The Equation of Life
The Equation of Life
  • Professor Kim Hyun Kwang
  • 승인 2021.01.02 18:36
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I studied and taught mathematics, and soon I will retire. In this column, I would like to describe some of the things that I felt and realized at POSTECH for the past 33 years.

The Philosophy of Instruction: Study and Instruction Have No Difference.
For those who teach at college, one of the questions that follow like fate is “education or research?” None of the professors do research only, and few do education only. I believe that good research must precede good education and that good research comes from education. In other words, education and research are essentially the same. With the mission that talented students of POSTECH should progress with their outstanding talent, I spent 60% of my capacity in education and the remaining 40% in research. As I spent a little more weight on education, I realized the importance of basic skills. And after more than 15 years of teaching, I realized a seemingly natural lesson; to accomplish the difficult tasks, one needs to understand the basics thoroughly. The belief that a person with thorough basic skills can rise to a higher level has evolved in my mind. I felt that this principle applies not only to academics but also to society.
Leadership vs Followership
These days, leadership is gaining interest. This is evident in the fact that leadership centers are easily found in societies and universities. However, if one thinks a little more, he or she will realize that there are far more followers than leaders in every society. I wonder if it is reasonable for most members of society to learn leadership. Isn’t it more fundamental and necessary in our lives that ordinary people should learn followership rather than leadership? 
Followership is not a big deal. The key is to faithfully carry out the given tasks, to respect the stances of other members who may have different ideas when making arguments, and to resist speaking out one’s thoughts. Trusting and supporting the leader is also important. Can a person without followership become a true leader? 
Let’s change our perspectives and look for examples that show the importance of followers in ancient history. In ancient China, Baengnak was a legendary figure famous for breeding horses. Baengnak left us an anecdote: “I taught the ones I hate how to find a fine horse, and the ones I love how to find an ordinary horse for pulling a carriage.” Why? Baengnak had the early realization that earning profits from fine horses is slow since they are rarely found and traded occasionally, whilst earning profits from ordinary horses is fast as they are traded daily. Special abilities useful in unique circumstances only can be of little use in everyday life, and overly idealistic thinking can be of little help in reality. These abilities may sound great, but their practical utility is often not. Before acquiring such special abilities, one must discard stereotypes and prejudices and establish a perspective that can recognize the practical gains and losses based on diligence.
Besides, there are many teachings from saints that suggest that one with great intention of governing a country should concentrate on the basics. As a representative example, there is the idiom “Soosin Jega Chiguk Pyeongcheonha” in one of the Confucian classics, the Great Learning. What the idiom teaches is that, to govern a country, one must first develop personal abilities and then attend to living in harmony with family members. The idiom can be interpreted to suggest that, although life is tough, fighting oneself is the toughest of all.
“Educating a universal prodigy,” the third pleasure in “Kunja Samrak (The three pleasures of a wise man)” by Mencius, is an idiom frequently mentioned at universities. The first and second pleasures of a wise man, according to Mencius, are “having one’s parents alive and brothers innocent” and “having no shame in front of heaven and men”, respectively. Some may express disappointment that the first and second pleasures lack content compared to the third pleasure, but I would like to express a different opinion. Arranging the three pleasures in order of their importance, I believe that the first pleasure comes first, the second pleasure next, and the third pleasure last. This can be realized if one contemplates on and appreciates the anecdotes of Baengnak mentioned above. From the order of the three pleasures, I was able to recognize that Mencius was truly a wise man. The importance of basics can be agreed by anyone, but the depth of enlightenment about this fact varies from person to person. I believe that one of the reasons why Confucius and Mencius are revered as wise men by many people is their exceptional realization of the importance of basic skills.

Insight and Intuition
One of the questions I often encounter as a person who teaches math at college is “What’s good about studying math?” There is no single answer to this question, and it may vary depending on the level of the questioner. The answers that can be given to students who want to decide their major and the answer for a researcher who has already mastered their fields in a serious sense cannot be the same. One of my favorite answers to this question these days is: Mathematics is essentially a study of the fundamentals of objects, and the way of doing this is by observing and analyzing objects from various views. Therefore, a deep study of mathematics leads to the observation of the underlying fundamentals of a phenomenon, and consequently one understands that one phenomenon is essentially the same as another phenomenon. Repeating this, one can also gain insight into social phenomena. Working hard, one can create intuition in any field. However, I cannot answer whether such intuition leads to insight in other fields too since I have limited knowledge in other academia.
As a major of a fundamental study, I believe that the solution to the life equation is an ordinary concept: if one thoroughly strengthens his or her basic skills and calmly waits, an opportunity comes for sure. Looking back on my experience, I realized that it is not that the opportunity did not come but that I missed the opportunity several times. 
I hope that Postechians grow into true leaders in their fields by fostering both followership and leadership.

Kim Hyun Kwang, Professor, Mathematics
Kim Hyun Kwang, Professor, Mathematics