Since the beginning of the high-school student protests against the adjustment of the history curriculum last month, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has consistently claimed that historical perspectives differ. If the MOE is right about historical interpretations and history education, then can everyone interpret history in their own way? If history classes can be restricted by what the government wants, then why is history taught in schools?
Academic research tries to reach the best possible judgement based on rational thinking and logic by gathering various, currently known sources and evidence. For this reason, as the geocentric model of the universe was replaced by heliocentrism, related scientific knowledge also needed to be updated. It was also previously believed that bacteria could not survive within the acidic lining of the stomach. Yet, in the 1980s, doctors found proof that Helicobacter pylori can survive in the stomach, and the bacterium is a main contributing factor to gastric ulcers and stomach cancer. When faced with this new knowledge, doctors could not say that due to differing medical perspectives, such an important discovery could be ignored.
Education in social sciences and the humanities should treat peer reviewed academic expertise in the same way rather than allowing the government exalt “historical perspectives” that cause the standard of education to regress.
However, the MOE cannot agree on the facts of history, so how are Taiwanese to believe that they have the ability to discuss historical perspectives within the context of academic education? The MOE has previously suggested that writing history textbooks should be a collective effort. The experience of other countries shows respect for differences and maintains an active dialogue. The ministry even cited the examples of Israel and Palestine and of Germany and France co-writing history teaching materials to legitimize this idea.
Should these textbooks that the MOE encourages be written within the parameters of the suggested new history curriculum? Is using such political rhetoric to confront students justified?
Israel and Palestine’s plan to produce jointly written textbooks was not dominated by a politically charged course outline, nor was it directed by inflammatory statements in the vein of Shih Hsin University professor Wang Hsiao-po (王曉波), who said that the murder of 20,000 people during the 228 Incident was “a small case.” The mandate of the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation was to foster self-critical thinking and to engage in dialogue. However, the MOE only discusses superficial and fragmentary issues while avoiding discussions in a concrete and complete context; they do not make factual statements, but rather intentionally distort the facts.
How can a government that cannot accept simple facts handle the complexities of history education? They do not understand the concept of self-criticism and only use erroneous examples. The historical perspectives they depend on to consolidate their political power are built on fragments of information that are taken out of context.
A history textbook co-written by Germany and France was in the spirit of reflection and was based on the core values of democratic diversity, working toward a more advanced transitional justice, and not for advocating nationalism. On the other hand, Taiwan’s new history curriculum intentionally dilutes topics such as Nazism and the White Terror era — which are serious violations of the textbook specifications recommended by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
This article does not aim to speculate on whether the MOE under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) tenure has conducted partnerships with certain counterparts to help co-write the new lesson plan without informing the public. However, Israel and Palestine openly let the world know who they were working with to co-write their textbook. They also showed that the jointly-written work was intended to strengthen and foster self-critical thinking and to engage in dialogue. Does the MOE want to encourage Taiwanese to a start dialogue by nurturing the nation’s ability to reflect and be self-critical?
In 2010, nearly 60 years after the former Federal Republic of Germany started pushing for discussions with French primary-school teachers about textbook issues in 1951, a co-published German-French history textbook was released. It reflected on, and admitted, mistakes, and it complied with a framework set by all local governments in the two countries. During the 60-year dialogue, both Germany and France consolidated their democratic systems.
If the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) were more mature, it could confront the issue of its ill-gotten assets and actively evolve into a democratic party.
In another 60 years, regardless of who co-writes the textbooks, Taiwanese deserve a transparent and democratic system.
Hua Yih-fen is a professor in the Department of History at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Zane Kheir
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