The history wars

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The history wars

Something has gone wrong. Confrontation in society over Korean history textbooks has reached a peak. History is important, and President Park Geun-hye has made an excellent point in saying, “The country is body and history is soul.” But it is highly unclear if her plan to restore state control over history textbooks will be the proper way to restore our souls.

Society is split between the conservatives and the liberals over the textbook issue, but the politicians are in an unusual position.

In terms of political engineering, the controversy is a great opportunity for Moon Jae-in, chairman of the liberal opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Some say it has resuscitated Moon’s political life. Criticism of Moon suddenly faded away and plans to create new political parties were ditched. Some NPAD members had demanded a vote of confidence about Moon, but that demand is now forgotten as they joined street rallies to protest Park’s textbook plan. Moon began to regain control over the nomination process for next year’s general election.

Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung doesn’t seem to dislike the situation. It is not bad for the ruling party going into a general election and presidential race if the opposition party ends its reforms and Moon’s leadership continues. It is also a great opportunity for Kim to end the controversy over his father’s past.

Park’s remarks on history issues are sincere. She wants to encourage national pride in youngsters. But it is Park who gains the most from the move. She manages to strongly unite her supporters and her fight against the ruling party over nominations for the general election ends. While she managed to regain control, she also smoothly transformed the next general election into “Park’s election.”

And yet, the situation can still fatally backfire on her. Perhaps selfish political calculations are blocking an exit from the conflict.

Taking into account the gravity of history education, it is presumptuous to only consider the politics. Leaving behind the political calculation, is state control over history textbooks truly the answer? Are there any other methods that are obviously better?

When I was a child, I used to be baffled when asked whom I respect the most. The only great figures I learned about at school were King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-sin. While there were many great men from other countries, it was hard to find great men from Korea, particularly from contemporary history.

Was the Republic of Korea worth defending with our lives? When we respect great men from other countries, while there are none from Korea, what should we defend?

These were important questions when I was a child. They were a matter of pride. I truly envied other countries that built memorials and museums and had obvious pride.

Will state-penned textbooks solve this problem? As a battle breaks out over the history textbooks, the essence of the issue - the problems associated with history education - became lost. We came to forget the problems associated with the education of teaching students that the history of this country, which rose from a country that once received international aid to a country that gives international aid, is marred with embarrassing corruptions and out-and-out tragedies.

Even if the state-authored textbooks are published, they will probably last about two years. To conclude how to teach controversial parts of our history, we need agreement among scholars and also a social consensus. Textbooks that are hastily published will only provide a reason for critics to attack. It will give a justification to bad education. Textbooks that carry the label of a particular administration cannot be used in the next administration, even if the conservatives take power. The students will be the ones who ultimately suffer.

When problems are discovered, we will have to reset editorial standards and strengthen the verification processes. When we read current textbooks, many controversial parts have already been corrected. If a consensus is hard to reach, it may be better to reduce the parts on contemporary history.

Textbooks are not everything in education. Teachers are more important, and some teachers’ lectures are unbelievable. I remember when I was a high school student, I recorded many questions after reading a political science and economy textbook, published by the government, which emphasized the legitimacy of the October Yushin (Restoration) in 1972. Instead of being proud of it, I felt embarrassed about the oppressive reality.

History wars will not end overnight. We need to build some basis for consensus. The conservatives complain that all historians are leftists. What has the right done until now? Without academic fundamentals, can they develop a textbook? Can they carry out history education? Making an enemy of all scholars is an act of isolation. It is a prelude to defeat in the future.

Competitiveness is the key. After the October Yushin, the Ministry of Culture and Education created a thick textbook entitled “Ordeals and conquest.” But students rarely read it. When you add a story, they will volunteer to read. When material is put into a webtoon, or comics on Internet, the students will find it and read it.

Lee Won-bok’s comic “Far Countries and Close Countries” had a stronger influence over students than any other geography textbooks. The movie “Gukje Market” touched the public far deeper than a textbook. Scholars do research, but history education must be made enjoyable to be truly instructive.

When the private sector leads the effort, it will be effective and sustainable. When the government takes control, the same project will lose all sense of fun. The fate of the project will be sealed when the administration is changed. Jeong Su-ra’s song “Ah! Republic of Korea,” created as an anthem by the government for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, cannot be compared to Lee Sun-hee’s “Beautiful Country.”

We need more memorials, exhibition halls and museums and they must be provided as playgrounds for the public. Playgrounds that teach something about the past. That is the way to win a hundred-year war, not a two-year war.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 30, Page 35

The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook
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