[Viewpoint] History should be a playground

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[Viewpoint] History should be a playground

Korean history is returning to its rightful place in our schools. Starting next year, high school students will be studying Korean history as a requirement. Korean history is to be added to the civil servants examination and public school teachers appointment tests. This is news we all welcome.

The ideological controversy in the course of approving Korean history textbooks in 2002 was a debate over what to teach in the history classroom. The main case was to include the so-called leftist historical perspective in officially approved texts as a means of addressing the biased conservative views that dominated textbooks of the past.

And conservative historians and teachers resisted the change. The debate over what to include and what to exclude in the modern history chapter of the textbook was intense. The modern history of Korea has been filled with serious and controversial events and the history textbook debate was genuinely and inevitably challenging.

So it can’t be denied that the debate in 2002 was a cultural and political argument but at the same time, it was a political game as well. As the tug of war continued, Korean history became a boring, non-core subject in the nation’s classrooms. But today, the subject of Korean history is making a comeback in our school system.

Now that history has been restored as a requirement in the curriculum, we are faced with yet another question: “How to study Korean history?” In the classroom, students must be given the power to think. In other words, history should spark students’ “historical imagination.”

All history texts deal with events that took place at a certain time an in a certain place in the past. Students must be imbued with the power to think from the contents of the textbooks as they set out on a journey into a different time and space. Students reading the same textbook in the same classroom may have different thoughts and interpretations.

And it is only natural that students develop different perspectives. They should be encouraged to share their different views and ideas freely. Varying opinions need to be respected. The free thinking of the students must not be restricted by certain historical views. A particular direction should never be forced on students as history is a field of study based on interpretation of facts.

Moreover, students have to train themselves to constantly think of historical facts in conjunction with the present. Social issues in today’s society should be highlighted in the history classroom. For example, the ongoing dispute over the relationship between religion and politics is not a new problem. It has reoccurred throughout history and around the world. The Crusades in medieval Europe began as a religious campaign but eventually turned into a secular territorial expansion.

The latest debate over the Sukuk Islamic bonds may be interpreted in association with the agony of King Sosurim of Goguryeo, who imported the foreign religion of Buddhism and its culture. The study of the discord between Buddhism and Confucianism in the early Joseon Dynasty can give students an insight into the challenges of a multiethnic, multireligious society.

Christianity was introduced to Korea along with Western civilization during a period of intense rivalry among imperialistic powers and understanding the background of Christianity in Korea is a meaningful starting point for the discussion of religion and politics in modern day Korea. In other words, studying history means studying the present. It is inevitably a study of interesting “thoughts” about the present.

The power of thinking is a driving force in the history classroom and an important outcome of studying history. Middle and high school students are all too often encouraged to develop muscles to memorize rather than to think. Even students who pass the challenging college admission essay test with highest scores have surprisingly weak thinking muscles. They have accumulated writing and rhetoric skills by memorization, so we cannot expect substantial thinking from them.

The power to think is the source of storytelling. Students need to practice reading and listening to other people’s stories and how to incorporate them into their own stories.

History textbooks and history teachers may give a perspective on history but never force their own views. It is also dangerous to limit the purpose of Korean history education to boosting nationalism and national pride. There are many examples in world history that show that imposing a certain dogma in history classroom leads to tragedy.

We should wait for students to build their own perspectives. Tolerance in classrooms and society will maximize the power to think.

The power to think comes from the thinking muscle. And muscles are built through exercise. The history classroom should not be a closed space filled with mere facts. It should be an open space that allows the students to think about how they study. It should be a playground to grow thinking muscles.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of mass communication at Korea University.

By Ma Dong-hoon
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