Voices of universities try to keep history intact
Voices of universities try to keep history intact
  • Kim Hye-won
  • 승인 2015.11.27 13:21
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On Oct. 12, controversy ignited when South Korea’s Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea declared the ministry’s plan to rewrite history textbooks under state control. Beginning this November, a handful of historians and scholars embarked on the controversial state-issued history textbook project with a view to completing and distributing it to students as early as 2017. As a reaction to the initiative, academic communities have been expressing dissent and requested retraction of the plan in various forms.
History professors of a large number of universities have publicly announced statements opposing the state-authored history textbook and refused to participate in the project. Over 100 professors from Korea National University of Education, Mokpo University and Gyeongsang National University had declared their refusal and criticism even before the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s first official announcement. The day after the announcement, all members of the history departments of Yonsei University and Kyung Hee University were quick to officially refuse to participate as writing staff. Other professors from over 80 universities also declared that they will not join the project in its entire process of developing, writing, and examining the textbook. Such universities include Seoul National University, Korea University, Ewha Womans University, Sungkyunkwan University, and Sogang University. 
In their statement of non-cooperation, 382 professors and 10 honorary professors from Seoul National University stressed that “enforcing the state-authored history textbook is fundamentally initiated as a political strategy by the party in power, rather than a consideration of historical narrative.” Describing their action as “the least scholars and intellectuals can do to bear one’s conscience and moral responsibility before nation’s history,” they demanded the government to retract its plan and guarantee autonomy in the process of producing the textbook.
On Oct. 19, nine history professors from Ewha also publicly refused to take part in any process regarding the state-authored textbook, claiming that “it is an act of dividing public opinion and nation by pursuing what is clearly an undemocratic and deeply anachronistic educational plan.” They were joined by 74 professors of non-history departments, who also expressed opposition.
Resistance from academia is not confined to Korea. On Oct. 25, 154 scholars and professors of foreign universities including Yale, Harvard, and University of Chicago also published a joint statement of opposition. Moreover, on Oct. 30, 28 history academies declared opposition at the National Historical Studies Convention. It is estimated that around 80 percent of Korean history scholars have expressed their dissent on the initiative.
Students’ voices of resistance have kept up with those of scholars. Dissenting movements have appeared to numerous degrees in student organizations in almost all universities, ranging from student activity clubs, Student Government Associations (SGAs), and to inter-university student unions. Countless SGAs instantly took actions of “disobedience” through official announcements, hand-written wall posters and rallies and are getting students’ support and involvement.
Students are more actively voicing their opinions, taking it to the street. On Oct. 20, 17 SGAs from Kyeonggi University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and Korea University and more, jointly held a press conference criticizing “the standardization of history for the sake of President Park’s conservative regime.”
Then on Oct. 29, a clash occured between policemen and Ewha students who protested against president Park’s visit to the campus, expressing their opposition to the new textbook plan.
On Oct. 31, around 1,000 students from 20 universities including Seoul, Ewha and Hanyang participated in “Collective Movement of National University Students to Oppose State-Authored History Textbook,” held at Cheonggyecheon Square, Gwanghwamun. Student representatives of each school spoke out their resolutions against the government’s plan. Furthermore, on Nov. 11, around 2,000 students participated in the massive protest rally in Gwanghwamun, at which they demanded a stop to the state authorship plan along with reforms to university education. The number of signatures has grown to over 42,000. 
Meanwhile, university students are finding ingenious ways to express their opinions. Wall posters yet again have been a major outlet, but in more creative, eye-catching and satirical ways.
One of the wall posters posted in Yonsei University was written in North Korea’s dialect, satirically criticizing the government’s unilateral decision. Another in Seoul National University referred to a phrase from the educational doctrine of the Nazis that sounds somewhat similar to the MOE’s declaration. Some even parodied “I Wail Bitterly Today,” emphasizing the helplessness they feel. Online platforms have proven to be a powerful tool in spreading university students’ messages. Not only written messages but also comics, pictures and videos that employ parody or satire have spread instantly across social networks. There even has been a flash mob led by various university students at Yonsei-ro, Sinchon. 
“I think such unique movements are more effective in arousing public awareness,” said Kim Eun-su, a senior Hanyang University student. “They are eye-catching, and also speedy at being updated, prompting the public’s engagement.”
Despite numerous voices of outrage and concern, the MOE made a final notification continuing the state-authored history textbook on Nov. 3. Scholars and writers selected for the project remain undisclosed.

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