Sun, Nov 28, 2004 - Page 8 News List

There's no such thing as a perfect history

By Thomas Lee李弘祺

In response to the history textbook issue, a primary school principal said, "What we care about is whether the government can provide us with complete history." But what is complete history? Why do we expect the government to tell us what historical knowledge or any knowledge we should possess? Also, why are historians unwilling to stand up and admit that none of the history textbooks are complete?

From the study of history, we already know that it is impossible to have a perfect history. The main purpose of studying history is for us to transcend and overcome widely divided versions of reality, to accept the diversified and disordered historical knowledge that cannot be unified, to live with the diversified and disordered historical knowledge that defies unity, and to learn to live with people who hold different views, ideas and experiences.

In the book entitled The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, historian Lewis Spitz said those who worship the Renaissance see the Reformation as a disaster, while the more religious-minded see the Renaissance as an indulgent, materialist movement. He said that both views make sense but are completely contradictory. In that case, we can only learn to live in a world full of disagreements.

Spitz' words were reasonable. But the most painful thing is that people who live in the same world often accuse others of being intolerant. Tolerance is surely a virtue; however, most people think that they are more tolerant than others. Therefore, the virtue of tolerance is not enough, as we must also trust the rule of law. This is the last defense of a dependable social order: no matter how the law is manipulated, we must undoubtedly accept the rulings of judges if they are appointed through legal procedures.

Once suspicion is cast upon the justice of the court, we would be left with only referendums, riots, revolution or constitutional amendments to resolve problems. I do not believe that people actually wish to resolve conflict through such means. But some people did try to carry out their will through violence, as they recently placed bombs outside the Ministry of Education, allegedly in part to threaten the ministry not to revise its guidelines for Taiwan's history education. These people do not believe in the virtue of tolerance, and should be severely criticized and condemned by the public. All political and opinion leaders should also condemn this behavior in order to maintain the dignity of our political system.

History education is a long-term issue that shouldn't be dominated by the government. This is because frequent changes of government exist in a democracy, and who knows where it will lead if political parties give orders to change all history textbooks once they come to power. The importance of academic independence is clear. Perhaps the idea of "one guideline, many versions" proposed in education reform can best solve the problem, as the public (especially all parents) should simply choose textbooks they prefer and enter schools they like. In short, they should learn to respect each others' choices.

If we believe that our constitutional system is the foundation of social stability in Taiwan, we must respect the ministry's guideline officially proposed under the constitutional system, and write the history that we think is correct under this guideline. Or we can ask for a court ruling or a constitutional interpretation. That is exactly how Japan handles its textbook issues, and the US even more so.

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