It’s not the textbook, stupid!
Here we go again.
I tell myself, as only the monotonous voice of my history teacher and the annoying ticking of the clock fill the sound of silence in our class, packed with 30 students all either mindlessly scribbling down the words of our teacher or just sleeping. The topic of today’s lecture is Korean independence, how our ancestors fought diligently, sacrificing their wealth, comfort and even life to gain our freedom from imperialist powers. But even the most valiant efforts of our forefathers, under the pressuring burden of tests, becomes another bullet point to memorize.
The government’s plan to write, publish and distribute government-mandated Korean history textbooks has been the center of controversy, with public figures ranging from history professors to President Park Geun-hye herself having strong feelings on this agenda.
As a student who went through Korean education and studied from a state-issued history textbook for middle school and publisher-issued one for high school, my experience might shed some light on the heart of this controversy. The thing is that it doesn’t matter.
Whether students study history through state-issued or publisher-issued history textbooks, we learn nothing from history textbooks. For us students who are barely surviving through endless series of tests and cutthroat competition, with an average of eight hours of studying per day, history textbooks aren’t the realization of “nationalistic pride” or gateway to a “masochistic” view of history; they are simply a collection of names, dates and bullet points to memorize, only to forget the next day after the exam.
Some might say that because students absorb without question the information in the textbooks, so-called “incorrect,” “defeatist” and “pro-North Korean” materials should be removed and students should study the “correct history” by the government.
However, that argument completely ignores the bigger, more contentious problem here. If the classes were to facilitate discussions and debates in lieu of lectures inundated with bits and pieces to cram, if teachers were to teach us to doubt the narratives in history, if students were to disagree openly with the interpretation the textbook gives, then we wouldn’t have this controversy in the first place.
My transition from a foreign language high school in Korea to an Ivy League university in America led me to a whole different classroom atmosphere that fostered questioning authorities and debating. In my literature humanities class, where we read ancient classics by Plato, Homer, Herodotus and the like, I was frankly baffled when a student openly disagreed with the teacher, raising his hand to express his disagreement with the teacher’s interpretation of Homer’s use of similes. In my high school classes, we anxiously wrote down the words dictated by my teacher, but here, our notes are filled with words from students, as they all give their insightful opinion into the meaning of Plato’s theory of forms or the Orientalist interpretation of Herodotus’ “Histories.” Even when the professor gives his or her opinion on a certain passage, I see a barrage of hands and voices questioning that.
It might be said that these discussion-style classes may be feasible because they are for university students, not high school students who might not possess the same mental capability to speak openly or eloquently formulate their opinions. However, just because they might have a hard time doing so doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. Instead, this is the greatest opportunity to teach the democratic ideals of exchanging opinions and formulating a consensus. A “correct textbook” cannot impart a true democratic education; only through active student participation under the guidance of talented teachers can we achieve that.
This is not a controversy regarding textbooks. It cuts deep into our Korean education system. The true way to combat the so-called “pro-North Korean” ideology, then, is not to make the same textbooks for every school, but to make sure that when introduced to such pro-North Korean interpretations, a student can raise his hand and say, “I don’t think so, teacher!”
*The author is a Korean student and a John Jay scholar studying at Columbia University.
by Baek Beom-joon