Preconditions for proper textbooksThe government has made the plan to author history textbooks official. Under the plan, the Ministry of Education will complete publication by the end of next November and distribute the textbooks to middle and high schools starting March 2017.
The state-publication of textbooks goes against the global education trend of encouraging openness, diversity and creativity in interpreting history. Only a few countries under authoritarian regimes like North Korea and Vietnam have state-published history textbooks. It is disappointing that the government has reached such a decision. But if it means well, it must go about this the right way.
First of all, excellence and balanced views on the publishing team must be ensured. The state textbook authority usually consists of two or three professors and three or four history teachers. Such composition cannot guarantee either objectivity or accuracy. State-authorized textbooks came under criticism for left-leaning narratives. A textbook by a conservative publisher was censured for inaccuracies. The National Institute of Korean History will be in charge of the publication. The institute was the sole publisher for history textbooks from 1974 to 2010. Since past state-authored textbooks were criticized for their pro-Japanese and American perspectives, the selection of writers and editors will be critical.
Second, it would be wise to reduce the share of contentious modern history. The Education Ministry said it will adjust the premodern to modern ratio from the current 50:50 to 60:40. But with descendants of influential figures in modern history still living, the state publisher must study whether students really need to learn in depth about modern history. It is not possible to reflect a balanced view while historians are still mixed about interpretation of some events in modern history.
Third, fact checking must be strengthened. State reviews discovered over 1,000 errors in both left-leaning and conservative textbooks. The publishers of six textbooks filed suit against the government’s order to make corrections. They appealed to the Supreme Court even after they lost in two lower courts. The state publisher will have to complete the textbook within a year, while Japan set a deadline of 2020 to come up with a comprehensive history textbook. Even the research arm of the ruling party raised questions about the quality of a book produced in such a short period of time. Meanwhile the book could be revised and changed with each new administration. Review not authoring is the right role for the government.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 13, Page 34