Sunday, December 1, 2013

History Textbooks in Korea and Dr. Lew Young Ick (유영익)

As a general rule, even though I am a scholar of Korea, I do not spend much time worrying about the never­-ending squabbles of Korean political parties. I have been following the newspaper articles on the history textbook controversies with rolled eyes and an attitude of "oh, this again!" However, I recently become aware of the media castigation of Dr. Lew Young­ick that has accompanied the textbook controversy debate in the Korean media, and felt inspired to express my thoughts. Dr. Lew has been a tireless pioneer in scholarship of modern Korean history, it is only logical that the 국사편찬위원회 would ask him to head their organization, even if he's hardly a moderate. From my perspective, although Dr. Lew is a right­wing conservative (the opposite of my own political views), he is also a scholar. His efforts on behalf of the 국사편찬위원회 arise out of his own research-­based understanding of modern Korean history, and should be received in that way.

If Dr. Lew and his group has sponsored a textbook that those with my own political beliefs feel has gone too far, then there are two ways to approach the issue. The first is simply to, as scholars, refute the arguments, not at the level of sentences in the textbook, but rather through asking for the inclusion of alternative perspectives within the textbook­­ and striving to portray complex subjects without stripping away their complexity by portraying each detail as either "right" or "wrong." This is an issue partially because in Korea some (many) people still believe it's possible to make an impartial account of history. It's not. It's time for the world to admit their biases and move forward without the pipe-dream of impartiality.

The second and much more important step is to train Korean students to question the material they find in textbooks. Why do the politicians squabbling over textbook content believe that Korean students will receive the material in textbooks uncritically? Perhaps because when they were in classrooms their own teachers and professors did not encourage debate and multiple perspectives. Fortunately university education in Korea is changing, and many of the professors with whom I work are careful to present multiple viewpoints to students. In my own classes I encourage students to decode and analyze content. This will, I hope, trickle down to high school and middle school education as well. I think we should be striving for that goal, rather than fussing over ideological bias in the presentation of history.

Unfortunately much of the debate on textbooks recently seems to have turned into a witch hunt again Dr. Lew. First he was accused of lying so that his son could dodge the draft (a common practice for the Korean elite). Dr. Lew's son, an American citizen, did not serve in the Korean military and from a nationalistic perspective that does not look good. Then, on October 31st the National Assembly asked Dr. Lew Youngick, the head of the 국사편찬위원회, under oath, if he had used a conservative textbook 뉴라이트 대안 교과서 in a modern Korean history class at 한동 University. The elderly gentlemen, confused, answered "no" when he should have answered "yes." Now the media and various politicians castigate him for perjury. Obviously perjury is a serious offense, but the underlying criticism of Dr. Lew seems to center on portraying him as someone who is incurably and extremely right­ wing in his personal and professional life. Yet Dr. Lew, a pioneer in the field of modern Korean history, deserves our respect as a formidable scholar. A professor with talent and encyclopedic knowledge of the field, such as Dr. Lew, can teach students from any textbook, or no textbook at all.

As his former student, I know that Dr. Lew only assigned us a textbook, but never referred to it in class, carried it around, or opened it in front of us. The textbook was presented as pre­-reading that would help us to understand the lecture­­ familiarizing us with names and the chronology of events. During class time Dr. Lew, as any great educator, complexified the content from our readings ­­introducing multiple perspectives, not reducing his portrayal of events to either "right" or "wrong." As a left­-leaning liberal I survived Dr. Lew's classes with my own liberal understanding of Korea intact. My viewpoints, my test answers, and even a complimentary report on a book by (ultra)liberal scholar Bruce Cumings did not prevent me from having the highest grade in the class for both classes under Dr. Lew. 

As a liberal, and a professor at one of Korea's more liberal universities, I still adamantly refuse to join in the liberal witch-hunt that seems to ignore Dr. Lew's amazing contributions to scholarship, including his 2014 book (already available and in my office) on Syngman Rhee (Korea's first president). Instead I call on my fellow academics to convince these politicians that history textbooks can never be impartial, and ask them when creating textbooks to include multiple perspectives, because Korean youth are not "clay to be molded" but are more than able to come to their own decisions. 

To read more about this issue in Korean try these links: 유영익 위증, 유영익 경질 동의 못하겠다, and 대학교재 아들빌라

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