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[OUTLOOK]The Function of History Education

The purpose of history education is not to foster patriotism.

Apr 17,2001
The Japanese Ministry of Education's decision to approve eight new history textbooks containing distorted descriptions of Japan's past aggression against Korea and other Asian nations has developed into a diplomatic dispute between Korea and Japan. But the implication of the history textbook controversy goes deeper than a momentary diplomatic issue; it raises the fundamental question about the true functions of history and what exactly constitutes a useful history education.

As is well-known, Japan's right-wing forces are trying to justify the distortions of the nation's past in the textbooks by arguing that it is time to put an end to the so-called masochistic concept of history, which they define as a tendency of negatively viewing the dark aspects of Japan's history marked by militarism and imperialism.

Japan's nationalistic forces say such descriptions of history bring disgrace on the Japanese people, and that they are especially detrimental to Japanese youth's concept of the nation and the state. They, therefore, maintain that in order to overcome the harms, it is imperative to implement a new history education based on new textbooks that portray the history of Japan in a positive light.

Simply put, the forces attempting to whitewash and glorify Japan's past acts of aggression claim that the essential role of history is to contribute to the establishment of a strong consciousness and identity of a nation.

But the Japanese are not the only ones making such arguments; there are many people championing such views at all times in every country. The people who protest that the portrayal of a nation's history in a critical light can cause a national identity crisis are not a minority; they can be found even in Germany, which is believed to offer a contrast with Japan in its repenting for its past.

Then what about Korea? A vast majority of Koreans probably share the belief that promoting the pride and self-respect of the nation is the ultimate goal of implementing history education. But if we accept such a belief, then a large part of our criticisms against Japan becomes self-contradictory in terms of logic. Perhaps some readers might argue that the ultra-rightist chauvinism of Japan's conservative forces, who are yearning for its past glory during the imperial era, are fundamentally different from Korean nationalism that focuses on recovering the nation's pride, which has suffered historically.

But there can be no "good" or "bad" nationalism; the line between the two is thin and vague. On the contrary, both positive and negative effects exist in nationalism, like the two sides of a coin. It can become a useful tool when used wisely, but turns into a dangerous weapon when used unwisely.

But whatever the case, it is necessary to reconsider placing emphasis on national consciousness and identity in studying and teaching a nation's history. There is no reason to place such an absolute importance on national identity when there are so many different kinds of group identities, such as class, religion, sex, generation, and region.

Moreover, there are also many means other than history of confirming national identity and reinforcing national consciousness. Sports events, commemorative events marking the national foundation day and going on trips to learn the nation's historical heritage are just a few of the examples. Do Japan's nationalists provide an eloquent example that illustrates the risks of a history education that places emphasis on the importance of the nation?

Then what is the proper role of history and what are the appropriate goals history education should aspire to? The mission of history is to define and criticize all kinds of ideologies and power that distorted and repressed the life of individuals and groups by openly or covertly operating in the various realms that make up the life of human beings.

The same is true of history education. We must not believe that the purpose of history education lies in instilling patriotism and national spirit into our descendants. The advisable direction of history education lies in fostering the critical spirit and perceptions necessary for future members of society to contribute to democracy and social justice. Put another way, the purpose of studying and teaching history is not to create myths and foster the unity or integration of the people; it is to destroy myths, criticize past wrongdoing, and enlighten the people.

History is important because it develops our judgement for critically perceiving reality, as well as the resolve and the ability to creatively search for alternative ways of living. As a result of the controversy surrounding Japan's history textbooks, Koreans are also calling for a strengthening of our own history education. The calls are just and right. But if we are looking forward to developing the critical and enlightening functions of history, we should also review the objectives and the direction of Korea's history education to be implemented in the future.


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The writer is a professor of European history at Seoul National University.


by Ahn Byung-jik




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