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After Visit, American Publishers Change Their Views of Korean History

After Visit, American Publishers Change Their Views of Korean History

Posted October. 21, 2005 03:04,   


Nancy Guilbert, the U.S. textbook publisher Prentice Hall’s editor for sociology, had one question. Her question was why American world history textbook portrayals of Korea did not live up to the country’s rising economic status. While Chinese and Japanese history takes up about 10 pages in most textbooks, Korean history usually occupies less than a page at best and is mentioned roughly together with other East Asian countries.

“Is Korea a country with no significant history?”

Just then, there was the “Fall Fellowship” program operated by Korean Overseas Information Service of Government Information Agency and New York Korea Society. This program invited American publishers to Korea to give them field visits and lectures.

Guilbert got on the plane to Korea to see what Korea is like with her own eyes. There were 12 other American publishers who visited Korea for 12 days from October 9 to learn about Korea. They visited a number of cultural heritage sites of Korea, and as their last destination, they flew to Jeju Island for a two-day stay beginning on October 18. I accompanied them for their trip.

On the first day on the island, they participated in an “International Conference for the Globalization of Jeju Island” hosted by the Educational Research Institute of Cheju National University, which is headed by professor Ahn Sung-soo. On the second day, they made potteries, rode on horses and talked with divers.

In the evening of the second day, the publishers had time to discuss and sum up their experiences in Korea, and soon there was a consensus on the need to reinforce the content of Korean history in American textbooks.

Editor Marcy Goodall of MacDougal Littel said, “We will add Korean history as a separate item in the world history textbooks we publish.” She received a round of applause as she added that she would write the Korean history part herself.

Editor Joseph Castano of Scholastic Encyclopedia raised the issue of the East Sea. He acknowledged that most American encyclopedias have customarily written the “East Sea” as the “Sea of Japan,” and said he felt the need to change that naming after listening to the lecture on the history of Korea and Japan.

Some pointed out that the Korean government is not making enough efforts to make the U.S. educational community teach the correct history of Korea.

“U.S. state boards of education decide what to include in school textbooks. But the U.S. educational community is so ill-informed of and indifferent to Korea that the California State Board of Education decided to mention Korea in textbooks only as having been a bridge in the transmission of Buddhism from China to Japan,” said Guilbert.

Choi Young-jin, the director of Korean studies of the Korea Society who led this group of American publishers spoke out that it is inevitable for American publishers to make mistakes on Korean history as they have so little information on Korea.

Fortunately, however, this “Fall Fellowship” is slowly showing its effects. Last year, a middle school textbook published by Harcourt included Korean history as an independent item for the first time in the U.S., according to Choi.

Tom O`Neill, a writer for National Geographic who is preparing a special report on Korea’s Confucianism, summarized the participants’ impressions after experiencing Korean culture, saying, “At first, everyone complained about the short schedule in Seoul. But if we stayed only in Seoul, we would not have known the reverential worship before the image of Buddha at the break of dawn in Haeinsa Temple, the strong pride of scholars in Yangdong village of Gyeongju who preserve their centuries-old traditions, and the beautiful women divers of Jeju.”

Mi-Kyung Jung Jae-Young Im mickey@donga.com jy788@donga.com