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Students’ right not to be judged via knowledge in Korean history

Students’ right not to be judged via knowledge in Korean history

Posted August. 08, 2013 04:39,   


“Korean history should be included in the subjects for the college admission test.” This remark by President Park Geun-hye is giving hard time to the Education Ministry. But unfortunately, it is a reflection of her lack of adequate understanding about the nation’s high school curricula and the college admission system. Korean, English and mathematics seem as if they are required subjects in the College Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is not the case in reality. Depending on colleges and majors, there are many schools and departments that students can enter without taking test on some of these three key subjects. Under this circumstance, is it appropriate to make Korean history as a required subject in the college admission test?

College admission is moving in the direction of self-regulation by colleges. If a college wants, it can require students to submit their national history scores from the College Scholastic Aptitude Test. A case in point is Seoul National University. It would be nice if more universities follow suit, but the reality is not the case. Perhaps because Seoul National University judged that it is losing talented students to other universities due to Korean history, rumors had it that the school was considering excluding Korean history from the required subjects in its admission review. But after President Park made the remark, Korea’s most prestigious school shelved the plan.

It is also naïve to believe that only when a subject is included in the subjects for CSAT, it constitutes reinforcement of education of the subject. Social studies subjects in high school are in principle electives in the curricula, and only Korean history has been changed to a required subject. Of course, the measure has been taken to reinforce education of Korean history. If the government seeks to strengthen education of Korean history, it can do that by increasing the number of its credit hours. If students are obliged to learn Korean history, they will take test on the subject and the results will be reflected in their academic performance records at high school. To think that only CSAT constitutes evaluation on knowledge in a subject runs counter to the education principle emphasizing students’ academic performance records at high school.

Changing Korean history into a required subject for CSAT was an attempt that went over the top. As the president made the remark, however, the Education Ministry apparently had no choice but to take a follow-up measure. As a result, the rather bizarre idea of a Korean history proficiency test has been proposed. Those who proposed the idea suggest that CSAT test-takers would take the Korean history proficiency test prior to the date of CSAT, and be simply given either “pass” or "fail.” While operating such a test is a cumbersome thing to do in itself, and the introduction of a Korean history proficiency test, not a language proficiency test, would draw interest from foreign media.

More than anything, it is a misguided belief that only when students are required to take either CSAT, high school academic performance records, or a Korean history proficiency test, then student will expand their knowledge in Korean history. The moment all elements of history education turn into a subject that students must learn by memory, it is doomed to fail. When this writer was serving as a correspondent to Paris in France, I once heard an instructor from Britain lament about history education in his country to French audience. “Children of today have little knowledge about World War II,” the instructor said. “Some children understand Adolf Hitler was a painter.” But what he proposed as solution was different from what Korea suggests. “The situation happened because education in Britain is conducted to enable students to pick an answer in multiple choice questions, without requiring them to understand broad context,” thus expressing his envy for essay type questions provided in France.

This writer still has memory of a teacher from my high school years. He was a world history teacher, not a Korean history teacher. Public schools in suburban Seoul areas were in disarray around 1980, when the Yushin (Restoration) regime collapsed. Students even broke window glasses at school to demand their right to grow their hair. Teachers would skip classes and let students to study on their own. Amid this situation, the world history teacher would give us lectures, which I can hardly forget even today. Through the lectures, I learned about the feudalism in the Middle Ages centered on the contractual relationship between the master and vassals, the meaning of the Era of Absolutism between the Middle Ages and French Revolution, and the meaning of tributary trade that sparked the Opium War. The lectures were not helpful to gaining high score in tests, but proved to be very useful to me in better understanding history later on.

I am a member of a generation who had to take Korean history test to enter college, but I don’t want my children to be evaluated through Korean history. Japanese history textbooks teach ancient Japan’s rule of Korea’s Gaya Kingdom, while China’s history textbooks describe the Joseon Dynasty as China’s colonial state. What they teach is different from what Korean textbooks teach our children. Not all contents are accurate. Whichever country it is, national history education at elementary, middle and high schools could turn a blind eye to or distorts the fact to some extent to help elevate the pride of their people. It would be difficult to demand the right to not learn national history as long as one lives in a country as its citizen. However, people should have the right not to be evaluated through the subject of national history. It is irony that genuine national history is something that one can only learn after graduating from high school.