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Letter to Koreans: why Jews get the Nobels Letter to Koreans: why Jews get the Nobels
by Joseph Gatt
2019-01-29 08:54:43
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Koreans mistakenly believe that Jewish educational success secrets lie in the Talmud, or in a yeshiva learning system called “chaverut” where two students pair up to discuss passages of the Talmud.

This shows how naive Koreans can be about Judaism and Jewish culture. First of all not all Jews are orthodox Jews and not all Jews study the Talmud. Second of all the Talmud is a book of laws and jurisprudence, which contains few or no passages on education.

jewnob001So why are Jews succeeding where Koreans are failing, that is at getting Nobel prizes? First, Koreans have a fascination with the Nobel Prize, almost an unhealthy one at that. Many Koreans believe that given all the efforts and money spent in Korea on education, they should be swimming in Nobel prizes.

So below I will describe some of the differences between Jewish learning (in general) and Korean learning (in general).

Jewish learning: general qualitative learning

When Jews learn, we tend to read books without forcing ourselves to memorize every single fact in the book. The book does not die after we finish reading it, so we can return to it after finishing reading it. So what's the point of memorizing. We value our opinion on the facts, and try to get a general understanding of the subject.

Korean learning: specific quantified learning

When Koreans read books, they count the number of books and pages they read. And they count the number of facts they memorize. They tend not to try to form an opinion on the subject studied, but try to memorize the facts and repeat verbatim what the book said, without actually understanding the book.

Jewish learning: the more sources, the better

We tend to look at several sources when it comes to getting our facts. We don't just read two or three books or textbooks and think we know everything there is to know about the subject. We know that mathematicians disagree, physicists disagree, economists disagree. The more we read, the better, but we are convinced we will never gain a full and perfect grasp of the subject.

Korean learning: the textbook is the divine source

Koreans tend to memorize large sections of a textbook. Once they have memorized that textbook, they don't believe they need to read other books to see other sides of the coin. Once they memorize that textbook, they think they know everything.

Jewish learning: lifelong learning, egalitarian learning

We tend to believe that no matter what job we have or what position we have, or what awards we win for our research, there is always room for learning new stuff. We tend to look at all sources as being of equal value, being a seven year-old child or a Nobel Prize winner. We believe everyone can teach us something.

Korean learning: once I have my Ph.D. what's the point in learning?

Koreans believe once they get that professorship they can stop learning and start teaching. Koreans tend to believe that when you teach you know everything and there's no point in learning.

Jewish learning: asking questions, lots of questions

Jews rarely ask questions to challenge the authority of a person. We tend to ask questions because we really see a gap in what we just learned or perhaps because something that was said was not clear. Or perhaps we want to take the discussion further and exchange knowledge and ideas.

Korean learning: asking a question is challenging the authority of a person

Since Koreans believe that teachers know everything there is to know (because they memorized that divine textbook) asking a question to an all-knowing teacher is perceived as a challenge to their authority. So if there's a point which is not clear or something that has a gap in it, the gap tends to remain.

Jewish learning: there are gaps in what I learn that must be filled

Finally, in Jewish learning, we tend to read most of what there is to read, and eventually identify gaps that need to be filled, and that's where we dedicate our research. We don't wait until someone says “this problem needs to be solved” to start trying to solve a problem.

Korean learning: a textbook is divine perfection, every single problem that needs to be solved has been solved

Finally, Koreans believe that the textbook contains the solution to every single problem and leaves no question unsolved. They tend to wait for the textbook to suggest for a problem to be solved to try to solve it.

Bonus Jewish learning: Professors and researchers spend office hours reading

Yes, in a lot of institutions where Jewish researchers work, they can dedicate most of their time to reading and research.

Bonus Korean learning: Professors and researchers spend office hours doing unrelated administrative tasks

Korean universities are so bureaucratized that professors spend a lot of time doing administrative work. And even when they move to the US, Korean professors tend to bureaucratize learning.

In sum, if you're going to try to find answers to learning in the Talmud or in orthodox Jewish Yeshivot, chances are you'll find nothing. “Jewish learning” is a growing trend in Korea, but like most education trends in Korea, are business models designed to make cash by convincing parents that such and such method will lead to their children's success.

Another factor is in Korea there's a strong hierarchy among universities and a widespread belief that only people who graduate from and teach at top universities can win Nobel prizes. Unlike tennis or football with all the seeding and rankings, the Nobel Prize is not a competition where the top-ranked professor wins. Criteria are a lot more vague than that.

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