, who shepherded the young, hormonal Korean-Americans of Korean Catholic Youth Club, at Korean Martyrs’ Catholic Church, before he passed away, would tell us, “Always ask whys: there is always more than one reason.”) One might surmise what some of them are reading this post, and particularly knowing me. I will not deny the fact that residual rage was one substantial motivator behind this (in fact, you might notice that I didn’t bother concealing it at all!). I will explain the main ones.
First, it is to address two major parties affected primarily by the Biggest Bullshit Narrative, which is much harder to trace and much more prevalent than the Second. The first of said parties is a group that I’ve held dearly in my heart when thinking about this entire topic. This is the group of individuals who also bought into the myth that their education determines their worth, but who did not get the education they wanted and deserved. Thinking of this group fueled me throughout the writing of this post, which started as different versions in my mind long before I started writing blog posts at all. This group is comprised of countless people who might have had similar grudges around all the myth that surrounds higher education, but may not have ever uttered a word about it to anyone, given how commonly the myth is accepted. What makes debunking the myth so difficult, I think, is that education also has real value as a critical determinant for social mobility and work opportunity. Those who do not have access to it are left behind in so many ways. Finally, there is also real value to the essence of its promise, but it can be so little appreciated even by those who do have access to it.
To this group I hoped to provide some solace, and tell them that, though higher education is enveloped in a culture that demeans individuals and injects them with self-hate, the pursuit of knowledge and critical thought is worthwhile. Don’t give up on this pursuit. I realize that I am speaking from a place that is no longer beside them. But I know what it’s like to be left behind on an educational front. It took me an incredible amount of reassurance from connections on the inside, not to mention real privileges, to gain the authority over the bullshit myths with which I finally speak here now.
The second party I wanted to address is the group of individuals who have greatly benefited from the myth through their lives because they were able to attain a place within one of these elite schools. These individuals not only range in the effort they made to attain their places within these schools, but also in their attitudes surrounding the great myth that I speak of. If we are to separate a problematic system from the choices and actions of individuals, these are important distinctions.
To this group I hoped to bring to awareness their social systemic privilege, as well as the real value of something they had that others do not, and to empower them to know that their ability for critical thought and knowledge is needed everywhere. I’m not talking about getting some big job at some big org, which could also be very impactful and meaningful. I mean that I think they should live this ability in every way they engage with the world, engaging others in thinking and doing together with compassion, appreciation, and understanding. I have seen too many shy away from claiming this privilege of education, if at times precisely for the bullshit myths that surround it, and this does no good to anyone. Critical thought is a nonrivalrous good; having more of it doesn’t mean others have less. We should spread and encourage its usage.
The second reason I am writing this now is because of the intention behind the community we create in KALBI. We are mindfully creating a new community of Korean-Americans that inflicts no further harm due to common, accepted, and systematically oppressive or exclusive narratives. In this new space for Korean-Americans, I hope that we can as a community benefit from the real value of an elite education whenever it presents itself in members, while also finding joy, love, and comfort in other attributes and personal achievements.
The third reason I am writing this is because I will undoubtedly be faced with a lot of people who have bought into and maintain the higher education myth. These people will come into this space, and when they see someone like me open up vulnerably, they will take what they need in order to advance themselves further within the system.
I have, by now, been in plenty of –countless-- situations where, in an earnest effort to connect and be understood, I made myself vulnerable and shown the cards in my hand to someone, only to be faced with most often privileged ignorance, or sometimes downright coldness or contempt. I have been in situations where I eagerly showed the best that I could offer, and it was simply not appreciated, if not dismissed, exploited, or erased. My desire to overcome my fear of being immediately thought worthless was only kindled when I could intuitively discern that a certain superficial world view prevented someone from appreciating what I offered. In all these instances, I don’t think I was wrong to show vulnerability. I was being true to myself.
I am not bringing this up here because I will stop making myself vulnerable to others in this way. I think that the world cannot afford for us to keep waiting for others to open up first, thereby enforcing individualist and capitalist structures and culture.
The reason I bring this up here is that I needed to make it clear that from now on, when I do open up at the risk of getting hurt, I am choosing to do so because I can see past the bullshit. I am much more focused in my ability to value great thinkers, rather than cower when presented by someone with a great title. I am very confident in defining myself, and feel that I have a much clearer view of the world than I would have if I’d been on the inside, closer to the center. I no longer need others to affirm my reality. Finally, I just don’t think that I have a lot to lose, in comparison to what others –and the world-- may gain.
My thoughts expressed here could not have come about without particularly the help and encouragement from the following people.
Erik, my spouse, who thankfully gave me another chance after I rejected him after our first date. As I told him, he was too smart for me; I was intimidated; and it wasn’t going to work out. I am delighted to say that I was wrong. We have had many conversations on this topic ever since that first date to help me get to where I am now.
My parents-in-law, Ralf and Barbara Thiede, who utilize all that they are, including their positions within America and academia, to constantly uplift their Korean-American daughter-in-love, particularly in her attempts to express and define herself (and also see past the bullshit).
My friends Yeonju Ahn (안연주), Kevin Lee (이원준), and Jay Kim (김재의), graduates of Cornell and Seoul National University, who probably without realizing it, got sucked into my personal project to get over these fears surrounding educational degrees since back when we were in our master of social work program at the University of Chicago (ha-ha!). They were each very kind and humble in the way they approached me, particularly on the topic of our educational backgrounds. We are all thrilled about our shared project of KALBI and its potential, along with our other cofounders, Stella Han (한민희) and Dong Yoon Kim (김동윤). We are going to create the new vanguard of Korean-Americans, and it’s gonna be socially conscious, dammit.
My 엄마, 아빠, and 할머니, always. Without whose unconditional love, no matter from afar, I would not be what I am.
On Education in Korea; Korean-Americans and Education
From Asia Society: South Korean Education by Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald VanSickle. Fascinating insight into Korean education. I appreciate that these westerners seem to lean on factual observations, and the webpage does seem a very helpful overview resource.
Asian-Americans and Education, an entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, written by Benjamin "Benji" Chung, Assistant Professor at the School of Education at University of North Carolina Greesnboro. Excellent current (2017) overview of of Asian-Americans and Education in the US. The Model Minority myth is partly due to to educational attainment.
Understanding Immigrated Korean Children’s Educational Needs by Guang-Lea Lee. I never thought I'd see a guide like what we'd worked on at Chapin Hall during my social work field placement for bilingual early education instruction for Korean immigrant children. Here it is, and it's really great.
Finally, in efforts to continue the combat against the ugly and oversimplified Model Minority Myth, a report from Bookings Institution: Asian-American Success and the Pitfalls of Overgeneralization