Education and Camotes: A Korean Story

September 4th, 2010

You need not be as old as I am to have heard about this rude remark directed by Filipino teachers at slow learners or stubborn learners: “Go home and just plant camote!”

Education is directly counterposed to camote: If you can’t study, then go farming. Not just any kind of farming, but primitive low-level farming, represented by planting the lowly camote.

After all, camotes grow even on poor soil, and do not need much care or skill. It’s a root crop associated with poverty, and low esteem. It’s image only slightly improves when we call it ” sweet potato.”

In fact, a Filipino metaphor for underachievement is “nangangamote.”

These past two days in Korea, Girlie and I have been fortunate to learn about a different relationship between education and camotes.

We are here because I am one of three recipients of the 20th annual ILGA awards. The award is in honor of Kim Yong-ki, 1966 Magsaysay Awardee, whose adopted pen name is “Ilga.”

Kim Yong-ki is called the “Korean Grundtvig” and I thought that may have been the reason why I was getting the ILGA award, since my work in ELF is partly inspired by Gruntvig’s ideas on education.

From what I have learned about Ilga’s educational practice and thinking, he does share Grundtvig’s philosophy of “education for life,” which we in ELF translate into Filipino as “hango sa buhay, tungo sa buhay.

But the uniqueness and depth of his educational thinking is best appreciated in relation to the “lowly” camote or sweet potato.

As a young man of 23, Ilga inherited from his father a small piece of barren unproductive land. He believed that through example and hard work, he could influence and change the plight of the common farmer, and build a model village. He set out to develop a farm that would offer training to other farmers as well as help them adopt a new way of life.

Since the farm was wasteland, he chose to plant sweet potatoes because they grow in poor soil and under any climatic conditions. Men, women, and even children could easily learn to plant and cultivate them, and they are nutritious.

After years of hard work (he woke up daily at 4:30 am and went to bed at 10 pm) and experimentation, he became the best sweet potato farmer in Korea.

After seven years of experimentation, Ilga solved the problem of storing sweet potatoes for 12 months which highly trained Japanese farmers had failed to do. (I didn’t know that storing camotes is such a problem.) He achieved the needed steady temperature by storing them underground.

But his success in growing and preserving camote was not simply an expression of his technical dedication. Choosing to grow camote was a political act. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the soldiers would confiscate rice grown by Korean farmers. So Ilga promoted the growing of camotes to protect his family and his fellow farmers from hunger.

His “underground” work was not limited to storing camotes. He gave shelter to anti-Japanese resistance leaders, while overtly remaining apolitical.

This morning after the awarding ceremonies, a pastor-member of the ILGA Foundation told this story. Every August 15, the families that belong to the Canaan Farmers School celebrate the anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation with a simple ritual: They eat sweet potatoes and wash them down with water.

Of course, Ilga’s life story is not just about camotes. He developed the diversified Canaan Farm system, named after the biblical description of Canaan as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” He has set up two Canaan Farm Schools. He is the key inspiration of the New Vilage Movement. Ilga’s philosophy of education was to “do it and prove it,” for others to learn. But he also insisted that changing the mind was as important as changing the land, if not more important.

Stimulated by this new appreciation of the camote, I searched the web and found these tidbits:

In 1992, a study compared the nutritional value of camotes to other vegetables. “Considering fibre content, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, the sweet potato ranked highest in nutritional value. According to these criteria, sweet potatoes earned 184 points, 100 points over the next on the list, the common potato.”

Surprisingly, despite the “sweet” in its name, it may be a beneficial food for diabetics, as preliminary studies on animals have revealed that it helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and to lower insulin resistance.

In Korea, Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza use camotes as one of their popular toppings.

Does this mean that we should take to planting and eating camotes?

As Ilga said, first a change of mind. Then perhaps a change of diet.

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