It is not easy to determine what to teach in high school history classes because historical facts are subject to diverse interpretations. The matter becomes even more complicated when considering the argument that all historical facts are themselves subjective.
One way to help high schools solve this problem is to allow them to select a history class textbook from among those approved by the National Institute of Korean History. An underlying assumption here is that distortions of historical facts are weeded out when the textbooks are screened by the state institute empowered to collect, compile and promote the study of historical materials on Korean history.
The approval in August of eight textbooks by the institute should have put an end to the problem. But it did not. Instead, a new controversy arose when the Ministry of Education ordered the correction of what it regarded as mistaken descriptions or omissions of key historical facts. Progressive groups argued there was ideological bias behind many of the proposed corrections.
Those groups also singled out one textbook, published by Kyohak Publishing Co., for attack, claiming that it whitewashed the suppression of human rights by former President Park Chung-hee, the incumbent president’s late father, and embellished his push for economic development. They also found fault with what they regard as its mistaken description of the 1980 Gwangju civil uprising against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship.
With support from students and their parents, the groups successfully pressured one of the two high schools which had intended to use the textbook to drop its plan. The other high school, which is scheduled to open in March, said it would reconsider its initial decision to use the textbook.
The ministry, apparently offended by what it calls undue pressure from “external forces,” says it will tighten its regulations on history textbook writing. For this purpose, it says it would create an office tasked with editing and correcting mistaken descriptions.
That is an ill-conceived move, in line with the ruling Saenuri Party’s anachronistic call for the direct control of history textbooks by the government. An order to write a history textbook in a certain way is inconceivable in a democracy.
What the Park Geun-hye administration needs to do is to continue to allow the National Institute of Korean History to screen high school history textbooks for approval and demand each school establish a process of selection and stick with its choice, while staying as uninvolved as possible in textbook writing and selection.