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Korea Blog: In Praise of Pilsa, the Highly Uncreative Korean Method of Learning to Write

Many Western expatriates start feeling their days in Korea are numbered as soon as they become parents. “We’ll have to leave before the kid starts school,” I often hear; the combination of urgency and vagueness reminds me of Los Angeles parents insisting that one “just can’t” send one’s children to whichever local public school their address assigns them. Whether by leaving the country or by shelling for an international (in most cases, read: ersatz American) school, the Western parent — and increasingly, the Korean parent of means — instinctively avoids the Korean education system. What if the kids are subject to overly strict hierarchies? What if they don’t get enough English? What if they have to engage in “rote” and “uncreative” East Asian forms of learning?

Come off glazed and harried though they may, Korean students seem at least to internalize some knowledge in the classroom, which is more than I can say for myself or most of my classmates in the United States. The dreaded Suneung, Korea’s infamous do-or-die college entrance exam that for some families constitutes a reason to emigrate in itself, essentially tests one’s ability to memorize and, as Westerners might put it, “regurgitate” large amounts of information. But given the reliability of retention and recall as a proxy for general intelligence, the Suneung does a decent job as a sorting mechanism. Westerners who find that hard to believe also doubt the effectiveness of other unfamiliar Korean educational traditions: pilsa, for example, the practice of copying published texts out word-for-word by hand.

Just as I have yet to meet a single Korean unaware of pilsa, I have yet to come up with a proper English equivalent of the term itself. Some have suggested “transcription” or “copying,” but neither brings quite the right activity to mind. In Korean I’ve heard the task in which Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is supposed to be professionally engaged referred to as pilsa, an apt label insofar as most Americans’ response to the prospect of doing something like pilsa is that they’d prefer not to. But the practice isn’t completely unknown in the West, and in some quarters it’s become a routine suggestion to aspiring writers looking to hone their craft: take the circulation, in recent years, of stories about the pilsa-like practice of no less an icon of American letters than Hunter S. Thompson.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.