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'Correct' history

By Mark Peterson

I usually object to the saying that certain words or phrases are untranslatable. I like to think that if one is clever enough, every word and phrase can be translated well. But I have to admit that some translations simply don't work.

Such is the case for the slogan I saw on a Korean government website ― "correct history."

The translation doesn't appear to be a problem, but it really is. And the problem is cultural. Many Koreans have no problem with the term. When I've mentioned it to my Korean friends, there is no negative response, but rather an understanding that, yes, there is "incorrect history" and yes, there is "correct history." Such is not the case at all for Americans.

If you say "We need to have correct history," to an American, inevitably, you get an uncomfortable response, a response of "should I say what I'm thinking" because an American inevitably thinks, "'correct' according to whom?" Americans want to make that judgment; they want to decide whether it is "correct" or not. And an American thinks, "Correct history? What authority is trying to tell me what I need to believe?"

If you don't believe what I'm saying, try it. Ask an American if they are teaching history correctly in the school they or their children attend. Note the response ― they'll likely tell you that's an odd question, and ask you what you mean by it. Ask a Korean, and they might have criticism of what's being taught, but they will expect that the school teaches correct history; there is such a thing!

Koreans expect history to be taught correctly because in bygone times it definitely was not taught correctly. During the 1910-45 Japanese occupation, in addition to forcing Koreans to take Japanese names, and to speak Japanese and forbidding the use of Korean, they also rewrote Korea's history with the intent of taking the good parts out and incorporating Korea into a dominantly Japanese history. Toward the end of the Japanese occupation, the Japanese even denigrated Korean history by mixing Manchu history with Korean history, and calling it "Manseon" (Manchu-Joseon) history. Unbelievable! But the Japanese authorities actually did that. So when a Korean says they want the history taught correctly, they have a good reason for saying so.

One of the current debates in historical circles in Korea these days, to achieve "correct history," is a matter of left and right, or that of supporting the political party in power. I got dragged into it. During the Park Geun-hye administration, she proposed that the eight textbooks available be replaced with one government-written textbook. My first involvement with The Korea Times, in recent years, was an interview I did that was on the front page, below the fold. Thereafter, The Korea Times and I negotiated this weekly column.

In my interview back in 2015 (Nov. 17), I said that the Park Geun-hye proposal was a step backward. To have one government-published textbook in the place of eight privately published textbooks certainly would have been a giant step backward, but fortunately, there was enough of an outcry that her plan never got off the ground.

Now, in the Moon Jae-in administration, it appears we have almost the same problem from the other side of the aisle. Korean textbooks are being criticized in the press for their tilting to the left. There is also criticism that the textbooks praise Moon and his political positions without appropriate historical context.

The problem with the Park Geun-hye approach to the history textbooks was that she wanted to see her father, past President Park Chung-hee, portrayed in a positive light.

It's the issue of "correct" history. Correct according to whom? And the "correct" position is going to be that which is on the college entrance exam, which is the whole point of education (said sarcastically). And therein lies the next issue that should be addressed in regard to the teaching of history, and that is that it should not be taught as if there is only one correct answer ― to fit on a bubble sheet test form.

History, more than being "correct" needs to be analyzed and discussed. For example, was Park Chung-hee the driving force behind Korea's economic miracle? Yes. But he was also the president that suppressed human rights and democratic development. A test question about him ― and the coverage in the textbook ― cannot be one-sided. It should be an essay question, not a bubble-sheet, multiple-choice, pick-the-right-answer question.

And so it is with "correct" history. It should not be tilted to the left or the right. It should be objective, as far as possible, politically neutral, and should be a discussion of multiple dimensions or aspects of the historical event, issue, or personality. History cannot be taught as if it will be tested on a bubble sheet. That's not "correct" history.


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.


By Mark Peterson

I usually object to the saying that certain words or phrases are untranslatable. I like to think that if one is clever enough, every word and phrase can be translated well. But I have to admit that some translations simply don't work.

Such is the case for the slogan I saw on a Korean government website ― "correct history."

The translation doesn't appear to be a problem, but it really is. And the problem is cultural. Many Koreans have no problem with the term. When I've mentioned it to my Korean friends, there is no negative response, but rather an understanding that, yes, there is "incorrect history" and yes, there is "correct history." Such is not the case at all for Americans.

If you say "We need to have correct history," to an American, inevitably, you get an uncomfortable response, a response of "should I say what I'm thinking" because an American inevitably thinks, "'correct' according to whom?" Americans want to make that judgment; they want to decide whether it is "correct" or not. And an American thinks, "Correct history? What authority is trying to tell me what I need to believe?"

If you don't believe what I'm saying, try it. Ask an American if they are teaching history correctly in the school they or their children attend. Note the response ― they'll likely tell you that's an odd question, and ask you what you mean by it. Ask a Korean, and they might have criticism of what's being taught, but they will expect that the school teaches correct history; there is such a thing!

Koreans expect history to be taught correctly because in bygone times it definitely was not taught correctly. During the 1910-45 Japanese occupation, in addition to forcing Koreans to take Japanese names, and to speak Japanese and forbidding the use of Korean, they also rewrote Korea's history with the intent of taking the good parts out and incorporating Korea into a dominantly Japanese history. Toward the end of the Japanese occupation, the Japanese even denigrated Korean history by mixing Manchu history with Korean history, and calling it "Manseon" (Manchu-Joseon) history. Unbelievable! But the Japanese authorities actually did that. So when a Korean says they want the history taught correctly, they have a good reason for saying so.

One of the current debates in historical circles in Korea these days, to achieve "correct history," is a matter of left and right, or that of supporting the political party in power. I got dragged into it. During the Park Geun-hye administration, she proposed that the eight textbooks available be replaced with one government-written textbook. My first involvement with The Korea Times, in recent years, was an interview I did that was on the front page, below the fold. Thereafter, The Korea Times and I negotiated this weekly column.

In my interview back in 2015 (Nov. 17), I said that the Park Geun-hye proposal was a step backward. To have one government-published textbook in the place of eight privately published textbooks certainly would have been a giant step backward, but fortunately, there was enough of an outcry that her plan never got off the ground.

Now, in the Moon Jae-in administration, it appears we have almost the same problem from the other side of the aisle. Korean textbooks are being criticized in the press for their tilting to the left. There is also criticism that the textbooks praise Moon and his political positions without appropriate historical context.

The problem with the Park Geun-hye approach to the history textbooks was that she wanted to see her father, past President Park Chung-hee, portrayed in a positive light.

It's the issue of "correct" history. Correct according to whom? And the "correct" position is going to be that which is on the college entrance exam, which is the whole point of education (said sarcastically). And therein lies the next issue that should be addressed in regard to the teaching of history, and that is that it should not be taught as if there is only one correct answer ― to fit on a bubble sheet test form.

History, more than being "correct" needs to be analyzed and discussed. For example, was Park Chung-hee the driving force behind Korea's economic miracle? Yes. But he was also the president that suppressed human rights and democratic development. A test question about him ― and the coverage in the textbook ― cannot be one-sided. It should be an essay question, not a bubble-sheet, multiple-choice, pick-the-right-answer question.

And so it is with "correct" history. It should not be tilted to the left or the right. It should be objective, as far as possible, politically neutral, and should be a discussion of multiple dimensions or aspects of the historical event, issue, or personality. History cannot be taught as if it will be tested on a bubble sheet. That's not "correct" history.


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.



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