[VIEWPOINT]Look to history to know today

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[VIEWPOINT]Look to history to know today

In early 1982, an unprecedented event occurred in the college of social sciences at Seoul National University. When students applied for majors in their second year at the college, the department of sociology recorded the highest mark for admissions. The department of economics, which had been proud of always being at the top, was relegated to second place. Since then, we have never heard again that a department of sociology recorded a higher mark than a department of economics.
This extraordinary event was the product of history. At that time, the department of sociology was where students plotted to fight against the government and dreamed of revolution. The violence of former president Chun Doo Hwan’s military dictatorship, which had reached its climax, demanded that college students consider strife and revolution before jobs and success.
The “386 generation” grew up that way. The famous books that most overwhelmed the spiritual world of the 386 generation at that time were “What is History” and “Understanding of Post-Liberation History.” History books have the power to change views of the world and life.
“What is History,” written by the British historian E. H. Carr, came first. It is a historical and philosophical book that helped readers have an eye for history. In sum, the argument of the book was that “history is historians’ selection and interpretation of past facts through the eye of the present.” Therefore, history is a “constant dialogue between the present and the past.” The criteria by which historians interpret history is progress. Therefore, history progresses.
If we read “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” after reading “What is History,” the former and the latter fit with each other. The former contains the view of history that the latter taught. This is because “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” is a compilation of academic papers by left-leaning scholars, who interpreted history under the supposition of the progress of the future.
The writings of representative scholars, including Song Kun-ho and Choi Jang-jip, can be very roughly summarized as saying the history of post-liberation from 1945 to 1953 was marked by a failed revolution. The main actors of the revolution were the public and leftist intellectuals. The forces that foiled the revolution were pro-Japanese Koreans with vested interests and the United States.
When they read “What is History” and “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” after learning history only for their entrance examination in middle and high schools, about the Yushin, or Fourth, and Fifth Republic, college students came to have a totally different view of the world. They came to dream of fighting against dictatorships and of revolution for the people. In this regard, we can sufficiently sympathize with what President Roh Moo-hyun said in 2004 about “Understanding of Post-Liberation History,” saying that his blood was flowing backward after reading it.
The problem is that, as E.H. Carr said, just as time changes, so does history. It has already been 20 years since “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” made the blood of the 386 generation hot.
Nowadays “Understanding of Post-Liberation History,” or the historical interpretation of those days, is regarded as something out of date, even though “What is History,” or the viewpoint of history, is still valid. The progress of the future that the book “Understanding of Post-Liberation History” depicted, even tacitly, was socialism and the successful revolution would have been the North Korean regime. However, socialism fell and the wretched state of North Korea has been confirmed.
In this respect, the publication of “New Understanding of Post-Liberation History” is worthy of our attention. We have greater sympathy with what an author of the new book wrote in the foreword, “After reading the president’s comment that his blood was flowing backward, we, as history scholars, have reached the conclusion that it would be a dereliction of our duties to leave such historical understanding at that.”
History is always in the present progressive tense. Japan’s distortion of history textbooks and Japanese Prime Minister Junichro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine are factors that make Northeast Asia unstable. Tsuneo Watanabe, the publisher of the Yomiuri Shimbun, reproached the prime minister for continuing his visits to the shrine, saying, “He does not know history.” Despite international criticism for suppressing its press, the Chinese government recently suspended a weekly magazine called “the Freezing Point” because of an article that criticized history textbooks. It is also because history is in the present progressive tense that the Roh administration has strongly pushed ahead with settling the past, and new right civic groups held academic events to criticize that move. I would like to recommend reading a history book during the weekend, to have an eye to see today, not the past.

* The writer is the cultural news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Oh Byung-sang

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