TEDxYonsei – Joonyoung Choi – The homeless Humanities

Hello, I’m Joon-young Choi. It’s been six years already. Homeless and liberal arts, this society has been curious about the unique encounter of the two words that does not seem to go together. At first, neither the homeless nor I had any idea of what liberal arts was, but we started our lecture of liberal arts. In 1995, the first lecture for the homeless began from Earl Shorris, who gathered homeless people around New York and began teaching Socrates. After a documentary related to this was aired on KBS, the Anglican priest suggested of providing education to the homeless rather than giving food or place to sleep. Such literature lectures, which at first both the homeless and I were not well acknowledged of, have continued for six years and still prospering day after day. Liberal arts lectures which at first started in area near Seoul Station are now opened anywhere where there are homeless people, and currently there are 20~30 lectures in progress. I once read a book which said that humankind had experienced three major humiliations in our history. First humiliation was when despite the long belief ever since the Middle Ages that the earth was center of the universe, Copernicus proved that earth was not the center of the universe, rather orbiting on the borderline of the solar system. Second humiliation was when Charles Darwin asserted that human beings are distinguished from animals, yet are no different from animals. Third was a humiliation after Freud had said consciousness governs our lives, he overturned himself by saying it is our unconsciousness which controls our lives. And as I lecture, The fourth humiliation is of the liberal arts of the homeless. The very field of study which has been abandoned by the major universities is now being revived as the liberal arts of the homeless to liberal arts for the neglected, for CEOs, for housewives, and many more humanities courses were offered in colleges. As I assert that this is one great humiliation to the major trend in our society, many have applauded. Every time I give lectures, the most frequently asked question is this; Isn’t providing food or a place to sleep more realistic to the homeless? I think I have an answer to this question, this is something I realized while I was giving lectures, and many of the homeless would also feel this way. If people were to live only for a day or two, food or place to sleep could be desperate. Yet, life is not just about few days, in order to live a long journey of life mental strength is equally important as food and a place to sleep. There are times in life when people face difficulties. Especially for those who have already experienced failure, like the homeless, it is tough regain their volition of self support in our victor dominated society. As much as providing them with a warm meal is important for living, enlightening them with new meaning of life and showing them how the people in books lived and how they overcame their difficulties, granting them strength to endure their long lives without giving up through liberal arts was our objectives, and those who are taking part in lectures agree to this. As I mentioned earlier, the reality is that not only the homeless but also people in general consider liberal arts as something unapproachable and they are not well acknowledged about the academics. Many meanings could be given to this, yet I thought it was especially important people who are in great agony could be provided with opportunity to relieve their distress through liberal arts. At the beginning of every semester, I tell the homeless a story about Bill Bryson, a humorous American writer, who wrote ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything,’ and many other books. In his book, ‘I’m a Stranger Here Myself,’ he wrote, “there’s always some toothpaste left in a toothpaste tube.” After writing this sentence, Bill considered himself a genius and while pondering where to use this phrase, one day, he goes through the airport security. The English are obsessed with queuing, and the Americans are obsessed with rules. As the regulations tightened up for airport security, people without their photo on their ID card could not pass the security. Bill Bryson, who did not have his picture on his identification card, tried to prove his identification by showing his own books, unfortunately could not go through the airport security. As he was finally able to pass, Bill said, “Although you think you are dealing people with strict regulations, there are always exceptions to rules, like there’s always toothpaste left in the tube.” The reason I tell this story to homeless people is because most of the homeless are devastated and lost the will to rehabilitate in the society since they consider themselves as “empty toothpaste.” To these people, I encourage them by making them read the following sentences; “That’s not true. If you cut that empty tube, there still is some toothpaste left, enough to use it seven more times. There’s definitely possibility of your reestablishment. Do not give up!” I think you should also memorize such phrases. There are people in my class who greet me by saying, “there’s toothpaste inside the tube.” I am not a traditional liberal arts scholar, nor a lecturer who neither makes academic definitions nor gives theoretical lectures. I am merely a person who studied liberal arts, who recalls and talks with homeless people about the sentences in the books I read in the past. One of the books I teach in class is ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ This book was written by Viktor Frankl, a former captive in the Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War, on his continuous thought about how he was able to survive in the atmosphere where most people lost their lives. In this book Frankl says, it is because he knew the meaning of life and had a distinct purpose of why he has to live. “One who knows the meaning of life can overcome whatever pain in life.” In other words, people who know why they are living have the volition to endure whatever painful situation they face. During the lectures with the homeless, together we read the book, discussed and had conversations about the book. A graduate of the liberal arts course came to see me after a year of his graduation. He offered to buy me drinks, since he had earned quite a fortune thanks to the liberal arts course, and now is employed and making money. With joy, we had soju together while taking. As I listened to his story, I felt his eyes wetting with tears. He said he tried applying a job as a 20-ton truck driver. The employer had agreed to give him the job, since he showed great enthusiasm and had been through difficulties of being homeless. However, he had one problem, a big one; he had no driver’s license. It was a job to drive a huge truck, not a general vehicle, yet he had no license to do so. So the car owner offered to provide the fee for getting his driver’s license and wait until he does so, and after he got his license, his employer took several months to train him and made him a full time driver within a year. He now drives 20 hours a day back and forth from Uijeongbu to Ulsan, earns 2 million KRW per months. He had paid off most of his debts and now is even saving some money. When I heard his story, I doubted if this was a novel or his real story. I asked him how he could think about applying to be a driver without a driving license. He answered, “you taught us in your lecture, if we know the meaning of life and have a distinct purpose of life, we can withstand whatever situation, I remember you saying that and I have a purpose of my life. Despite my failure in business during the IMF bailout, my daughter is now in college and soon will be married, I want to walk in to her wedding holding her hand. The day when my daughter came to visit me, after not seeing her for 3 years, I could not sleep at night. So I thought I had to go for that job, whether I have a license or not. I even had graduated from the liberal arts courses!” After his success of his grand challenge, he is now working hard. Inside, I applauded, and without knowing, I shed some tears. This is the amazing story of meeting homeless people through liberal arts. There are some funny episodes. Liberal arts for the homeless drew societal interest. Our society was extremely curious of what kind things would happen with combination of the two awkward words? The Homeless Liberal Arts Course was initiated in 2005, had its first graduates in 2006. In 2006 around October, one television program broadcasted a show about one of our course graduates. The show filmed this person’s daily life, with this program encouraging people to read, the show tried to picture the life of an “atypical” person, a homeless, reading more than the “general” population. The message it wanted to deliver was “even a homeless reads, why don’t you?” On the show, the homeless said, “for the 50 years I did not know about books, I indulged in alcohol, gambling, and lived a wrecked life, but by a merest chance, I fell for liberal arts course and got to know about books, the lives of people in the books, and realized how wrongly I had lived my life. So then on, I began reading book and now I am a member of a civic organization which fixes bikes and sends them to North Korea.” “The pay I receive is around 800 thousand KRW, which is not plentiful, yet the money is unimportant. The important thing is that I am no longer living a wrecked life but is continuing to read books and interacting with diverse people. I am very proud of my current self. Consequently, I can definitely say that reading saved my life.” Unlike other viewers, as a person who instructed for a year, his words were extremely touching. For a year I had contemplated why I was teaching the homeless, with no social appreciation nor much profit, since I had to buy them drinks and meals. But the moment I saw some 10 books, which I bought for him with my salary, on his desk through that TV program, I realized that it was an excellent decision to participate in the liberal arts course. This has motivated me until now and is my driving force to continuously take part in the courses. Yes indeed, the title “Liberal Arts is love” is out of nowhere. This story is also extremely touching. Like I mentioned earlier, the way I present this short talk to you is mostly focused on the experiences I had and the things I observed. The next frequent question after why I teach liberal arts to the homeless rather than providing food or a place to sleep more realistic to the homeless, is that why humanities? Why not other practical studies or technology useful in the 21st century? Liberal Arts could be defined in many different ways. It could be said liberal arts is a field of studies that discovers the ultimate meaning of human life, as for the Chinese characters of liberal arts imply, how human beings have been shaping their lives. What good would it do to list all the definitions of liberal arts? I just would like to wrap up today’s lecture by telling you how one of our homeless student defined his own meaning of liberal arts. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd group of graduates from “Saint Francis course” went on a retreat. Maybe most of you have an experience of going on a retreat. Usually on retreats, we have some formal programs and after that we also play games drinking soju and makguly with small camp fire at night. The atmosphere was good after playing football and enjoying makguly party in the evening with lots of guys. But an absurd question came out unexpectedly from a guy who we could not tell whether he was drunk or not, suddenly broke the nice atmosphere of our retreat. His question was “what the hell is liberal arts? Why did it drive us to this situation? At that moment, the atmosphere turned cold. Especially lecturers tried avoiding answering to the question, intentionally looking away from that person. Of course they could not answer the question exactly, but if they try to respond to that question, the atmosphere would completely chill. There were some lecturers and around thirty students. Most of them tried to change topic neglecting that question. But at that moment, not 1st and 2nd graduate but a 3rd course student raised his hand and started to talk about liberal arts. He had participated liberal arts course only for 3 months. Let me tell you what liberal arts is. I don’t know exactly it is appropriate or not to talk about liberal arts because here are lots of graduates and lecturers. But I really want to say something about liberal arts for I was touched from it. And he started to talk about his story. I was born in Jeju island. I lived happily with my wife and our 4 children. I had my own business for 16 years. But one day, I began indulge in gambling and spoiled myself. So I could not stand to live with my family and have a feeling so sorry to my wife. I ran from my family and came to Seoul to earn money with no specific idea and now 3 years have passed. At first I tried to work in labor field and make enough money for living. But after 2,3 years working places gradually decreased and soon there was no work, especially during the winter so I gave myself up making money and started being homeless at Seoul station By comparison with my life gradually getting worse, my wife in Jeju Island asked me to divorce by calling me continuously. She said to me “Please divorce me, if you divorce me I can receive governmental social welfare because I have 4 children. But you bastard won’t divorce me, so I could not get that kind of assistance and my life is so miserable. The only kindness you can do for me is giving me a divorce!!’’ But I had a last call to my wife before I came to the retreat a week ago. My wife’s mind has changed a little after that call. And then he explained why his wife changed her mind. “Actually whenever my wife called, I either avoided her calls or wanted to hang up right away, or beg her not to divorce me, yet she was firm in her decision. “Two to three months after I joined the liberal arts courses, and right before I came to this retreat, I decided to call my wife”, “Honey, I’m studying liberal arts these days. Do you know what it is?” Of course, she wouldn’t know. “Liberal arts is something really good. I am studying it really hard and soon I am going to graduate. I think I can be a better person after I graduate. And I think I never told you this, but as I learned liberal arts, I realized how much I love you.” This person had never told his wife that he loved her, even after having four children. That indifferent man, after experiencing three months of liberal arts, he unknowingly confessed his affection towards his wife. So he can now confidently say to others that liberal arts allows you to express things that you never had expressed, makes you know the things that you hadn’t known, lets you rethink about the things you might have missed, and especially, gives you the confidence to say ‘I love you’ to people you love. As I say this, I can still remember that feeling I had at that moment. I was extremely embarrassed. I excused myself to the restroom and called my wife to ask her how she was. It was a very rare occasion I call my wife and ask her such question. I think liberal arts make us realize the love that we neglect in our daily lives. There is no theoretical evidence, yet this is something that I learned from a person who was homeless for 6 years. Liberal arts is Love. So may you love, all of you.

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