Deconstructing Neoliberalism in Global Citizenship Discourses

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Deconstructing neoliberalism in global citizenship discourses: An analysis of Korean social studies textbooks

This study explored ways in which official social studies textbooks in South Korea promote global citizenship given the dominant neoliberal ideology in the field of education. Employing critical discourse analysis, this study analyzed 12 middle school (seventh to ninth grades) social studies textbooks that are mandatory for Korean public schools to use. The findings of this study demonstrate the prevalence of neoliberal agenda and nationalist rhetoric in the global citizenship discourses in the textbooks. We discussed the extent to which themes for global citizenship education including globalization, cultural diversity, peace, and sustainability, and associated skill and dispositions were instrumental in perpetuating neoliberal economic values and nationalism while marginalizing social justice and multicultural aims in official textbooks.

Keywords: global citizenship, neoliberalism, social studies curriculum, critical discourse analysis, textbook analysis


Global citizenship has long been a worthy goal in the theories and practices of social studies, which is designed “to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010, p. 3). In the face of recurrent changes and challenges of globalization, social studies educators have proposed the need to educate and prepare students to live among various ethnic and national cultures within a complicated and troubled world (Gaudelli, 2016).

South Korea is a country aspiring for global leadership in global citizenship education (GCE) during recent years, officially proclaiming its strong support for the GCE policy, curriculum, and practice (Cho & Mosselson, 2017). Global Education First Initiative by Ban Ki-Moon, a South Korean diplomat and a former UN Secretary-General, and subsequent events hosted in Korea in 2015, namely the second United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) forum and World Education Forum, piqued the interest and popularity of GCE, among not only scholars but also general public (Author, 2016). In the recent national curriculum revision, the Korean Ministry of Education declared global citizenship as one of the 10 central themes in the official social studies curriculum framework that are mandatory for all Korean public school education (Ministry of Education, 2015).

In reality, however, GCE is in jeopardy not only in South Korea but also in several other countries, largely threatened by the dominant neoliberal ideology that has been expanded to public education during the past decades. Neoliberalism, which stands for strong free-market policies and economic liberalization (Harvey, 2007), has continued to frame school as a capitalist enterprise in which students obtain the skills to meet labor demands in national and global markets (Apple, 2014; Giroux, 2013; Torres, 2008). This neoliberal vision of education is also entrenched in GCE (Gaudelli, 2009), as demonstrated by research from various countries. Studies demonstrated the role of official curriculum and textbooks in producing images of desirable global citizens as productive, self-employable, and competitive beings addressing the demands of national economic growth and competition in a global market place (Alviar-Martin & Baildon, 2017; Swanson & Pashby, 2016).

However, critical analysis of the official curriculum and its textbooks in relation to GCE has been under-documented in South Korea. Despite the reality that textbooks mirror the national curriculum and guidelines as a primary carrier of official knowledge in Korean society, little attention has been provided to neoliberal vision of GCE in the school textbooks. Few studies investigated the discourses of globalization in the social studies curriculum and teacher guidebooks while their focus was mainly in the context of non-mandatory, elective teaching and learning of global citizenship (Cho & Mosselson, 2017; Kim, Kim, & Lee, 2004; Lee & Cho, 2008).

This present study examined ways in which GCE is discussed in Korean official social studies textbooks, given the political and socio-economic context of the country as well as the dominant neoliberal ideology in education. By debunking instrumentalist agendas at play within the GCE discourses in the textbooks, this study interrogates the dangerous impacts of neoliberalism on the democratic and social justice aims of social studies education. This study also contributes to the GCE literature examining official curriculum and textbooks and provides insightful implications for furthering the discussions of GCE in the current predominantly neoliberal agenda in education.

Critical global citizenship education in neoliberal contexts

Despite the common parlance and growing importance of global citizenship in education policy and school practice, one of the most striking contradictions in GCE is the dominance of neoliberal tenets in its discourse as well as in education at large. The very idea of neoliberalism is founded upon a strong faith in the benefits of free markets (Giroux, 2013). Often coupled with the idea of inevitability of global capitalism, neoliberalism generally prioritizes strong deregulation, privatization, and competition to maximize wealth and efficiency while minimizing the social aims of the government (Harvey, 2007).

In public education, neoliberalism has been applied with an ethos of competitiveness, self-interest, and human capital development that impart market principles as genuine goals of schooling. Neoliberalists framed school as a capitalist enterprise producing the ideal neoliberal subject who is well prepared for competition in a global free market with other nation-states to further advance global capitalism (Torres, 2008). As McIntosh (2004) pointed out, the focus of current education is to “produce people who are employable and do not ask broader questions” (p. 30). Under such circumstances, efforts to develop culturally responsive curriculum, and actions to promote democratic values and socially just citizenship discourses in classrooms became unessential. Scholars have problematized that the issues of diversity, solidarity, justice, and civic participation have scarcely, or superficially at best, been addressed in curricular contexts given the expanding framework of neoliberalism (Evans, 2015; Sleeter, 2014).

Neoliberalism is also reflected in GCE, which has a dual, ideologically divergent agenda. On the one hand, the world justice and cosmopolitan framework emphasize the development of citizens who understand and interact with others and contribute to a more socially-just and humane world (Gaudelli, 2009; Pashby, 2011). On the other hand, the neoliberal, nationalist hegemony in GCE emphasizes the merits of competition in the global market, conceptualizing a global citizen as “one who is a successful participant in a liberal economy driven by capitalism and technology” (Shultz, 2007, p.249). Often viewed as “an expansion of national citizenship” (Pashby, 2011, p.428), this neoliberal GCE proposes that students should develop knowledge and skills required for competitive workforce in national and global markets.

A growing body of empirical evidence from various countries highlighted neoliberal values and nationalistic discourses in GCE curricula and textbooks. Swanson and Pashby (2016) reported that social studies curricula in Alberta (Canada) and Scotland justified the economic rationale and advocated the interests of the state at the expense of a critical examination of global inequalities and ethical conundrums. The curricula predominantly adopted reductive instrumentalist views against GCE and prioritized neoliberal citizens for economic competition. Alviar-Martin and Baildon’s (2017) comparative case study of Hong Kong and Singapore curricula demonstrated similar findings. It highlighted the principal focus on nationalistic morality and economic competitiveness in national curriculum frameworks and policy statements. The desirable citizens portrayed in both curricula were largely “productive, self-governing and adaptable workers who are able to support national economic projects in the global economy” (p.17). Reidel and Beck (2016) also explored how tenets of GCE worked to reinforce and exacerbate pre-existing cultural stereotypes in the official social studies curriculum of a single U.S state. The findings revealed a simplistic and fallacious construction of the world presented in the curriculum with limited discussions on dominant power relationships and critical global issues.

However, in South Korea, there has been still scant attention on neoliberal frameworks within GCE. An exception would be the study of Cho and Mosselson (2017), which analyzed GCE-related teacher handbooks and curricular materials published by government-related organizations. Their findings showed that these handbooks and materials reinforced the Western, imperial world views, perpetuating the socio-cultural and economic superiority of wealthier nations. The so-called “helping” countries were Western countries synonymous with global economic, cultural, and political leaders whereas the non-Western countries “needing help” were frequently associated with passivity and poverty (p.11). While such findings are valuable, given the focus on GCE within teacher handbooks, remaining questions are how divergent conceptualizations of GCE are incorporated into the official school textbooks that are mandatory for all public schools.

Furthermore, the majority of previous studies on GCE in Korean school textbooks, though few in number, interrogated the ways in which globalization is portrayed in the context of economic education (Kim, Kim, & Lee, 2004; Lee & Cho, 2008). One recent example is a study of Author (2017). By examining contents and viewpoints associated with globalization in Korean high school economics textbooks, the study found that narratives in the textbooks gave much weight to the positive effects of economic globalization, and free trade in particular, in contributing to national economic growth and competitive power enhancement. Meanwhile, Marxist and cosmopolitan perspectives that possibly portrayed economic globalization from diverse angles were notably missing. Considering the focus of economic globalization in textbooks analysis related research in South Korea, more investigation is clearly needed on what type of values, perspectives, and ideas of global citizenship that includes not only the economic aspects of globalization but also other socio-cultural aspects such as cultural diversity, the environment, and peace, would be read by and promoted for students.

The goal of this study lies primarily in critically examining the role of GCE in the official middle-school social studies textbooks in South Korea. This study adopted “soft” versus “critical” GCE as its conceptual framework. Unlike “soft” GCE approach which tends to highlight economic progressivism and unquestioned modern premises of global learning, “critical” GCE calls for (re)examining the complexity and interdependence of life as well as the power dynamics and inequalities in globalization (Andreotti, 2006; Andreotti & Souza, 2011). Critical GCE encourages education stakeholders to raise critical consciousness of what it means to be a global citizen and to engage in global injustice and oppression that are often untold in school curricula (Swanson & Pashby, 2016). Employing the lens of critical GCE as a theoretical framework, this study sought to deconstruct the prevailing neoliberal paradigm in GCE and to discuss implications for redirecting the current nationalistic, neoliberal notion within GCE toward a more justice-oriented approach.

Global citizenship education in South Korea

South Korea has positioned itself to be a global leader in GCE for the past several years. The Global Education First Initiative in 2012 launched by Ban Ki Moon, the former United Nations Secretary-General and South Korean diplomat, has led to a growing attention to GCE among scholars, policy-makers, and educators in South Korea. Global citizenship that signifies cultural pluralism, communication skills with other regions of the world, and community development, became one of the 10 core thematic strands of national curriculum framework in 2015 (Author, 2016).

The interest paid to GCE in contemporary Korean education is closely related to its history of democratization during the past half century. Following the liberation from Japanese colonial rule during the early 20th century and the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea has experienced a tumultuous history with the foundation of an independent state and rapid economic growth under the dictatorship of military governments during 1970s-1980s. In light of the North-South divide of the nation and its official state of armistice ever since the Korean War in the 1950s, national survival and raison d’être of the capitalist regime of South Korea against the communist North Korea had become a priority in South Korea. These political and economic needs had legitimated the long-standing of military dictatorship including Park Chung-hee regime in South Korea which emphasized enhancing economic prosperity and national security and retaining political supremacy. However, when South Korea finally went through a political transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1987, a different approach to maintain the legacy of economic growth was desperately required. Consequently, the first civilian government inaugurated in 1993 initiated Segyehwa as a key strategic state policy, which refers to the Korean concept of globalization. A variety of state reforms, adopting radical free-market philosophy while fostering economic liberalization and deregulation, were implemented under the name of Segyehwa ever since in an effort to achieve and sustain economic stability and competitiveness as emerging global market (Kim, 2000).

South Korea’s official commitment and curricular support to GCE reflect such historical background and neoliberal rhetoric. Specifically, the former president Park Geun-hye has openly proclaimed South Korea as a global leader on the world stage and asserted “GCE as an aspirational force for transformative possibilities within a neoliberal world order” (Cho & Mosselson, 2017, p.3). Furthermore, arguing that the current privately published school textbooks depicting “economic development praised by the world” during the dictatorship “as being anti-labor” and thereby instilling “anti-business sentiment” tainted the minds of students, Park in 2015 ordered rewriting of state-issued history textbooks for compulsory use in all secondary schools in Korea (Lee, 2015, November 10). Although she was impeached in bribery and corruption scandal in 2016 and the contentious textbook policy was abolished by her successor for the purpose of securing autonomy and diversity in education, this politically motivated attempt illuminates how much Korean education including GCE is deeply rooted in neoliberal rhetoric, reflecting Korea’s political and socio-economic history. Drawing on this unique Korean context, this study analyzes the promotion of GCE in South Korean social studies textbooks, focusing on the neoliberal discourse within the context of Korea.


Critical discourse analysis

This study adopted critical discourse analysis (CDA) as an epistemological and methodological approach to take a careful look into the complex narratives and to generate more nuanced findings in relation to broader socio-political contexts. CDA is an interdisciplinary approach that aims to critically interpret language and discursive sources about specific and relevant social, political, and historical contexts (Fairclough, 2003; Luke 2002; Rogers, 2011). Instead of regarding discourse and language in everyday life as given, objective or neutral, CDA sees them as meaning-making process that is mediated, maintained and reproduced via specific “relationships of power and privilege in social interactions, institutions, and bodies of knowledge” (Rogers et al., 2005, p.367). CDA, therefore, is less interested in explaining the literal meaning of the word, and instead, seeks to unmask the power structures, dominance, and inequality that are maintained and reproduced through written and spoken texts within specific socio-political contexts. In other words, the nature of CDA is to demystify the neutrality of language and taken-for granted assumptions, and explores the mechanisms by which discourse “constructs, becomes constructed by, represents, and becomes represented by the social world” (p. 366).

In the present study, the analytical steps were informed by Fairclough (2003) and Luke (2002)’s methodological frameworks, which emphasize understanding of the text itself and the larger socio-historical context. According to Fairclough (2003) and Luke (2002), the ‘micro’ analysis of the texts focuses on text organization, vocabulary, logics and semantic relations, and ‘macro’ analysis of discourse attached to wider power relations and socio-cultural structures, which construct the discourse in accordance with the theoretical framework of the study. In this study, we first used ‘micro’ analysis, focusing on the text organization, logics and assumptions of the statements, vocabulary, and voice and use of metaphors, such that textbooks are read with a purpose of identifying narratives, images, activities, and ideas embodying the concept of GCE. Then, we conducted a ‘macro’ analysis to understand the larger socio-historical context and dominant ideology surrounding the texts. In this analytical process, line-by-line inductive coding and constant comparative method were utilized to identify recurrent patterns of the GCE discourse in the textbooks (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). We wrote reflective memos and continuously compared similarities and differences within and between each data source in order to generate emergent understandings and provide cohesive interpretations of the data (Creswell, 2003). In the light of soft versus critical GCE framework, our analysis addresses the rise of liberal discourses in contemporary education, and within the historical, social, cultural, political, and economic context of South Korea. The overall CDA approach allowed transition beyond the textual and linguistic analysis, uncovering the underlying messages and dominant ideologies inherent and hidden in the Korean social studies textbooks in relation to the contextual and theoretical underpinnings of the study.

Why textbooks matter

Textbooks reflect the goals and intentions of national curricula that serve as the primary carriers of the official knowledge of the society (Apple, 2014). Based on the process of intentional selection and organization of knowledge, textbooks propose the content that should be taught in schools and represents the hegemonic knowledge and perspectives of dominant groups (Nasser, & Nasser, 2008). Ideland and Malmberg (2014) wrote “textual and visual representations in the [text]books fabricate a certain worldview” (p.370). Textbook content analysis, therefore, is considered a valuable practice, offering insights into how official knowledge about the society and the world is constructed.

In South Korea especially, textbooks play a key role across all school levels. South Korean school system comprises six years of elementary education and six years of secondary education. Secondary education consists of middle school (seventh to ninth grades) which is mandatory, and high school (tenth to twelfth grades), which is elective. The secondary education curriculum consists of core subjects, including Korean, English, mathematics, science, and social studies, and other electives. In teaching these subjects, all schools are required to use textbooks that strictly follow the national curriculum framework and are officially approved by the Ministry of Education (Jho, 2017; Moon & Koo, 2011). Given that textbooks are principally designed to meet the standards of national social studies curriculum, all textbook series in South Korea from multiple private publishers carry similar structure, units, goals, and contents (Yun, 2016).

Thus, analysis of textbooks offers an overarching understanding of how official GCE knowledge is constructed and what most students might learn about GCE in classrooms. Since middle school is mandatory for all students in South Korea and social studies curriculum mainly provides GCE, an analysis of Korean middle school social studies textbooks will provide significant implications for the role of GCE in South Korea. Furthermore, the key role and the widespread usage of textbooks is observed not just in Korea but also in the education systems of many Asia-Pacific countries (Mori & Davies, 2015; Su, 2016) and beyond such as Northern Ireland (Terra, 2014) and Israel (Nasser & Nasser, 2008). The analysis of textbooks in this study, therefore, has a potential to offer insight into how GCE is positioned across the globe in addition to existing studies. Methodologically framed by critical discourse analysis, we examined every textbook published in 2013 and that have been mandatorily used in South Korean middle school social studies classrooms (Table 1).

The penetration of neoliberalism into GCE in Korean textbooks

Globalization as a tool for promotion of Korean superiority and economic competitiveness

The phenomenon of globalization, on the surface, was frequently addressed in the textbooks. Diverse issues related to globalization were blended within several units, including economics, politics, and geography, to support the discussion of growing interconnectedness among the nations, positive and negative impacts of globalization, and the importance of international cooperation.

Nevertheless, in the context of global market, when the interest of the nation-state was involved, globalization was no longer viewed as requiring mutual interdependence and cooperation with other nation-states. Rather, the textbooks appeared to frame globalization as a process to defeat and resolved by nation-state’s capitalist economies in favor of neoliberal market discipline and human capital. Specifically, increasing national competition was largely advocated in an era of globalization, as shown in textbook C-2, which maintained that “the nation must develop national competitiveness in order to cope with global, economic, and environmental changes, and survive the age of limitless competition” (p. 269). Textbook D-2 underlined the significance of enhancing Korea’s international competitiveness by outlining a series of responsibilities for a variety of stakeholders, including governments, employees, and corporations as follows:

Nations around the world today are facing limitless competition that transcends borders as a result of globalization. Nations must secure their competitiveness more than anything else in order not to fall behind in this era of competition. The government, the citizens, and corporations must create an environment in an effort to effectively respond to globalization. Roads, ports, and railways, which are the infrastructural basis for economic development, must be expanded; laws and regulations must be eased to fit international standards to revitalize the creative management and fair competition of corporations. Employees must also ceaselessly develop their abilities and qualifications to be equipped with competitiveness that matches the global market standards. (p.225)

As the quote above shows, the chief role of the government is to facilitate the institutional basis of a preferable economic mechanism including infrastructure reforms underpinned by the freedom of enterprise. By suggesting the inevitability of training and development of human resources appropriate for the global market, the textbooks further constructed a market-centered and state-oriented image of desirable citizenship. Desirable citizenship in this context entailed a normalized sense of continual investment in and optimization of human capital ready for competition in the global economy and contribution to strengthening the nation’s competitiveness.

Furthermore, to remain competitive and successful in the global market, the textbooks particularly shed light on preserving and propagating Korean culture and local products. Coupled with the imperatives of marketable Korean cultural production, localization strategies of Korean culture were described as an important tonic for promotion of Korean cultural superiority, activating economic and national development, and consequently survival in global competition. Textbook E-2 similarly depicted globalization as the driving force of Hallyu (the “Korean Wave”) or the global popularity of Korean entertainment and pop culture. However, the emphasis of the narratives was placed heavily on the economic benefits of Hallyu, most notably the growth of tourism and entertainment industries. For example, portraying Hallyu as “a devoted son of Korean economics,” textbook E-2 implied that “places in Korea, which have been exposed to media, attract foreign tourists and reinvigorate the local economy” (p. 29). Several pictures showing Europeans and Latin Americans enjoying Korean pop music and Korean food also highlighted how much Hallyu has become popular all over the worldwide. The caption under one of these pictures in textbook F-2 reads, “the economic advantage of globalization: Let’s widely promote Korean food to foreigners” (p.223).

Similar rhetoric was found in examples of localization strategies, which was often presented to attract profitable audiences such as tourists and corporate investment, activate local economies and ultimately increase competitiveness against the imperialistic practices of neoliberalism. For instance, textbook E-2 claimed that “every local community must be prepared for market openings and regional economic slumps as a result of globalization by developing specialized products based on skilled technology and the natural environment of the region” (p. 62). Citing specific examples of the traditional village of Jeonju Hanok or Andong Hahoe mask festival, the textbooks further highlight the economic merits of the traditional village and local festivals. The following quote from an in-class discussion activity in textbook B-2 manifests the role of localization as an effective response to global competitiveness and expansion of the exceptionality and superiority of Korean culture:

Andong Hahoe Folk Village…was designated as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site since 2010 through various efforts. It has become a famous place that many foreign tourists in addition to domestic tourists visit, thereby letting the world know more about Korea: What other regions in Korea have competitiveness in the era of globalization?” (p. 52).

Overall, prioritizing the neoliberal market values and national competitiveness, the textbooks focused on globalization and localization as strategies for promoting Korean superiority to the ever increasingly expanding global market. They have merely been framed as business strategies designed to showcase the nation’s culture as one of the world’s best and the most known in this context. Furthermore, a strong trend towards the triumph of the nation-state over global market forces demonstrated the instrumentalist view of GCE; GCE tended to inculcate a non-problematic national identity at the expense of mutual understanding and international cooperation.

Multiculturalism based upon a deficit view and market-oriented logic

The textbooks devoted several units to delineating the fact that South Korea is rapidly becoming a multicultural society by providing descriptions of increased numbers of foreigners and immigrants in Korean society with multiple sets of photos, statistics, and cartoons. The textbooks asserted the need for cultivation of a desirable attitude and better legal systems and regulations in a multicultural society.

Nevertheless, the textbooks addressed multiculturalism in a superficially descriptive way with fundamentally flawed dogmas by portraying derogatory views and unjustifiable stereotypes against immigrants. In the descriptions of the increased numbers of foreigners who have migrated to South Korea, the textbooks appeared to depict immigrants as poor, violent, dangerous, and dependent beings, and a significant threat to social cohesion. According to textbook B-1, “as the number of foreigners living in South Korea has increased, conflicts between different cultures have been caused and the social cost necessary for immigrants has increased” (p.220). Textbook C-1 stated that foreign-born immigrant workers and foreign brides “impose a heavy burden on education, housing, healthcare, and welfare systems of Korea, and cause a multitude of social problems including crime and violence and cultural conflicts” (p.137).

Additionally, the textbooks portrayed immigrants as a promising source of reliable capital and labor force. Giving much weight to the skills, manpower, and mobility that immigrants bring to a state, these textbooks appeared to encapsulate immigrants into commodifiable objects needed for national economic success rather than as citizens in a pluralistic and democratic society. Textbook B-1 stated that “immigrant workers can contribute to sustainable economic growth of Korea by offering cheap, plentiful labor and solving a severe manpower shortage in 3D (Difficult, Dangerous, and Dirty) industries” (p.220). It describes foreign brides from developing Asian countries to “provide new impetus to the farming and fishing village” (p.220). Textbook C-1 also argued that the influx of immigrants “helps to delay the decrease in population and solve the scarcity of domestic labor caused by low fertility rate for the past decade in Korea” (p.221).

This market-oriented agenda formulated by nationalistic rhetoric was also deeply embedded in the overall descriptions of cultural diversity in South Korea. Multiculturalism depicted in the textbooks was professed to be advantageous or even necessary for achieving economic growth and national development in the global marketplace. Particularly, textbook A-1 maintained that a multicultural society “has a potential for cultural advancement given its rich cultural elements ….and the increased number of people who use various languages also helps improve the competitiveness of Korean society” (p.97). Textbook E-1 described that “harmony of people with multicultural backgrounds contributes to social and national development since diversity is the source of creation and driving force of social change in contemporary society” (p 214). The portrait of multicultural societies in other Asian countries was further heavily guided by neoliberal and nation-centered ideology. Giving the example of Singapore, textbook B-2 illustrated that multiculturalism as a national policy in Singapore “has contributed to stabilizing social and political systems and achieving fast-growing economies in Singapore” (p.23).

In short, textbooks reflected the prevailing deficit-oriented perspectives and economic motives toward both immigrants and the values of multiculturalism. These descriptions generated and perpetuated a dichotomous view of multiculturalism, seeing it as both a problem holding potential conflicts and social tension, and an opportunity to economize and even exploit migrant labor force. Assimilationist views tended to be dominant throughout the discourses, emphasizing the integration of immigrants into the mainstream culture to avoid conflicts and foster economic growth. Most importantly, the textbooks upheld superficial celebrations of cultural diversity framed within national parameters for economic benefit, while failing to address the causes of exclusion and inequality among racial/ethnic minorities.

Unification as an extension of promoting neoliberal and ethnonational ideology

The textbooks discussed contemporary global issues such as wars between different religions and ethnicities, and refugees as the result of conflicts warranting arbitration, support, and cooperation from the international community. They also introduced various international organizations such as United Nations, Greenpeace and Doctors without Borders, which aim to promote human rights and world peace.

When the issues of peace were associated with the nation-state, however, the focus was disproportionately centered upon neoliberal and ethnic ideologies. The textbooks conceptualized peace, in particular, the issue of unification between South and North Korea, as an instrument of achieving national economic development and creating single-race/blood pride and homogeneity of the nation. On the one hand, Korean unification was often legitimized by the driving force of economic growth, focusing on the excessive amount of national defense budget and the limited opportunity to utilize natural and human resources in the North, which hinders the country from exercising its maximum economic and political power in the global society. Textbook E-2 argued for the significance of unification in economic growth and national development as follows:

Political and military competition between South and North Korea has prevented economic development and enhancement of national reputation in the international society… If the two Koreas are unified, the stupendous military expenditure can be diverted to economic growth and development of social welfare infrastructure, which then contribute to creation of additional jobs and improved quality of life (pp.140-141).

Similar neoliberal rhetoric was found in textbook D-2, which stressed the urgency of taking advantage of the economic value that unification would generate:

Because of the division, both Koreas have not made the best use of national territory. The southern half of the Korean peninsula has wide plains, which are advantageous for food production; the northern half has mountains in which abundant resources are produced, and thus easy to secure energy sources. If the two Koreas are unified, the combination of South Korea’s capital, technology, and food resources and North Korea’s resources and manpower will contribute to making Korea as a key member of the international community” (p.129).

On the other hand, a strong emphasis was placed on ethnocentrism and national homogeneity in justifying Korean unification. For example, the use of the term “single-blood Korean ethnicity” was frequently cited in the textbooks: “the recovery of homogeneity of Korean ethnicity (p.129)” in textbook F-2; “unification of Korean ethnicity to achieve development and prosperity (p.140) in textbook E-2; and “peace and prosperity of Korean ethnicity” (p. 129) in textbook D-2. Textbook A-1 also explicitly underscored the need for Korean unification to strengthen the homogeneity of Korean ethnicity, by stating that “unification will contribute to reconciling the ethnic identity and homogeneity of Koreans who have maintained and advanced the same language and culture” (p.133).

Both neoliberal and national ideologies were deeply entrenched in the issue of peace, unification in particular as shown above. Unification appeared to be only validated as an important vehicle for achieving national growth or promoting Korean ethnic homogeneity, which would strengthen prosperity of the nation. In the meantime, the textbooks paid scant attention to international power dynamics and socio-political conditions that have perpetuated war, refugees, and massive destructive weapon development on the Korean peninsula. Cosmopolitan and humanitarian ethos of peace, justice, and civic responsibilities were also largely untold.

Sustainability for the sake of national security and economic motives

It was noteworthy that the textbooks often borrowed the rhetoric of national security to frame the issues of environment and sustainable development as matters of national economic interest and state power. Again, the scope of world environmental justice and sustainability beyond the national border were mostly excluded. Despite statements that excessive development and exploitation of resource resulted in severe environmental pollution and energy exhaustion, the textbooks also greatly emphasized securing resources as an essential prerequisite for national economic growth and future development. For instance, textbook E-2 claimed that “it is important to secure various resources stably to maintain the standard of living and steady economic growth. The national economy will face many difficulties if international prices of energy resources rise, or when resources cannot be secured due to a war” (p. 81). Similar logic was also found in Textbook B-2 as follows:

The more economy grows on a global level, the more stable is the procurement of energy resources as the nation’s greatest interest. South Korea, which imports most of the energy resources from other countries, is burdened with the task of stably securing resources. It is necessary to build a foundation for national economic development and stability by establishing a comprehensive plan for systematic and long-term development of overseas resources (p. 77).

Additionally, developing renewable and eco-friendly resources was suggested as an effective and sustainable route to stably secure resources and thus to avoid economic difficulties and national insecurity. Textbook B-2 asserted the urgency and necessity of developing clean and renewable energy resources since these can “contribute to lower dependency on energy imports from other countries and the economic growth of the nation throughout job creation in the relevant industries” (p. 85). Textbook C-2 wrote that unstable supply and demand for energy resources caused by high dependence on other countries increases the risk economic adversity and menace to national security. It advocated the urgent need for developing renewable energy as follows:

South Korea produces almost none of the core energy resources of modern industry, which includes gasoline and natural gas. Given its heavy dependency on energy import, Korea would suffer a severe blow to its domestic economy and a national security risk, if faced with an energy supply problem. Therefore, South Korea has exerted its efforts to develop new and renewable energies since the late 1980s in order to overcome its high overseas dependency for energy resources (p.90).

The interplay between nationality and economic motives was also shown in a unit that introduced the concept of ecological city. While describing ecological city as an eco-friendly community that contributes to solving environmental issues such as pollution and excessive use of energy that are caused and diffused rapidly by globalization, the textbooks also described it as tools to enhance national economy and Korean cultural empowerment. For instance, it was argued that the Korean traditional village is an eco-friendly environment in harmony with mountains, water, and wind, and is thus committed to ecological diversity and sustainable development. At the same time, in all of the middle school social studies II textbooks, the value of Korean traditional villages was mainly discussed in terms of attracting tourists, enhancing regional reputation and competitiveness, and preserving Korean cultural pride. This argument falls back on an instrumentalist idea of GCE whereby globalization represented a channel that effectively advertises Korea’s superior culture and provides returns in the global economy.

In summary, environmental protection and sustainability were mostly advocated for financial interest in the name of national security. The over-emphasis on cost-effectiveness and the economic effects of new industry in relation to renewable and eco-friendly resources justified exploitation of resources at the expense of significant environmental ethics. In the meantime, ideas of ethical consumption and institutional responsibilities for environmental challenges that demand concerted efforts of the world community were rarely observed.

Concluding thoughts

Applying the soft versus critical GCE framework and CDA, this study examined the way global citizenship is portrayed and discussed in the Korean middle school social studies textbooks. The findings demonstrated that the soft GCE approach was dominant in all the 12 textbooks used in South Korean middle school classrooms. The textbooks devoted several units and pages dealing with globalization and related issues including migration, unification between the South and North Korea, sustainability, and so forth, and celebrated cultural diversity and the popularity of Korean pop culture across the globe. The seemingly unproblematic soft GCE, however, turned into an instrument of generating and perpetuating neoliberal, free market values and nationalist rhetoric that are geared to strengthen economic prosperity of the nation and its superiority. The textbooks framed globalization as a tool for promotion of excellence in Korean culture and economic competitiveness in a global market; commodified multiculturalism and migrant labor force while denigrating them on the other hand justified reunification of the South and North Korea as an extension of promoting neoliberal and ethnocentric ideology; and advocated sustainability for the sake of national security and economic motives. The lens of critical GCE; namely, consciousness of power relations, cosmopolitan solidarity, and a sense of civic participation in global inequality and injustice appeared largely invisible. In this regard, this study confirms the previous GCE literature that critiques strong presence of neoliberal values and nationalistic ethos in GCE curricula and textbooks from various countries (Alviar-Martin & Baildon, 2017; Reidel & Beck, 2016; Swanson & Pashby, 2016), by uncovering economic rationality and nationalist legacy remain highly contested in the South Korean social studies textbooks.

As existing studies in other countries showing the complex linkage between socio-political contexts of the country and GCE in the official school curriculum (Cho & Mosselson, 2017; Swanson & Pashby, 2016; Reidel & Beck, 2016), the overriding foci on neoliberal narratives in the present study can be explained partially by the Korean historical and political background. Under the South Korean dictatorship of military regimes extending over 20 years, public schools, school curriculum, and textbooks had long served as propaganda tools to control the democratic aspirations of South Koreans. Social studies textbooks in particular had legitimized the military dictatorship at the expense of democracy by infusing totalitarian, “single-blood” ethnic nationalism, glorifying rapid industrialization, idolizing tyrants, and propagating hateful sentiments toward North Korea during the military government led by Park Chung-hee (Jho, 2017). Although direct, physical dictatorship officially ended in the 1980s, the strong emphasis on neoliberal and nationalistic ideologies has remained and maintained through state policies including Segyehwa, the national globalization policy since the 1990s, and several government statements and projects. For example, when the former president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, attempted to nationalize secondary level history textbooks, the rationale was the so-called normalization of the young Koreans’ soul by exalting the Korean history of rapid industrialization, economic development, and increased political power on the global stage. Critiquing that the current privately published history textbooks were left-leaning as they denigrated the economic achievements during the rule of her father, and pro-North Korea as they failed to infuse students with a sense of pride, Park argued that if young students do not learn history properly through state-authored textbooks, their “souls inevitably would become abnormal” (Lee, 2015, November 10). Indeed, the prevalence of neoliberal and the nationalist in the global citizenship discourses in current social studies textbooks coincides with such rhetoric surrounding the state policies and visions.

Considering the neoliberal agenda deeply entrenched in education and politicized use of textbooks throughout the modern Korean history and the undemocratic legacy, we as researchers and educators are concerned about the strong state control over GCE and its ideological censorship. When the present neoliberal discourses of GCE in the official textbooks inherited from the state policies and national curriculum standards are transmitted to individual students, young learners might believe that global solidarity, cosmopolitanism, peace, and humanitarian values can be easily sacrificed for instrumentalist, nationalistic, and economic logic. The current form of GCE, despite South Korea’s officially proclaimed advocacy of GCE at the policy level, is likely to limit democratic spaces of global learning in the classroom by dissuading students from critical examination of their own complicity and ethical dimensions of living in an interconnected world (Gaudelli, 2016).

Therefore, it is imperative to recognize and acknowledge the adverse implications of current neoliberalism on GCE, and essential to reify the institutional and socio-political conditions that perpetuate the existing market-based and efficiency assumptions in education. In this sense, this study underscores the need for further research that examines neoliberalism, and its potential entrenchment in GCE curricula and its textbooks in other social, cultural, political, economic, historical contexts. Given the significant role and wide usage of textbooks in many Asia-Pacific countries and beyond, further analysis of GCE-related textbooks in different contexts is clearly needed to resolve the dominant narratives of GCE in legitimizing and perpetuating neoliberal, nation-centered agenda (Mori & Davies, 2015; Nasser & Nasser, 2008; Su, 2016; Terra, 2014). Future comparative textbook analysis across different countries to determine similarities and distinctions will also be a valuable addition to educational scholarship. The impact of neoliberal versions of GCE in textbooks on the worldview and global mind-set of young learners also deserves additional attention from scholars. Alongside further research, responsible educators and practitioners also need to take action on implementation of more democratic, global justice-oriented school curricula and textbooks. The critical GCE adopted in this study would be a meaningful framework for redirecting its goals and content towards a more ethical and global justice orientation (Andreotti, 2006; Andreotti & Souza, 2011). Rather than embracing the unquestioned GCE approach that glorifies economic progressivism, educators should provide space for critical reflection on the systemic reasons for global injustices and opportunities for exercising more humanitarian, responsible judgments for the world they inhabit (Gaudelli, 2016). Robust interrogation of the role of globalization in perpetuating exploitation and oppression through political, socio-cultural, and economic structures, and ways to participate in changing these structures, is necessary in the realities of classroom.


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