Historians are seething over the recent changes to history textbook curriculum guidelines and writing standards. On Tuesday, a joint statement was issued by the Korean Historical Association (KHA), which includes nearly all history associations, and on Thursday representatives of academia met with Minister of Education, Science and Technology Lee Ju-ho to voice their objections. On Friday and Saturday, they are focusing on the issues in detail at the National Conference of Historians. The discussions have moved beyond the question of whether the terms “democracy” or “liberal democracy” are appropriate; it is now an issue of infringements of academic freedom and independence. This is a natural outcome in light of the way political authorities sought to sway judgments on historical facts.
At a talk a few days ago with a KHA representative, Lee Ju-ho reportedly addressed the issue of a reissuance of guidelines by saying he would “reexamine the matter, giving full consideration to historical fact, educational aspects, and the spirit of the Constitution.” This would appear to represent a step back, but nothing has changed in substance, since the minister said he himself would be making the determination. Furthermore, it does not make any sense at all to base the determination on a consideration of “issues of historical fact” or “educational aspects.” Facts must be respected as facts. Learning cannot survive when they are adapted and distorted for reasons of “education.” The notion is an extraordinary dangerous one.
Lee also met yesterday with constitutional scholars. His professed aim was to seek opinions in constitutional terms. It certainly is problematic that he met only with retired older academics without talking to the chair of the Korean Constitutional Law Association, who could be viewed as representative of the field. But even this is a matter for the academic community, not something that the Minister should be taking upon himself. The administration simply needs to furnish a forum for scholars to hold discussions. His goal may be to give the appearance of soliciting thoughts, but it only serves to heighten objections from the academic community.
The current situation originated with the dictatorial notion that an administration should be able to alter history textbooks as it sees fit. Lee willfully changed guidelines that had been developed by a curriculum development research committee made up of academic experts and reviewed by a review committee. The fact that he was taken in by the incitement of hack scholars and conservative media that are slaves to ideology themselves is problematic. But an even bigger problem is the way in which textbooks have been turned into something political and ideological. This is a death blow to academic freedom and neutrality.
The situation is a serious one, but the solution is simple. Leave the decisions and interpretations of historical fact to the academics. In academic terms, the “democracy versus liberal democracy” debate, the deletions of phrases about “dictatorship.” and the references to “the Korean Peninsula’s only legal government” are issues that are easily resolved. Opinions in the academic community are generally unanimous, regardless of any distinctions of progressive or conservative, left or right. It is enough for politicians to restrain themselves from trying to control learning.
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