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Prospect of state-authored textbook stirs controversy

The government-initiated drive toward reintroducing state-authored history textbooks has caused rifts within education circles over whether it is appropriate for the state to monopolize education content.

Currently, Korea allows multiple publishers to author textbooks and certifies them if their products are up to standard. But a nationwide dispute over a controversial textbook by Kyohak Publishing Co., which was criticized for being substandard in quality and ideologically biased toward conservatives, sparked new talks about allowing only the state to author textbooks.

Many educators opposed the idea, fearing that a single textbook system would not be free from influence of those in power. Others say allowing multiple history textbooks would result in divisions concerning historical views.

“History especially helps people obtain a sense of community by sharing information about our past. But recent events suggest that there are too many rifts in our perception of history,” said Lee Jae-beom, a history professor at Kyonggi University.

He said division among people is inevitable, with authors reflecting their own ideas and interpretation of history in textbooks.

It was recently revealed that four of the eight certified textbooks failed to mention Ryu Gwan-sun, one of the organizers of the March 1 Independence Movement against Japan’s colonial rule. One of the publishers said Friday that this was because Ryu is so well known and does not need to be mentioned. However, leaving out one of the most popular freedom fighters prompted public furor.

Some scholars say allowing diverse interpretations is crucial. “The purpose of teaching history is to encourage various underunderstandings of a society,” said Choi Byung-tae, a professor at Gongju National University of Education.

“There is also a possibility that the narrative of the textbooks will be in favor of the ones in power, which was apparent in the state-authored textbooks of the past,” he added.

This concern was echoed by other experts, who said conservative administrations may press authors to minimize the description of a liberal historical figure, or vice versa.

The state-authored textbook system started in 1974 during the 16-year rule of former president Park Chung-hee, and was gradually dismantled starting in 2002.

“The Park Chung-hee administration changed the system so he could justify his dictatorship. A textbook that shifts its view of history each time a new administration takes the helm cannot qualify as a textbook,” said Rep. Youn Kwan-suk of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

In January, the incumbent President Park Geun-hye ― whose father introduced the system some four decades ago ― started the current debate after the Kyohak textbook furor snowballed into an ideological war. Her comments about students needing textbooks with “balanced views” were widely interpreted as move toward having a state-authored book.

The suspicion escalated further when Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, one of Park’s right-hand men, said that students should study a single history approved by the country.

Hwang, who was appointed education minister last month, clarified upon taking the helm at the ministry that he wished to reinstate the state-authored system. He said he would make the decision by October after gathering feedback from education experts.

The general opinion among educators is not favorable toward state-authored textbooks, as testified by several professors.

On Wednesday, the Education Ministry held a debate with teachers, textbook publishers and history professors on how to improve the current textbook system. Ten of 12 panels opposed the idea of allowing the state the exclusive right to publish textbooks.

Professor Choi said there were not many experts who would participate in the state-led project to author textbooks, regardless of their political stance. This means even if the government pushes ahead with the idea, they would struggle to publish a quality textbook, with so few experts willing to come to their aid.

By Yoon Min-sik (
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Korea Herald daum