Politicising education : South Korean scholars boycott textbook project of government

Out of so many efforts undertaken by conservative leaders of South Korea and Japan, the recent one is state-issued history textbooks to reflect the political views of two countries, but the response is not as expected. The move has sparked fierce criticism from renowned academicians and opposition parties as they are of the view that government is taking such an initiative ‘to soften descriptions of the brutal dictatorships that preceded South Korea’s bloody transition toward democracy in the 1980s’. In the past few years, government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has time and again been criticized for trying to influence textbooks for political purposes.

south korean scholars boycott textbook project
Protesters holding banners during a rally. Scholars have denied to be the part of government’s new textbook project. Image Courtesy – The Washington Post

Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea on Monday during the launch of controversial plans argued that “the current history textbooks are too left-leaning and encourage views sympathetic to North Korea, and called for school books that are ‘objective’ and ‘balanced’. The plan was to recruit professional historians to help write the new textbooks.”

Park, daughter of slain military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea in the 1960s and ’70s, defended the initiative toward state-issued textbooks by saying “history classes must inspire ‘pride’ in students for being South Korean citizens”. State-issued history textbooks were introduced by Park’s father in the year 1974. The initiative was taken two years after martial law was declared amid widening student protests and rammed through a new constitution that effectively made him president for life.

Next parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in April next year in South Korea.

As per the present system, schools have the right to chose from any of the eight publishers. Till early 2000 when South Korea began liberalizing the production of history textbooks, the state-issued textbooks were used. Since 2011, all history books used in middle and high schools have been written by private publishers.

However the Conservative President Park Geun-hye’s government had issued the orders to middle and high schools to teach from those textbooks edited by the government after 2017. The professors of somewhere around more than 20 universities said that they would not contribute to the textbooks. Even the Korean History Research Association which has somewhere around 800 members thereby making it the largest group of historians in the country, has refused to be part of the writing process.

Further hundreds and thousands of South Korean scholars have declared they are boycotting the writing of state-issued history textbooks out of concern that they will teach distorted views on the country’s recent past.

Moon Jae-in, who lost the 2002 presidential election to Park and is one of the opposition leader said in a Facebook Post : the directive to revert to state-issued textbooks signals an attempt at ‘beautifying’ past dictatorships and added that such textbooks would be ‘global embarrassments’.

Lee Shincheol, a historian at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University and a contributing author of one of the current textbooks said “last year Japan’s Education Ministry introduced a textbook screening policy which required private publishers to reflect the government’s official position on contentious issues in modern history to ‘balance out’ references to Japan’s wartime aggression. However, Japan hasn’t been using state-issued textbooks since the end of World War II.”

An official at Moon’s Party while citing the office rules said, “The decision of Park to shift back to the old textbook system seems to be an effort to rally her conservative supporters in a country deeply split along ideological and generational lines.”

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