[Viewpoint] History education: half successOn Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited. And the Cold War that had divided the world into two was more or less over. The global community became one, and democratization became an undeniable trend worldwide. The Kim Young-sam administration was the first civilian power in Korea and under the banner of globalization and democratization, it worked to break away from the legacy of authoritarianism.
As a result, Korean history, which had been one of the government-controlled subjects, became a scapegoat along with national ethics. Korean history was a requirement from elementary school to college but in 1995 Korean history education was reduced from elementary school to ninth grade.
And along with globalization came the English education craze. Some parents even had their children get an operation on their tongue so they could pronounce “L” and “R” like a native English speaker.
Moreover, Chinese characters were no longer taught in school and Korean students become nearly illiterate when it came to Chinese characters. Korean history books are filled with terms and phrases with mysterious Chinese characters, so students could not understand how their ancestors lived and what kind of culture and tradition they left behind.
No doubt Korean history became one of the least favored subjects and less than 10 percent of the students chose Korean history as an elective test on the College Scholastic Ability Test.
Ironically, the battle over historical memories, ignited by the approval of the modern history textbook since 2002, made students shun Korean history education even more. Now, Koreans generally speaking are history illiterates, thinking Sanggam celadon is the pottery used by Sanggam, or the king, rather than the inlaid ceramic ware. Some interpret the 3.1 Movement as “3 point 1 Movement,” not “March 1st Movement.”
History has to be understood with a connection to the present generation. The grandfathers and fathers have lived the modern history and it is especially significant as it became the foundation of today. The material prosperity and plural civil societies we enjoy today are fruits of the blood and sweat of the older generations. Without understanding their era, we won’t be able to open the future.
Therefore, the editing of the high school Korean textbook to focus on modern history in the ninth educational curriculum in 2009 is justifiable. However, the new approved textbook was criticized for failing to keep a balance between the light and shadow of the Republic of Korea and the accomplishments of the democratization fighters and industrial leaders. The Lee Myung-bak administration also committed a folly of downgrading Korean history to an elective under the justification of reducing the college admission burden.
This year, the JoongAng Ilbo has announced “Korean History as a Requirement” as the agenda of the year. In January, the newspaper took up the role of advocating the faults in history education that lacks pride and national identity.
The initiative started to spread to various corners of society like a small stone thrown in a pond and after three months the government responded to the cry. On April 22, the government announced that Korean history will be reinstated as a requirement in high school curricula.
However, we have only accomplished half a success. What should we do to make it complete?
In the global era, we need to educate young Koreans as nomads threading five oceans and six continents. But if they do not have the national identity like the salmon returning to the river where they were born, Korean society will have no tomorrow. Germany, France, America and other countries around the world prioritize history education in order to plant identity to the citizens to return to the motherland.
A true identity comes from pride and reflection in your own history. The most urgent task is the compilation of a history textbook that narrates balanced views between pride over the miraculous success and accomplishments of the Republic of Korea and reflection on the mistakes and failures in the course of development.
Moreover, even the best textbook would be useless if the learners cannot interpret. Korean history textbooks should include Chinese characters to enhance understanding and Chinese character education needs to be introduced again. Only then, will Korean history no longer be considered a matter of memory work but a subject with intellectual edge that teaches wisdom and knowledge for the globalized era.
*The writer is a professor at the Humanities College of Kyunghee University.
By Huh Dong-hyun