How do we learn what’s true?

Narrative fluency and the pedagogy of information

Korea’s Version of the Alt-Right

How do young people make political judgments?

I asked a class of boys at a Korean middle school, “What would you do if you were president?” A student I’ll call Jun-ho stuck his hand in the air like he’d been waiting for the moment: “No more Yeoseong Gajok-bu!”

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. It’s a government ministry responsible for, among other things, encouraging Koreans to have babies and inspecting public toilets for hidden cameras. For the most part, MOGEF plays it safe, advancing modest reforms with probably undue fanfare, but like any country’s gender-equality enforcement agency, it draws the ire of social conservatives and redpillers. And middle-school boys, apparently.

Naju, South Korea, where I teach English to 200 middle schoolers. My photo

I smiled neutrally. “What’s wrong with them?”

“It’s unfair!” Jun-ho said. He continued in Korean: While MOGEF’s mission is to enforce Korea’s gender-equality statutes, in practice, they discriminate against men. Just look at the organization’s (Korean) title: it doesn’t say “gender equality” anywhere; only “women” and “family.” A couple of Jun-ho’s classmates nodded in agreement.

Oh no, I thought. Had my students fallen prey to fake news? Korea’s version of the alt-right maintains that progressive institutions like MOGEF are puppets of the wealthy, built to consolidate power under the guise of trendy causes like feminism. I could easily picture Jun-ho seeing a post about the organization on social media, plugging “MOGEF discrimination” into a search engine, and stumbling on some fringe political forum thanks to his mindless choice of phrasing.

According to the media-literacy pedagogy I’d studied, I should be guiding students away from internet conspiracies and toward nonpartisan sources (like, well, MOGEF) if I wanted to talk about a hot-button issue like gender equality in class. But I hadn’t made any allowance for this detour in my lesson plan. Trying to make an English lesson out of a dicey moment, I wrote the phrases gender equality and discrimination on the board, had the students puzzle out their meanings, and congratulated myself for getting us back on track.

Notice how I pulled a pedagogical bait-and-switch on my students. Jun-ho made a specific argument—MOGEF discriminates against men—and I maneuvered the class toward the neutral ground of English vocabulary. The implicit message, then, was that Jun-ho’s research wasn’t relevant to what we do at school. But that’s not what I meant. On the contrary, the very reason I teach English formulas like “What would you do?” is to equip students to read about the issues that matter to them and discuss their opinions with a global community. Given a second chance, is there a way I could’ve affirmed Jun-ho’s curiosity, talking him back from the political edge while still encouraging my students to research topics that interest them?