Who Wrote Your History Book?

By Whit Altizer

I’m finally putting my master’s degree to work this year teaching American history to international university students in Korea. I love it. I have Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, and even an American student. They are active, engaged and ask interesting questions. This class has made teaching in Korea even more of a joy.

Homework for this group can be a bit of a challenge because, even though my students are exceptionally bright, asking them to read the same amount from the same texts an American college student might read for history class is unrealistic. So, instead I draw from primary sources through data-based questions, and keep the readings from secondary sources to a minimum.

I think I am finding what works best for them. They love looking at the documents I bring to class and analyzing what they mean for the event or person we are discussing. One of the most interesting classes we’ve had so far was looking at documents and photos from the Spanish-American war. They loved looking at the dawning days of modern American imperialism expansion diplomacy.

Interestingly, Korean government has caught flak this month because of their decision to take on the task of writing history books for the public schools in the nation. The current conservative government under President Park Geun Hye has found the current choices (about 8 in total from private publishers) to be too left-leaning. Their goal is to make one government issued textbook that is “balanced.” Is that even possible?

historytextbooksTo further complicate the story, Park’s father was Korea’s longest serving president. Her father, Park Chung Hee, took control in 1961 by military coup and turned Korea from one of the poorest counties in the world to one of the biggest financial powers. Growth that is fondly referred to as “the Miracle on the Han.” Truly a miracle for a country the size of Korea that was left in absolute despair after World War II.


The elder Park remains a complicated figure in Korean history. While on the one hand he improved the lives and filled the stomachs of most Koreans, he didn’t exactly do so in the most democratic of ways. Koreans speak of him with tones of both admiration and fear.

Hence, a source of contention is about one of the current textbooks is that the term “dictator” is used 28 times when referring to the South Korean government during military rule(the bulk of which was under Park) to only 2 times when talking about the North Korean government in the same period.

So how will the new government textbook speak of Park Chung Hee? Will it admit that his legacy is complicated? Can the Korean public trust a panel of historians overseen by Park’s daughter to write a fair and balanced book on Korean history? We’ll see.


“Our music, art and literature have been the lush plants that our flaws as a country have fertilized.”

This got me thinking about how we learn history, how much stock we put into what we read and how I teach my international students about my country. I think what many critics of history books forget is that thoughtful individuals learn and teach from these books. As teachers we may be charged with molding the minds of our students, but we are also charged with teaching them to think and question the sources from which they learn.

City of Seoul Korea
City of Seoul Korea (above 1945 and 2015)

I remember reading a book from the 1950s on Robert E. Lee that read almost like a love letter to his legacy. In its own way this book served as a learning tool. Could a white author in the 1950s feel a little too nostalgic about what Lee stood for? Perhaps. These are the kind of sources worth cross-referencing. A reminder that every source you read should be thought about in the context in which it was written. When was it written? Who published it?

Korean history teachers, I hope, have taught from the current left-leaning textbooks with the understanding that they are biased. I also hope that whatever gets issued by the government also gets taught with a similar understanding. While good history books do exist, (and maybe Park’s will be a good one) there is inevitably going to be some personal bias in them and it is up to the reader to sniff it out. It is also up to the teacher to offer some balance to those biases. There are multiple ways to discuss a historical event and in those discussions some learning takes place.

So while I was a little stunned by Park’s decision to create one government-issued textbook, something that hasn’t been done since her father was in power, it has reminded me that history class is as much about teaching students to think for themselves as it is learning facts from a book. That one must understand who the source is and the flaws that it inevitably possesses. Knowing that nothing (or nobody) is perfect might help us grapple with our own country’s history a little more thoughtfully.

I find myself both proud and frustrated by American history when I teach it. It’s complicated and I kind of love that about it. What we are supposed to do with our history it is to learn from it and be better people. Hiding our flaws might make us repeat them. Additionally, I think our flaws have made us a more interesting country. Our music, art and literature have been the lush plants that our flaws as a country have fertilized. That’s something worth remembering. And in my opinion that is why we should embrace these flaws, write about them, learn from them and never forget they are there.

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