[Viewpoint] Textbook misconceptions

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[Viewpoint] Textbook misconceptions

Upsetting things happen in life. However, after an upsetting incident passes, I believe most people look back and think, “Have I ever upset someone else in a similar way before?” I think it would be the same for “nationally upsetting matters” as well as personal matters.

I realized this a few days ago when I read the article, “Foreign textbooks print blunders about Korea” (JoongAng Daily, Oct. 13).

The Academy of Korean Studies analyzed descriptions of Korea in 1,147 textbooks from 58 countries and found that more than half contained inaccurate information. The content of these textbooks makes me even angrier.

A textbook in Chile calls Korea “an undernourished country” and books in Paraguay call it “a colony of Portugal.” Apparently “Korea uses Chinese” according to an Argentine textbook, “former military personnel rule the country” according to an Italian textbook, “it is a developing country” according to an Iranian textbook and “it has no international cultural heritage” according to a Mexican textbook.

Should we find it a relief that they do not quote from records of Western people who discovered Korean land at the end of the Joseon Dynasty, that it is “a filthy country with human excrement in every street,” or “the laziest and most cowardly nation in East Asia?”

We should not simply stop being angry, however. Rather, we should work on actively letting the world know about the true character of Korea. Writers of foreign textbooks would not have included false information on purpose.

Errors have been made due to outdated, incorrect material and prejudice. But Japan, for example, has made great efforts and used a large amount of money to correct errors about itself in foreign textbooks.

In 1958, the International Education Information Center under the Japanese Foreign Ministry started to analyze around 20,000 international textbooks. It spent 20 years on the task, encouraging revisions by providing updated material. As a result, misconceptions about Japan, which was thought to be around 80 percent of the information about the country in overseas textbooks, was reduced to 10 percent in Europe, 8 percent in the United States, 2 percent in Australia and 30 percent in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry in 1984.

There is not much to say about Korea regarding this problem, because there are only six people in charge of the task at the Academy of Korean Studies, and it took six years to analyze around 19,000 foreign textbooks.

But there is a more urgent and important problem. We need to reflect on whether or not we are making the same mistakes. Unfortunately, Korean textbooks are not in a position where they can blame other countries for errors. “Putting Right the World History Textbook Full of Errors and Prejudices,” written by seven scholars who specialize in third world studies and published by Samin two years ago, reveals errors which we were unaware of.

One middle school textbook describes Africa as “the place where Tarzan and Jane fell in love amid the pure beauty of nature.” Another textbook states, “Africans express their joyful and sad emotions through song and dance .?.?. The flexible bodies of black people are very natural and artistic when they dance.”

At first glance it can appear like a compliment, but “a racist prejudice that white people are rational and black people are instinctive” lies beneath the statement, according to professor of culture and anthropology at Kangwon University Han Gun-soo. There are also many textbooks that use expressions that black civil rights activists would be astonished by, such as “Central and South Africa is the native place of Negroes.”

There is even a high school world geography textbook that explains the pollution problem in Mexico as follows: “There are oxygen-inhaling facilities that look like public telephone booths throughout Mexico City, and experts warn mothers not to breast-feed children.”

“It is an extreme exaggeration,” Lee Jong-deuk, professor of Spanish at Duksung Women’s University, said. “I have never seen oxygen-inhaling facilities.”

More controversial is the publication of a portrait of Muhammad in some middle school textbooks even though it is taboo in Islam to do so.

“This could be considered a serious provocation of Islam and cause diplomatic friction,” Lee Hee-soo, a professor of culture and anthropology at Hanyang University, said. “It must be corrected immediately.”

It is a big problem that a country that ranks highly among the world’s top economies and is largely dependent on trade has such low standards for describing other countries.

It is equally frustrating that the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has authorized this content.

*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for th
e JoongAng Ilbo.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Noh Jae-hyun
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now