About 10 years ago, with funding from the Interchange Association, Japan, I spent some time as a visiting academic at Nagoya University, where I did research on what textbooks in other countries say about Taiwan, China and cross-strait relations. Further funding enabled me to go on to Hiroshima University, where I started research on a new theme — “the Hiroshima that Taiwanese textbooks do not know.”
Taiwan’s two main political parties have each been in power for five of the 10 years that have passed since then, but neither of them has paid much attention to what Taiwan’s textbooks teach our students about world affairs.
There are two ways to tell whether adequate attention is being paid to this aspect of Taiwanese textbooks.
The first question to ask is whether Taiwan’s diplomatic missions consider studying the content of various countries’ textbooks to be an important part of their work, as well as whether they read through Taiwanese textbooks to see whether what they say about the countries to which they are posted is inaccurate or needs to be updated, and whether they provide our government with up-to-date information so that the Ministry of Education can make additions or revisions to our schools’ textbooks.
If Taiwan’s textbooks say nothing about international affairs, or if what they say is inaccurate or even untrue, it will not only hinder our foreign relations, but also high-school education.
During the recent dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines over the latter’s shooting of a Taiwanese fishing boat, I read through some high-school social studies textbooks to see what they teach students about Southeast Asian geography, and I found that they teach astonishingly little.
The second question to ask is whether other countries care about how they are portrayed in Taiwanese textbooks. This might be a measure of how much importance various countries attach to their relations with Taiwan.
For example, not long before the turn of the century, Taiwan’s National Institute for Compilation and Translation (國立編譯館) published a series of textbooks entitled Understanding Taiwan (認識台灣), with three volumes devoted to history, geography and society, which were designated as mandatory teaching materials for first-year students in every high school. Japan showed considerable interest in these books and the volume dealing with Taiwan’s history was even translated into Japanese and published in Japan.
If, on the other hand, other countries do not care about how Taiwan’s high-school textbooks describe them, whether they say enough about them and whether what they say is accurate, it is something that our government should be worried about. For example, South Korea is a close neighbor of Taiwan, but our textbooks say very little about it. What they do say hardly reflects South Korea’s influence in today’s global community. South Korea is not bothered about this lack of information, either. One may infer from this that relations between Taiwan and South Korea are nowhere near what they used to be, and that is a great pity.
To sum up, our government should pay attention to what our textbooks say about world affairs. If our school textbooks are in tune with our international relations and the overall world situation, it will be a good thing for our students’ education and can also serve to improve Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. Considering the potential benefits, surely making our textbooks relevant would be well worth the effort.
Yang Ching-yao is an associate professor in the Graduate Institute of China Studies at Tamkang University.
Translated by Julian Clegg