The real issues with schoolbooks

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The real issues with schoolbooks


The controversy over history textbooks is stirring up the entire country. The Blue House and the ruling party pushed for state-authored textbooks despite fierce objection from the opposition party and liberals. However, the political strife misses the point. For the textbook market writ large, “bad money drives out the good.” Let’s look at the money and people involved in textbooks. A state-authored textbook or strengthened approval procedure would not resolve the issue. The following are conversations with textbook publishers I interviewed over the weekend.

Q.Why does money matter?

A.“Basically, we don’t make money from textbooks. Publishers make profits by selling related reference books and workbooks. The market was improving gradually, but Lee Myung-bak administration’s policy of linking 70 percent of the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) with EBS in 2010 left the market scorched. Only EBS materials are selling like hot cakes, and the market for other study guides shrunk. Once, we used to invest 300 million won ($261,575) to 400 million won for each subject, but now, we barely invest 200 million won on each textbook. Quality textbooks cannot be produced.”

Why do authors matter?

“Acclaimed scholars and prestigious professors are not interested in textbooks. Writing a textbook is not reflected in the professor evaluation. They are more interested in publishing papers and books. They are reluctant to get involved as they may be criticized for ideological bias, and textbooks don’t pay well.”

Then who authors textbooks?

“We have a few teams of professors and teachers for each subject. They are veterans who have been compiling textbooks for years. When the Ministry of Education makes an announcement, publishers hire these teams and commission the project. It is rare to have major changes in textbooks. In accordance with the new approval guidelines, textbooks are partially revised, and layout, photos and illustrations are changed.”

What is a good textbook?

“Frankly, many people think textbooks are all the same. Schools decide which textbook to use for each subject through the teachers council and school management committee, finalized by the principle. Ten years ago, the decision-making process involved under-the-table cash gifts. Now, it is far more transparent. Still, the fate of a textbook is said to depend on the sales and promotion caliber of the publishing company.”

History textbook is especially controversial

“When you visit schools, history teachers tend to be more liberal. Some history textbook authors seemed to have a motive of “educating” a certain position. However, the fight over history textbooks is historical. The root of the discord is the ideological confrontation between the conservative and the progressive. For 70 years since the liberation, they repeat the struggle to remember only what they want.”

Will the situation improve if approval guideline is reinforced?

“You’d better not expect too much. Revising the problematic textbook would not make all the problems suddenly disappear.”

Is state-authorship a fundamental solution?

“Strictly speaking, it would have less errors than the current, shoddy textbooks. However, when the administration changes every five years, it will go through more controversies. It is doubtful if it is worth such a tremendous social cost.”

The Constitutional Court of Korea decided in 1992 that the state-authored textbook is not unconstitutional, but also said it isn’t desirable. However, the subpar approval system should not be left alone. We need to stop the excessive political debate and focus our efforts and investment on history textbooks. In more developed countries, Nobel laureate-level scholars write textbooks. Looking back at our own country, until the 1960s, great scholars of the time like Choe Hyeon-bae, Yi Pyong-do and Lee Hi-seung participated in writing the educational materials.

Now, when top scholars write great textbooks, it should be recognized at the same level as outstanding research. Also, appropriate budgets should be allocated to raise the quality of all textbooks, not just history textbooks. Rather than the fancy school facilities and free school meals, high-quality textbooks are by far the most important thing we can provide to students. The excessive association of between the CSAT and EBS materials should be reduced.

In the old days, college entrance exam and CSAT top scorers explained their success with a phrase that’s as antiquated as a fossil: “I paid attention in classes and focused on textbooks.” Let’s return to that era.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 12, Page 34

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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