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Seowon: the true value of education preserved

Oct 28, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Korea is famous for its passion for education. This can be exemplified in, and traced back to, seowon, the most common educational institution during the mid- to late Joseon Dynasty  1392–1910). Seowons at that time operated very differently than current schools. They weren't something you went to for some hours a day, they were a cradle of lifelong system of education that followed the order of nature and where pupils learned to follow the order of nature. They were meant to awaken children to the deep truths of life, not only to what is visible. In recognition of their value, centuries later in July 2019, a collection of nine seowon was collectively recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What wisdom from our ancestors can we find in the seowon?

Seowon: the true value of education preserved

The seowon, which marked the beginning of Korea’s education culture, sprung up from a belief of Joo Se-Bung, a Joseon Dynasty scholar: “The reason why heaven gives birth to people and they are human is because there is education.” In Korea, where the overheated education culture focused on college entrance exams has become a global issue, the news of UNESCO's registration of Seowon, Korean Neo-Confucian Academies as a World Heritage Site reminds us of the true value of education. 

In the Joseon Dynasty, educational institutions were divided into hyanggyo,national educational institutions, and seowon, private educational institutions, with Sungkyunkwan -- then the nation's foremost education institution and now a university on the original site --  at the summit. Seowon, which can be thought of as private university, pursued a temperate and frugal architectural style based on Neo-Confucianism and the spirit of Confucianism.

Seowon: the true value of education preserved

Seowon, originally a nickname for small educational institutions such as seodang (village schools), became the first educational institutions to combine academic and religious education when Joo Se-bung founded Baekundong Seowon in 1543 (now Sosu Seowon Confucian Academy) to commemorate Korea's first-known Confucian Ahn Hyan from the 13th century.

After its foundation, Baekundong Seowon was promoted to a state-certified Saek Seowon, and then seowon began to spring up around the country to become the central educational institutions of the Joseon Dynasty. The 17th and 18th centuries were considered as seowon's glory years in that 600 Seowon were operated nationwide. In the early days of the seowon,  these places of learning had positive functions such as fostering younger students and maintaining order in the local community by holding ancestral rites for ancient sages. But as the Seowon became crowded, warring interest groups of the local Yangban class, which were controlled by blood ties, regionalism, academic cliques and party factions, led to the downfall of the seowon. Eventually, in 1871, Heungseon Daewon-gun carried out a massive abolition of seowon, and only 47 seowon survived. About 150 years later, nine forgotten seowon have became part of this world-class cultural heritage site and thus protected. 


Korean architects often cite seowon as highlights of traditional architecture, especially Dosan Seowon and Byeongsan Seowon in Andong. Instructors established a Neo-Confucian order at these Seowon, and at the time, students devoted themselves to studying and resting, writing and reciting poems, and enjoying relaxation and nature in an educational system designed to blend with nature. The ideal was not to cling to success or power, but to give up greed and covetousness, and to follow the order of nature. Pupils learned to become adults at their own pace, staying as long as they wanted, without restrictions on grades or semesters.

Seowon are special spaces of learning combining the harmony and of hanok architecture within the establishment and the order of nature beyond the elegant stone wall. The true value of education can be felt in this place.

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