[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]What's wrong with history texts?

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]What's wrong with history texts?

Remember the great to-do about those history textbooks that the Japanese Ministry of Education approved for use in middle schools last year? Protesters in Korea, China and Taiwan demonstrated in front of Japanese embassies, and columnists wrote op-ed after op-ed denouncing the books for whitewashing the Japanese colonial period and even just leaving out the worst parts.

I remember being surprised to read that many younger Japanese are unaware of most of what went on in those darker days and gave myself a little pat on the back for having had the foresight to get born and raised in the good old U.S. of A., where such misinformation would never be passed off as history.

Then I started thinking back. How much had I really learned about American history in high school? I could give a brief rundown of America's national heroes and could put the "main events" on a timeline to the nearest decade, but that was about it. In fact, I realized that I probably knew more about Korean history than I did about American.

Why so? Upon reflection the answer seems obvious: Like just about all my classmates, I hated history because it was boring. And why was it so boring? Because it was taught straight out of the textbook -- read the chapter, memorize a few dates and other facts, pass the quiz, and then forget everything until it comes time to cram for the final. There were no hands-on labs like those we had in chemistry and biology, none of the human-interest stories like those we read and talked about in literature classes, no problems to figure out like those we wrestled with in math classes. In other words, it was all drudgery and no stimulation.

But as it turns out, that's not the worst of it. Recently I came upon a book that shows that American history textbooks are not really any better than the Japanese ones we've complained so loudly about. They may be thicker and have more glossy color pictures, but when it comes to misleading the student or leaving important things out, they are right up there with Japanese books.

The book I'm talking about came out in 1996, so some readers may have already discovered it, but I feel the book's message is so important that everyone who hasn't seen it yet should rush out and get a copy.

"Lies My Teacher Told Me," with the telling subtitle "Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," was written by James W. Loewen and published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Loewen blames the sad state of history education in U.S. secondary schools on the history textbooks and teachers' excessive reliance on them. He analyzes 12 books that have been widely used in high schools and covers 10 major areas where they leave out or gloss over things that may make the United States seem less than the most idealistic, moral, democratic, progressive nation on God's good earth.

The textbooks, Mr. Loewen writes, turn many historical figures into fault-free mythological beings, thus depriving students of learning about the personal conflicts these people underwent and how their ideas developed. He faults the textbook creators for trying to teach only an optimistic view of American history without taking a good look at problems and their causes. He says: "While there is nothing wrong with optimism, it can become something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice the dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group that has not achieved socioeconomic success. The optimistic approach prevents any understanding of failure other than blaming the victim. ... Even for male children of affluent families, bland optimism gets pretty boring after 800 pages."

The type of "controlled" representation of history that these textbooks are guilty of sounds like something we'd expect from those "Axis of Evil" countries, but government control is not at all necessary, as is shown by this frightening quote, also taken from "Lies": "When you're publishing a book, if there's something controversial, it's better to take it out." That was said by a representative of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, one of the biggest textbook publishers in the States.

Everyone, not Americans only, should read this book because it also says a lot about Europeans, Africans, Native Americans and even Asians and their roles and interrelations in the making of America. It's also about a problem in education that is by no means exclusive to the United States -- I believe Koreans will find some resemblances to their own textbook problems in this work.

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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