Ends cannot justify means in curriculum reform
The adage of history being written by the victors adds ample fuel to a perennial debate regarding Taiwan’s high school history curriculum, in which the island’s students are always getting the shorter end of the stick.
Recent efforts to skirt history rather than approaching it with the respect, open-mindedness and empathy required would mean a back-pedaling tantamount to Japan’s revisionist accounts of WWII, China’s attempt to erase the Tiananmen Massacre and deniers of the Holocaust.
At the center of the debate are the proposed “minor adjustments” being made to history textbooks that would excise topics such as Nazism, the February 28 Incident and the White Terror. Some civic organizations are calling this a “China-centric” perspective of history being forced onto the hearts and minds of students. They also found problematic that the Himalayas were allegedly referred to as the nation’s tallest peaks and Taiwan’s subsequent “return” to the R.O.C. following WWII as a “glorious retrocession.”
Students across Taiwan protested the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) omissions to curriculum guidelines in May, which ultimately led to a petition from students representing 120 high schools and vocational schools island-wide against the “black-box operations” involved in approving the changes. Earlier in June, a Taiwan Solidarity Union legislator accused the MOE of appointing those with a “pro-unificationist stance” onto the curriculum adjustment taskforce.
On Tuesday, Education Minister Wu Se-hwa attended a public forum with parents, students and teachers at Taichung First Senior High School attended by hundreds. Wu apologized for the procedural controversies and said that “courage” was needed to deal with the differing viewpoints on Taiwan’s history, and that “education should not be discussed in a politicized manner.” But many still felt the government statements were disingenuous.
Controversies in education curriculums are always political, and politics cannot be divorced from social policy. Any calls to do so are either naive or ill-conceived. However, as a public good that is provided to the nation’s students, education policy as a political game that undermines democratic deliberation and debate cannot be sustained.
History, no matter how painful and shameful, when white-washed or swept under the carpet only worsens into greater political reactions. Any group or authority that deliberately takes history out of context for narrow political gains is in effect robbing the nation’s youth of an opportunity to learn from history. Reactionary struggles that are formed without public discussion and empathy for differing perspectives, including top-down policies during Chen Shui-bian’s de-Sinification drive, will continue to make historical fact a political debate. They discard any notion of the public good in pursuit of a truth tempered by what feels right instead of a broad-based consensus of what is right.
The key to building the much-desired, yet equally elusive social consensus lies in treating Taiwan’s youth not as pawns but as active thinkers who possess the potential for critical thinking. How our students decide to formulate their ideas, however, depends on a solid foundation of historical fact that cannot change whenever Taiwan has a political transition of power. The labeling of current actions of the MOE as “China-centric,” while useful in piquing attention and debate, is only a partial perspective and the first step in bringing about a sustainable foundation.
Taiwan is part of the community of nations that have suffered from the festering wounds of conflict. Rather than waiting for the generation affected by wars and massacres to die out in silence, the government and civil society need to facilitate open dialogue with our forefathers and foremothers while also humbly soliciting the advice of nations who have done more in this regard including Germany, South Africa, Rwanda and Bosnia.
In a society that encourages its youth to become critical thinkers, generations from differing backgrounds must cooperate on building this consensus with a high-degree of empathy. Only through this process can suspicions of political interference be transcended and a people’s history that accurately reflects Taiwan’s oft-tragic yet rich historical background be cultivated for the future.