[VIEWPOINT]Improving history education is key to peaceThe Korean government on March 30 lodged a strong protest with the Japanese government and urged that it withdraw the instructions issued by Japan's Education Ministry to Japanese high school textbook publishers to state in books that the Dokdo islets are Japanese territory. In this way, the government of Japan continues to distort or modify history even as its leaders keep visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s class-A war criminals are enshrined. Such behavior by Japan seems to be an unending challenge to us. In this manner, history that should be buried keeps being repeated in a vicious circle.
In the course of continuing controversy over history, we have learned that we must renew efforts to improve conditions for the study of and education on history. The inferior condition of history education in our society makes us worry and take a pessimistic view of our capacity to cope with the challenges of strong powers around us.
The most serious problem in our history education is that Korean history and world history are lumped together and merged into social studies classes. Furthermore, history education is entrusted to social studies teachers who are not history majors. Moreover, the social studies teacher certifications are issued indiscriminately to teachers of other subjects after attending a few pro-forma training courses, creating an outrageous situation in which some 40 percent of Korean history teachers and some 70 percent of world history teachers are non-history majors. Among elective courses for social studies for the second and third years in high school, there are four courses in the general social studies field (politics, economics, social culture and law and society) and three courses in geography (Korean geography, world geography and economic geography). But there are only two courses in history (Korean modern history and world history).
For this reason, scholars and teachers who have majored in history have consistently sought reform for years, hoping to normalize education by separating history classes from social studies and allowing only history majors to teach history courses.
They have also sought expanded administrative and financial support necessary for enhancing the quality of history education by adjusting the number of elective courses, publishing more history textbooks and teaching materials, collecting more research material on history and expanding training courses for history teachers.
On May 6, 2005, the deputy prime minister for education and human resources development announced a plan to put more emphasis on history education.
Under the plan, the education ministry promised the following: 1) History courses at middle schools will be conducted independently from other subjects by merging world history and Korean history. 2) The Korean history course for the first year in high school will be strengthened by including modern Korean history and the number of classes will be increased by using free study hours for the Korean history course. Academic scholars and history teachers had high expectations that their long-cherished wish ― normalizing history education ― would be accomplished under the present government that has expressed great interest in rectifying historical wrongs and instilling a democratic historical view among the people. However, one year after the ministry issued its promise, it has yet to show any visible results.
Under the authoritarian governments in the past, education policy and curriculum were decided behind closed doors. Now, at a time when democratization has made a certain degree of progress, the collective ego of educators has become an obstacle to real improvement of our education curriculum. In a study by the Korean Institute of Curriculum Evaluation, the plan for separating history courses from the social science classes that was announced by the education ministry is not properly reflected. Also, there is no consensus on the number of classes in history, society and geography fields and on the allocation of courses in the different grades. We cannot but regret the reality that commonsense, universal practices in other parts of the world and the culture of consensus-making guided by the public interest seem to be absent in Korea.
Now, we await progress from the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development: it must announce details on how it will implement the plan for strengthening history education that it has already promised and show sincere effort to put the plan into practice.
In the same spirit, civil society has to realize that the controversy over history can be resolved by establishing a peaceful Northeast Asia community and that history education is the means to achieve it.
They should pay more attention to the improvement of history education. In this context, the establishment of the Northeast Asia History Foundation to support research and education on history should proceed as soon as possible.
* The writer is a professor of history at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chung Hyun-baek