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CHUNG Sangho

Noblesse Oblige and Ways to Imbue It

CHUNG Sangho

Aug. 2, 2006

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The French term Noblesse oblige or nobility obliges is well known among Koreans concerned with unethical use of power by the wealthy and influential. We have heard it so many times that it's almost an empty phrase.

But it's time to refocus our attention on nobless oblige, and nowhere does this seem more appropriate than in the rising number of public figures being detained on allegations of corruption.

Nobless oblige imposes heavy responsibility on the elite to set example to the rest of the society with exemplary behavior. In England, the most important virtue of a gentleman was serving his country in times of crisis, not minding sacrificing his life in battlefield.

In the 19th century, this tradition traveled to the New World where railroad and industrial revolution were beginning to produce a sizable number of parvenu millionaires. Many were mocked as "robber barons" for the unsavory ways with which they enriched themselves, but by and large they also set some examples.

Andrew Carnegie, the founder of the first public library system in the United States, and Solomon R. Guggenheim, who donated a large sum of his wealth to build the Guggenheim Museum, come to mind.

John Jacob Astor IV, a descendent of the Astors who made a fortune from fur trade and real estate since the mid-19th century, was equally a responsible person. A lieutenant colonel in the 1898 Spanish-American War, John Jacob later joined his family's real estate business and managed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He died on April 15, 1912, returning home from honeymoon trip. He was on the ill-fated Titanic that sank into the icy sea.

As it turned out, the rich and famous in the first-class deck sank with the Titanic, including three women in the same-class deck who decided to die with their husbands. Among them was Astor. He refused to go on board the lifeboat with his newly-wed wife, opting instead for a glorious death. It was a Nobless oblige in the highest form.

Benjamin Guggenheim, another luminary of the day, ended his life in the same ship at the age of 46. He comes out heroic in the movie Titanic: As the luxury liner sinks, he walks up to his valet and shakes hands, saying, "We've dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

How can people face death in such a dignified manner? According to Fareed Zakaria, the author of The Future of Freedom (2003), it was thanks to the spartan education they received at the prestigious private boarding schools. These schools, as is their tradition to this day, charged huge sums for tuition while providing bare-minimum services in dining halls and dorm rooms. The children who were used to living like little princes before coming to the school had to sleep in military-like barracks and taking cold shower in the morning.

They are taught the heavy responsibility of leading their society as politicians, generals, and business executives. There would be a few troublemakers, to be sure, but most of them would later distinguish themselves as fine statesmen, great soldiers, and famous philanthropists.

Korea has had excellent schools, but few excellent graduates. Korean schools cram the heads of their children with facts and figures, but ignore good education. Children grow up with sundry knowledge, but without probity or intellect. This is why so few people with power and wealth have earned respect in Korea. They have failed to acquire the spirit of Nobless oblige.

One of the best ways to build a well-functioning society ever striving for higher ethical standards is to nurture future leaders with good education. And educatioon is as much about character-building as it is about teaching knowledge. Judging by the amount of despair a variety of corruption allegations has provoked in the high places of this society, one is tempted, at the risk of prompting another outburst from the populist educators, to suggest that Korea follow the example of other countries by setting up first-class private schools modeled after those in the US and UK.

The core issue is how to inculcate the spirit of Nobless oblige. Korean parents who spend a fortune sending their children abroad for English language instruction won't get it so easily. It doesn't come overnight. But one must try setting up such schools here to foster the next-generation leaders. Or Is this just a pipe dream?

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