[Letters] Teaching history in a prudent way

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[Letters] Teaching history in a prudent way

It was with interest that I read the Jan. 15 editorial in the Korea JoongAng Daily concerning the decline of history as a subject to be taught in Korean schools. As a university professor, I could not agree more with the importance of teaching history and other social sciences in the classroom.

But I disagree with your newspaper’s claim that the point of learning history is “to breed national pride.” History is an analytical discipline, and as such requires that we question how categories such as nation came into being and are used. The teaching of national pride, on the contrary, builds a heroic story where the modern nation-state is the inevitable result of history. We should teach an analytical, debate-centered, informative history in our schools, but we cannot drive our children to simply celebrate something blindly - that is propaganda.

There is nothing harmful in the questioning of why we organize ourselves into nation-states. Much as biologists do not conclude that humans are an ultimate and eventual outcome of evolution, historians do not conclude that modern-day nation-states are the ultimate outcomes of historical processes.

Indeed, as your editorial suggests, the study of history can help to resolve the kinds of border conflicts that have recently occurred in and around the Korean Peninsula. Yet the ultimate answer is not to challenge nationalist history with nationalist history.

Rather, the study of history reveals that such issues are the outgrowth of a particular (and temporary) way of looking at how humans should group themselves. A map of the world crisscrossed with the boundary lines of states is only a snapshot in time, and we should not assume that those boundaries and borders - or even the very idea of boundaries and borders - are anything timeless and inevitable.


Andrew Johnson,

research professor at the Sogang Institute for East Asian Studies, Sogang University
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