The Stifling of Viewpoint Diversity and Open Inquiry in American Higher Education: Yeonmi Park’s Experience (Book Review)
Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector who moved to New York City in 2014, rose to fame and garnered much sympathy from the West after her speech at the One Young World Summit that same year and her subsequent activism. Ever since her critique of American higher education, which compared its “woke” culture to the state propaganda in her country of birth, many have discredited her views as something borne out of ignorance about American culture. Worse still, some even accused her of pandering to the right wing for personal gain.
As an educator who does not know Park in person and is dismayed by the general lack of heterodox opinions in North American universities, I found some of the criticisms of Park disturbing. While some expressed genuine concern at what seemed to be her intentionally hyperbolic statement, made during an interview, that North Korea is better than her alma mater Columbia University, other remarks are downright condescending (e.g., stating that she embraced conservative views due to her traumatization, thus implying that she has lost the capability to think and reason on her own) and even insulting (e.g., implying that she is “fresh off the boat” and has little knowledge of American culture). Hence, I decided to read her new book, While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector’s Search for Freedom in America, both to learn about her experiences of American education and to find out whether those criticisms are at all fair.
The book contains three main parts. Part I describes Park’s arrival in New York City to enroll at Columbia University and her appreciation for the values of liberty, civic participation, and compassion promised by her new country. Her hopes were dashed as she found out that the university, rather than fostering a learning environment and instilling courage and fortitude in its students, was more eager to coddle its students by preventing them from the emotional discomfort that learning can bring, through tactics that reminded her strongly of those deployed by the North Korean government. Just as teachers and peers turned their backs on her once she expressed disagreements with their deeply held ideologies, celebrities and political figures — the “do-gooders” — who seemed supportive of her human rights activism withdrew their support for fear of severing their business ties to China.
Part II proceeds to illuminate why Americans have much to be grateful for, being citizens of a free country. Although, as this part explains, democratic capitalism is the best system of governance, the young generations have been misled by the cultural elites to believe that they have been victimized by this system, and this is the main cause of their suffering. This part also includes a shocking incident — one that motivated Park to write this book — in which she was robbed by two African American women and bystanders of different races not only declined to offer her help but also accused her of racism as she used her phone to film her attackers. Park attributes the bystanders’ conduct to mass indoctrination, which dehumanizes people by reducing them to the color of their skin rather than treating them as individuals with agency.
Part III describes the “cancel culture” rampant not only in universities but also on social media and warns of the horror of being robbed of one’s vocabulary, something that has been taking place in North Korea. Finally, it reminds the readers that freedom is fragile. The book thus ends by urging them to take responsibility for their lives and engage with their local communities rather than completely rely on political leaders to help save their country.
On the basis of this book alone, I conclude that while a reasonable reader might strongly disagree with Park’s arguments, most criticisms levied against her are largely undeserved. The book thoroughly demonstrates her knowledge of American history and contemporary culture as well as the histories of North Korea and China, which are all crucial to her arguments and can be obtained only after diligent research. The book also reveals a keen familiarity with Western philosophy, which Park draws upon to explain the importance of freedom of speech, critical thinking, and the reasoning faculty. Most important, Park emphasizes multiple times that she uses her observations of North Korea to “illuminate,” rather than exaggerate, what she considers to be the crisis of American society. This is indeed what the book does. In other words, no part of the book suggests that America or Columbia University is as bad as North Korea, let alone the idea that the former is worse than the latter. While many readers might disagree with Park’s arguments, assuming the truth of her account, none of her arguments appears to have been made in bad faith. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any outrageous or improperly made statement.
Even if some of the classroom incidents at Columbia described in the book might not have been common on American campuses, they still can help illuminate what might have gone wrong in today’s academia and things that can be done to avert what seems to be a troubling tendency.
For instance, at the orientation, an instructor at Columbia told Park that she was “wrong” to find Jane Austen’s characters “instantly relatable,” because her novels promoted “female oppression, colonialism, racism, and white supremacy.” In a class on Western music, the lecturer claimed that Western music should be called “white music” as nonwhite composers were marginalized during the times in which the famous composers lived. Thus, Park was “brainwashed” to think that it was acceptable to call Western canonical works “Western music” and appreciate the musical geniuses in those works. Park was “brainwashed,” argued another instructor, by the sexist culture into not believing in her “physical equality with men,” although her lack of belief was based on the hard reality that she was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 80 pounds.
The actions of the above teachers were highly unprofessional and only served to stifle classroom discussion. “Brainwashed” is a strong word and would not help foster an open learning environment (In fact, I would refrain from using this word even if my student makes outrageous and baseless statements like “Donald Trump (who was democratically-elected and had to work within a democratic system) was worse than the “President” of China.”) Arguably, calling music produced in the Western world “Western music” is calling a spade a spade, and believing that a small woman is physically weaker than most grown men is anything but dishonest. (The instructor should have tried a different approach, such as pointing out that some highly athletic women are indeed physically stronger than the average man, and even a small-sized woman like Park might well be stronger than she thinks she is.) Moreover, a literary work can be interpreted by using various approaches, and postcolonialism and feminism are only two of them. Most importantly, liking or not liking literary characters is a highly subjective experience and cannot by any means be “wrong.” Ironically enough, it is the intolerance of diverse opinions, or even preferences for authors, that serves to create echo chambers and indoctrinate young people. In fact, the strongly negative, seemingly knee-jerk reactions to Park’s critique of “wokeism” on American campuses, the insulting ones included, may well indicate just how radicalized and intolerant many young Americans have become.
Park aptly discusses safe spaces and trigger warnings in the campus setting and how they may do more harm than good by confusing students as to what can and cannot be said and by shielding them from potentially triggering learning materials. Especially noteworthy is the episode in which Park was rudely confronted by a biologically male student who self-identified as gender fluid after she failed to address the student using the pronouns they/them. While referring to people by their preferred pronouns is a sign of decorum and is rightly required by university policy, the student obviously violated the norms of decency, especially considering Park’s (self-admitted) awkwardness as a recent immigrant still struggling with language use (even assuming that the details of her background were unknown to that student). Incidents as such indicate that universities should embrace holistic policies that are governed by the mutuality of respect and that do not prioritize the feelings of certain groups over those of others — a prioritization not based on the intrinsic worth of every individual but on the premise that there is a hierarchy of oppression and members deserve varying degrees of respect and dignity depending on where they belong on that hierarchy.
Indeed, most attacks on Park and her book were no doubt fueled by her criticisms of left-wing politics, in which race plays a big part. As a recent immigrant in America, Park displays a keen awareness of the oppression and discrimination suffered by many Asians. It is not at all surprising for her to harbor strong skepticism of affirmative action programs, which she believes unfairly penalize Asians, who, despite their disadvantaged circumstances, must on average obtain better results on standardized tests to get admitted to colleges than other races do. Asians, she argues, are now treated as the “oppressors” in such race-based rhetoric because they do well on standardized tests. In fact, Park was not the first person who raised this concern and will not be the last: Feelings of injustice among Asian candidates led to a pending lawsuit against Harvard University. While many scholars would staunchly disagree and present different good-faith arguments in support of affirmative action, the concerns raised by Park and shared by many Asians must be thoroughly addressed in any honest debate, both inside and outside the classroom, on this race-based initiative and not dismissed as “right-wing drivel.”
A related phenomenon mentioned by Park is the surge in attacks on East Asians during the pandemic, often by Black people, which was underreported by left-wing media despite their obsession with anti-racism, most likely because the attacks do not fall within the mainstream race-based discourse in which Black people remain as the oppressed. Although she mentions the underreporting of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic in the journalism context, in my experience and observation, the dismissal — or outright censorship — of facts that do not fall in line with the dominant narratives is, rather unfortunately, not uncommon in the classroom. (This happened even in Germany, a country that is less concerned with political correctness than America is. For instance, after I presented a draft of my guest lecture on Hong Kong at another German university, a professor took issue with my stating that Hong Kong became a prosperous city under British governance, because “any benefits that colonialism might confer on the colonized fall outside the paradigm” of their syllabus.)
The functions of narratives or theories, after all, are to offer ways to understand reality and guide discussions. They are not meant to be mental shortcuts, a function played by stereotypes. Competent and responsible educators must not forget the importance of intellectual honesty in research and teaching so that no facts would be deemed too inconvenient to be addressed. Rather than censoring facts that do not align with their narratives, they must reflect on and, where necessary, revise their preferred narratives in light of new facts. Sadly, the news media acting in concert with educational institutions to instill in the young generations only a narrow race-based narrative could be the reason why the bystanders forgoed common sense and decency and did not come to Park’s rescue when she was attacked by the robbers.
In short, Park avoids making false equivalences between America and North Korea, which would have undermined her credibility. Still, I spotted one statement that might raise an eyebrow of even a reasonable reader. While nowhere does she say something like “Even North Korea is not this crazy” in her book, she describes her education at Columbia as not “very fruitful” because of the “ever-worsening woke propaganda nonsense” that she had to endure to fulfill her late father’s wish for her to complete her college degree. The reader cannot help but wonder: Were the good parts of her experience (such as the economics classes in her major) not enough to outweigh the “nonsensical” propaganda? Furthermore, if her education equipped her with at least some of the knowledge drawn upon in the book, then it could not have been all that bad, could it?
Park’s book raises urgent issues in American society and academia. It especially hits close to home for people like me, a British Hong Konger embracing her freedom in a Western democracy, and many of my peers. It is tempting for people who have never lived under tyrannical governments to dismiss her points. Thus, I eagerly recommend the book to all academics and administrators in higher education — and indeed all people living in Western democracies — without reservation.
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