[Viewpoint] A disservice to history in our schools

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[Viewpoint] A disservice to history in our schools

With a new government-approved history textbook set to be used in the new school year starting March, history education has again become a hot topic. Some are concerned that today’s youth will grow up without fully understanding Korean history as long as the subject is optional in high school. Others say that biased history education is worse than no history education at all.

Public sentiment is sharply divided over issues like the founding of the nation, the Korean War, interpretations of the North Korean nuclear threat, the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

It is dubious whether the newly approved textbook will have the educational effect of bringing citizens together.

History education in Korea has failed its students. The primary cause was ignorant anticommunist sentiments that dominated schools curriculums during the military regimes. They strictly controlled information and knowledge about the communist bloc as an anticommunist policy.

The postwar generation, with no firsthand experience of communist rule, could not understand the reality of communism and was not convinced why communism should be denounced. The generation, however, had its eyes opened to the reality of “Korean-style” democracy decades ago. Those who deny the existence of the Republic of Korea had systematically used communist propaganda tactics to confuse Koreans’ historical awareness. At the same time, citizens grew distrustful of the government.

The student movement saw the manipulative tactic of creating estrangement. As student activists stood up to the government and struggled to attain democratization, they had no time to study history and were not mature enough to think about the challenge of building a nation.

The must-read books for the student activists in the 1970s and 1980s included the history of the communist party of the Soviet Union and foreign textbooks that had been discontinued even in the Soviet Union due to their extreme bias and distortion. Some texts even included praise of China’s Cultural Revolution.

These textbooks distort modern history. The Republic of Korea is described as a semi-colony of the United States and President Syngman Rhee is said to be a tool of America. The Korean War was portrayed as a northward invasion.

They conveniently exclude the fact that a unified nation was about to be constructed through a joint election. It was proposed by the United Nations, but the Soviet Union opposed the election and crushed the possibility of unification.

Educational authorities are criticized for their ignorance of history. The scholars lack a sense of citizenship and intellectuals are selfish in protecting their own interests. Also, leftist commercialism is another obstacle. When the subject is broken down into individual events, history has lost its potential to inspire patriotism and move the hearts of young students.

History is a comprehensive documentation of humanity taming nature, creating communities, cooperating and fighting. People are naturally interested in history.

What’s left to talk about in our history lessons when politics, economics, society and culture become separate subjects?

Our history curriculum is reduced in substance. Moreover, the educational method of providing a “concept” and giving access to “historical records” had been introduced before students have had the chance to obtain basic knowledge, which eventually leads to the fantasy over the legitimacy of North Korea and an underappreciation for the generation that built South Korea.

The new government-approved history textbook was compiled to correct those distortions, but the new version is still lacking.

Progressive and conservative scholars even took a vote on some passages of the textbook. There aren’t enough pages in any history textbook. Why do we have to see an antiwar drawing by Picasso commissioned by the French Communist Party in a Korean textbook?

There is still work to do to correct our history textbooks.

*The writer is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

By Lee In-ho
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