An anonymous netizen posts on a forum: “What did president Park Geun-hye do right?”
Another responded: “I own and run a pub near Gwanghwamun Square. Thanks to president Park, I got so many customers and paid off my debts…. Lol.”
This is how “Humanities Bullshit,” a South Korean Facebook page, analyzed this exchange:
“Libertarian analysis: “So-called ‘social issues’ are no more than what individuals suffer in their own situation. Therefore, trying to solve the problems of an individual in the name of ‘social issues’ is a totalitarian approach. Just as former president Park Geun-hye may have been a preposterous presence for the majority of South Koreans, but an unexpected source of luck for the owner of a pub in Gwanghwamun.””
This, according to the page, is a classic example of what you call “humanities bullshit.” FYI, the word “bullshit” in Korean literally means “dog’s noise.” “Dog” in Korean is often used as a profane prefix.
Weaving together scholarly accounts and current issues in South Korea and beyond, the Facebook page Humanities Bullshit is garnering popularity among South Korean aficionados of the humanities and social sciences. Each post on the page is a tongue-in-cheek satire on contemporary society, using perspectives from prominent thinkers or different streams of philosophy.
One recent post compared politician Kim Moo-sung — whose recent video of him nonchalantly pushing his suitcase at his assistant without even looking at him went viral — to French philosopher Albert Camus, and how Kim’s behavior reflects Camus’ existentialism (sorry, we tried to understand exactly how, but it sounded like, well, bullshit).
The pioneer behind the popular bullshit page is Kim Kyung-soo. In late 2014, Kim was a high school graduate preparing to take a second attempt at the notoriously grueling university entrance exam. This was when he opened the Facebook page, hoping to create a space for humanities lovers to share jokes and “bullshit” analyses.
“It was difficult to find people around me who shared my sense of humor,” Kim told Korea Exposé. “So I decided to open a page where people like me would empathize and laugh together.”
“I like the sort of humor that looks at things in a slightly lame but twisted way,” he said.
After two and a half years, Kim, who now majors in creative writing, was eventually able to gather a group of 14 university students to run the page, which has almost 14,000 followers.
But Humanities Bullshit isn’t simply the cheeky, often self-parodying product of academic enthusiasts who just want to share some laughs and perspectives on society.
It also reflects the grim economic reality many humanities and social sciences students face in South Korea. Graduates of the arts are often held in lower esteem in the job market than those who studied engineering, science and other disciplines typically perceived to be more “practical” and better for employment.
As South Korea’s overall youth unemployment rate continues to rise, students in the humanities and social sciences seem to be suffering more than their science and engineering counterparts.
When employment portal Albachunkuk conducted a survey of university students in 2014, only 37.4 percent of students in the arts said they saw their job prospects as positive, in contrast to students in medicine and engineering, of whom 82.7 percent and 66.7 percent respectively answered positively. Most humanities students pointed to a “lack of job openings” and a “lack of professional skills” as the source of their concerns.
The fact that many of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates, such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, specialize in IT and engineering may also be a contributing factor to the current chasm. Online news agency News Tomato reported that, in 2014, over 85 percent of Samsung Electronics’ job openings were for science and engineering majors. (Samsung Electronics told Korea Exposé that it could not confirm these statistics, saying the company does not disclose information related to the backgrounds of their employees.)
Unfortunately, the humanities and social sciences are increasingly being shunned by universities for their declining economic practicality. According to University Tomorrow 20s Lab, from 2010 to 2015, among the 270 departments that were shut down unilaterally at universities nationwide, 50 percent were from the arts while the other half were from all the other disciplines, including science, engineering, fine arts and physical education. “Foundational disciplines with low employment rates are indiscriminately being closed down,” said the study.
In 2013, Seoul’s Chungang University faced a backlash for closing four “uncompetitive” humanities major programs while increasing quotas for more popular (and hence profitable) departments like business and economics.
More recently, Sung Nak-in, president of Seoul National University (SNU), a top university in South Korea, raised eyebrows in a conversation with Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich for saying that his daughter had majored in Russian literature but ended up in law school. Some of those present took Sung’s comments as insinuating that Russian literature was of less value and had merely been used by his daughter as an easy way into prestigious SNU (it’s a less competitive subject) before proceeding on to study law.
The division — and disparity — between the humanities and the sciences begins early in South Korean education. For decades, the education system has categorically divided into the two from the high school level. As a result, science and engineering are alien to many South Korean humanities students from an early age (and vice versa), making it harder to transcend the boundary even if they wanted to in university and beyond. The system will change in 2018, allowing students to choose more interdisciplinary subjects depending on their preferences.
In this climate, “sorry that I studied humanities,” or munsonghamnida, is a common phrase some students use self-deprecatingly. On a side note, the Korean word for humanities (inmunhak) has a broader range than its English counterpart, encompassing not only the humanities but also social sciences and other arts disciplines.
Humanities Bullshit isn’t sorry.
“I believe the ability to bullshit shows the value of the humanities,” Kim said.
In a way, Kim’s Facebook page provides a platform where different arts majors can comfortably ramble on about society and form bonds with those in similar situations.
“Bullshit can offer a more innovative interpretation of reality,” Kim continued. “The real bullshit may actually be those big, influential words that are often used in reality. The preposterousness of society is in demanding that we pursue nonsensical matters in the name of conforming to the ‘norm.’ South Korean society is full of dogmas about how we should look at things. We need the humanities to break those dogmas.”
The declining status of degrees in the humanities and social sciences isn’t unique to South Korea. As a former art history student myself, I repeatedly face pressing questions, not just in South Korea, about what I can do to make a living with my degree. Ever heard this joke? “What is the difference between an arts degree and a pizza?” The answer: “A pizza can feed a family of four.”
Cover image: Quality bullshit for two dollars a bag. (Source: Flickr)