Backlash against distorted high school history textbooks

Posted on : 2014-01-03 15:02 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Educators, parents and students shunning textbooks for historical distortions and factual errors
 Gyeonggi Province
Gyeonggi Province

By Park Kyung-man, Kim Gi-seong, north and south Gyeonggi correspondents

High schools that have decided to use Kyohak Publishing’s Korean history textbooks this year are facing a strong backlash from various educational stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, and alumni groups. The Kyohak textbooks have been criticized for historical distortions and factual errors. Never before have students and teachers stood up in protest of the selection of a particular textbook. As a consequence, a number of schools are deciding not to use the Kyohak textbooks after all and restarting the selection process.

At Unjeong High School in Paju - the only public school in Gyeonggi Province that selected the Kyohak textbooks - a meeting of history teachers on the textbook committee was held on Jan. 2. The committee said it decided during the meeting to revoke its selection of the Kyohak textbooks and to select Korean history textbooks from another publisher. “Students, parents, and the local community made many complaints and voiced their concerns, asking why we chose a textbook that was selected by less than 1% of schools,” said Vice Principal Lee Sun-deok.

As opposition to the textbooks stiffened, Seongju High School in North Gyeongsang Province also decided not to use the Kyohak textbooks, and it was confirmed that Yeongdeok Girls’ High School in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province, and Yeoju First High School have begun reconsidering their decisions as well.

Students are continuing to publicly oppose their schools’ decisions to include the Kyohak textbooks in the curriculum. On Jan. 2 at Dongwoo Girls’ High School in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, someone identified only as a current student there put up a large hand-written poster on the school grounds. “Is there any valid reason for the school to choose a textbook that contains historical distortions?” the poster asked.

Education experts describe this phenomenon as common sense revolting against nonsensical decisions by schools. They say that this is a backlash to an irrational decision making process at schools that selected Kyohak textbooks for their curriculum, even though the textbooks had been shown to be riddled with errors and were accused of whitewashing dictatorships and those who collaborated with the Japanese. This opposition is the apparent result of decisions that were made in defiance of the wishes of the consumers of education: the students and parents. The authoritarian atmosphere in schools - where the principal is supreme - was reflected in the textbook selection process.

“From the perspective of students who are told to take a class with a low-quality textbook and of parents who are concerned about their children, it is only natural that they don’t accept an irrational decision by the school,” said Park Beom-yi, president of the True Education Parents’ Association. “Usually, parents don’t easily take issue with something at school because they are concerned about how their activities might affect their children. I’ve never before seen this kind of opposition from parents.”

The students’ and parents’ uncertainty was apparently aggravated by the fact that the Kyohak textbooks not only describe history from a biased viewpoint that tries to glamorize dictatorships and collaborators with the Japanese but also contain more factual errors than other Korean history textbooks.

In a phone interview with a Hankyoreh reporter, a parent at Unjeong High School surnamed Choi, 48, said, “The distorted view of history is a problem, but I was also concerned that my child would get questions wrong on the university entrance exam if they studied with this textbook.”

The current organized resistance of people involved in education to the selection of Kyohak textbooks is reminiscent of the movement in the mid-2000s when teachers, historians, and citizens in Japan called for schools to reject textbooks released by Fuso Publishing that were criticized for historical distortions.

There is growing criticism that the Ministry of Education brought the current controversy on itself when it defended the Kyohak textbooks during the assessment process despite numerous complaints about problem areas in the textbooks.

“Setting aside the ideological debate, scholars had made it known that the Kyohak textbooks were full of errors. School principals and foundation board members that selected those textbooks despite this simply do not deserve to be called educators. A large portion of the blame falls on the Ministry of Education, which gave final approval to the textbook,” said Ha Il-sik, Yonsei University professor and president of the Association for Korean Historical Studies.


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