How history is taught, not how long it's taught for

April 27, 2022 | 04:47 pm PT
Vu Viet Tuan Journalist
The problem with learning history in Vietnam isn't about how many years one must study it in school, but about how the subject is taught.

My grandfather was a soldier in the Annamite Range. I used to listen avidly to his stories, about the time he traveled south to fight the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

He was the family's only son. Despite his light weight and small stature, he managed to join the army by keeping rocks in his pockets and wearing boots in high heels on health inspection day.

In one fierce battle, a bullet struck his chest and rendered him immobile. American soldiers found him in a bush, patched him up and brought him in to receive medical help.

My grandfather's stories were my first brush with history. I soon became enamored with them, especially as they were being recounted by someone I love and trust. By the end of high school, I was able to discuss with him several historical events like the Tet Offensive and the Christmas Bombings.

Our conversations helped me see a fuller picture of what has transpired in the past, beyond mere dates and statistics of casualties, blown up tanks and shot down planes – numbers we had to memorize as preparation for history tests.

As a journalist, I've had the opportunity to meet with many historians, who gave me new perspectives on how to approach the subject. Like any other school subject, learning history takes time and is not limited to the years you've spent in school.

Vietnam is introducing a new education program, approved in 2018, that will apply to all grades. Starting high school, students would only have to learn seven mandatory subjects and activities: literature, math, foreign language, physical education, defense and security education, career guidance and local educational programs.

Students can also pick five electives from three different groups. At least one subject from each group must be picked: social sciences (history, geography and economy and law education), natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), and art and technology (technology, computer science, music and art).

It means that besides literature, math and foreign language, all other traditional school subjects are equally optional. The new program has ruffled some feathers, with some disagreeing with the fact that history is no longer a mandatory part of high school education.

The argument for history to be an elective is that high school is a preparatory stage for students to choose future careers. But some say the subject holds a special place, that if it is not comprehensively taught in schools, future generations would forget about the past and that it would affect their patriotism.

I understand the reasons for concern, the most important one being students' lack of interest in studying history as a subject. In 2013, when the Ministry of Education and Training announced that history would not be among the subjects required for the high school graduation examination, students at a Ho Chi Minh City school celebrated by tearing up books and notes and throwing them off balconies, among which were cheat sheets.

This act of joy has worried adults and rightly so. Why do students hate studying history so much?

Experts have answer: the problem has to do with the way students are made to learn history and take history tests.

A representative of the Vietnam Association of Historical Sciences once said students don’t like history because it is being taught as an illustration of politics. Late historian Phan Huy Le also said history as a subject needs a complete overhaul in Vietnam.

I took a look at the history curriculum currently being taught in high school and found several changes from how it used to be. But there were too many things that remain the same, including the importance given to memorizing dates and numbers and events in a linear order, all the way from ancient eras to modern times. The books have become more "objective" than before, but are still being told from a single perspective, dictated by viewpoints that have been fixed and reinforced for years.

Meanwhile, online forums for history lovers are still where heated debates, participated in by thousands of young people, happen every day, especially regarding details of the past that are not rigorously mentioned in textbooks or opinions and evaluations that are not entirely in line with what's being taught in school. These youngsters are determined to seek out the truth, to find out what really happened, to see if there are things that are still being hidden.

In my line of work, I've also seen articles about historical topics, like the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Johnson South Reef Skirmish in 1988, being very popular among readers. These are lesser-known historical events that have only seen limited coverage, or are outright omitted, from Vietnam’s education programs.

History is fascinating, in and of itself. If students think it’s boring, I believe debates should center on how we can learn and teach it better, instead of arguing about how many years it should be taught.

Like any other subject, history is a tool for knowledge. People study history to understand what countries have been through, what their peoples did and actions and inaction reverberate into the future.

I believe people can love their native places naturally and organically. This love isn’t necessarily forged from a mandatory history education.

However, to ignore history as a boring subject, to not understand that understanding the past is highly relevant to the present and to the future will not only result in a failure to know one’s own country better, but also in a shortage of analytical and even emotional tools to deal with problems that exist and will crop up in the future.

On the one hand, knowing one’s country better in all its facets strengthens patriotic love; and on the other, we know the famous saying about those who ignore history being bound to repeat it.

*Vu Viet Tuan is a Hanoi-based journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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