Neither possible nor desirableThe political interest in history has escalated over the last month. The presidential office proposed making Korean history a compulsory subject for the state-administered college entrance exam, followed by the ruling party suggesting the state publish a Korean history textbook instead of leaving it to the private sector. Then the Blue House pitched its international history campaign to publish joint history textbooks among the countries of Northeast Asia.
Compared with the previous conservative government under President Lee Myung-bak, which was primarily concerned with money-making and development projects, the incumbent administration under President Park Geun-hye has more sophisticate tastes, as shown by her interest in history. Her idea and vision for bringing about lasting peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia by jointly working on history textbooks - to create a common perspective and break down the barriers caused by how history is covered in Korean, Chinese and Japanese history books - is commendable. But it is still a bad idea.
From an epistemological standpoint, the proposals are based on the assumption that there is one correct answer about how to view history, and that answer must be authorized by the government. The proposal for governments to lead in a joint project for a history textbook is an extension of the idea that history is about the answers in state-administered textbooks and that students need to choose the correct answers to multiple-choice questions on the college exam, an idea that is just taken to the international level. It is a dangerous habit from the state-controlled totalitarian period, with the state dominating the interpretation of history.
A joint textbook project is neither possible nor recommendable. The quarrel over differing historical interpretations given by two authorized textbook publishers in Korea underscores the difficulty of finding answers to historical events that everyone can agree on, even at home. To think that the countries of Northeast Asia, where narrow-minded, nationalistic understandings of history have long fueled regional rivalries and conflicts, could come to agreement about how history should be viewed is blindly naive.
It does not make sense to propose a joint history textbook with neighboring countries at the same time as proposing to make Korean history a compulsory subject for the college entrance exam and publish a government-written Korean history textbook.
The ongoing discord over such issues as the borders of Korea during the Goguryeo era (37 BC-AD 668), when the frontier extended into what is today Chinese territory, and the conscription and sex slavery of Asian women for Japanese soldiers during World War II, as well as territorial disputes over Dokdo and the Daioyu islets, cannot be solved just because the governments jointly produce history textbooks.
The landmark work that led to joint textbooks by Balkan historians began with honorable intentions. Following the bloody Yugoslav wars, Balkan scholars proposed rewriting history books jointly with their neighbors in the belief that nationalistic, prejudiced and selfish historical education was to blame for their ethnic conflicts.
Rather than official textbooks, they published a series of reference materials, offering additional and diverse views on the same historical events. They demonstrated the desire to include a variety of historical experiences around the Balkan region and expand academic debate on common historical themes while upholding their own historical legacy and pride.
Their project brought about a refreshing change in the method of training history teachers. Historians from Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia and Turkey were invited to training programs for Albanian history teachers, to teach their perspectives on the past. It would be as if Japanese and Chinese historians took part in workshop for Korean history teachers.
The question is not whether interpreting history should be the same for everyone. More important is whether those different views are hostile.
If nationalistic perspectives are removed from history writing, differences in interpreting the past becomes academic, without political force, so it ceases to be a point of conflict. We do not need joint textbooks if history can be written without nationalism, looking at the past using the perspectives of others from around the region.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is history professor at Hanyang University.
By Im Ji-hyun