Wed, Aug 15, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Legal views on the textbook uproar

By Hsu Yue-dian and Ling He 許育典 凌赫

When the Ministry of Education published a report recommending that publishers replace certain terms related to China in textbooks, there was no end to opposition protests.

From the manner in which both sides are disputing the textbook issue, it almost seems as if the future of the country hangs in balance.

However, no attention has been paid in the discussion to the intrinsic values of education, or to the question of whether the ministry's action is legal.

As lawyers who have always cared a lot about educational issues, when we look at the textbook dispute we see a dispute that has lost its focus.

From the legal point of view, the question that should be asked is not whose ideology is best, or whose political position is right, but whether the ministry of a nation built on the rule of law can do this.

The dispute started with the ministry's report, which included the recommendation that publishers be consistent in their use of terminology.

On the one hand, the ministry's recommendations do not appear to be legally binding. They do not restrict the content of textbooks and are at most academic guidelines.

Now if the ministry's recommendations are not legally binding, it should not matter if the ministry were to publlish another 10 or even 100 reports containing its recommendations.

On the other hand, if the ministry's recommendations can cause such an uproar, the government, which is supposed to be based on the rule of law, should examine the nature of these recommendations.

It is debatable whether the ministry's recommendations are just that, or whether they in fact have a larger influence.

Here, we see the toxic influence of the Martial Law era because the merest peep from the higher-ups in the ministry can sometimes influence the thoughts of the people lower down the ladder.

For this reason, the ministry should be more cautious in issuing recommendations in their report in order to avoid creating such unnecessary disputes.

If the ministry were clearly violating the law by publishing the report with recommendations, the opposition would be justified in its concerns.

And if the ministry were using legal loopholes to produce "government guidelines" that have substantial effect, there would be even more need for the opposition to monitor the ministry.

The ministry is charged with enforcing "curriculum standards" that are backed by legal authorization.

However, if the ministry publishes a report with recommendations, the legal status of which are ambiguous, and the opposition is unable to resolve the ensuing dispute on a legal level, then the recommendations become a moot issue.

It doesn't matter if the opposition starts protesting about the bias of the educational system, instigates an ideological debate or calls for cities and counties to start writing and editing their own textbooks.

Thinking along these lines does not solve the issue.

Textbooks should be written and edited in a free and diverse environment by privately owned publishers.

They definitely should not be produced by central or local governments.

When a government centralizes textbook production, it has the ability to use the books as a medium to spread ideological values that are beneficial to the government.

Any government that attempts to force a certain ideology upon its students violates their basic human rights.

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