My grandfather was a soldier in the Annamese chain. I used to listen avidly to his stories, about the time he traveled south to fight the United States in the Vietnam War.
He was the only son in the family. Despite his light weight and short stature, he managed to enlist in the army by keeping stones in his pockets and wearing high-heeled boots on the day of the health inspection.
During a fierce battle, a bullet hit him in the chest and rendered him immobile. American soldiers found him in a bush, treated him and brought him in for medical help.
My grandfather’s stories were my first contact with history. I quickly fell in love with them, especially since they were narrated by someone I love and trust. At the end of high school, I was able to discuss with him several historical events such as the Tet offensive and the Christmas attacks.
Our conversations helped me get a fuller picture of what happened in the past, beyond just dates and statistics of casualties, tanks being blown up and planes being shot down – numbers that we had to memorize to prepare for history tests.
As a journalist, I had the opportunity to meet 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 spent in school.
Vietnam is introducing a new education program, approved in 2018, which will apply to all levels. Starting in high school, students would only have to learn seven compulsory subjects and activities: literature, mathematics, foreign languages, physical education, defense and security education, career guidance and local educational programs.
Students can also choose five elective courses from three different groups. At least one subject from each group must be chosen: social sciences (history, geography and economics and legal education), natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) and art and technology (technology, computing, music and art).
This means that in addition to literature, mathematics and foreign languages, all other traditional school subjects are also optional. The new curriculum has ruffled some feathers, with some disagreeing that history is no longer a compulsory part of secondary education.
The argument for history being an option 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 taught comprehensively in schools, future generations will forget the past and it will affect their patriotism.
I understand the reasons for concern, the most important being the students’ lack of interest in the study of history as a subject. In 2013, when the Ministry of Education and Training announced that history would not be among the required subjects for the high school leaving exam, students at a school in Ho Chi Minh City celebrated by tearing up books and notes and throwing them from balconies, among which were cheat sheets.
This act of joy has adults worried, and rightly so. Why do students hate studying history so much?
Experts have the answer: The problem has to do with how students are taught history and how to take history tests.
A representative of the Vietnamese Historical Science Association once said that students don’t like history because it is taught as an illustration of politics. The late historian Phan Huy Le also said that history as a subject needed a complete overhaul in Vietnam.
I took a look at the current high school history curriculum and found several changes from what it was before. But there were too many things that remained the same, including the emphasis on memorizing dates, numbers, and events in linear order, from ancient times to modern times. The books have become more “objective” than before, but are still told from a unique point of view, dictated by viewpoints that have been frozen and reinforced for years.
Meanwhile, online forums for history buffs are still the place where heated debates take place every day, involving thousands of young people, especially about details of the past that are not rigorously mentioned in textbooks. or opinions and assessments that are not entirely consistent with what is taught in school. These young people are determined to seek the truth, to find out what really happened, to see if there are still things hidden.
In my work, I have also seen articles on historical topics, such as the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Johnson South Reef Skirmish in 1988, very popular among readers. These are lesser-known historical events that have received only limited coverage, or are omitted altogether, from Vietnam’s education curricula.
The story is fascinating, in itself. If students think it’s boring, I think debates should focus on how best we can learn and teach it, instead of arguing over how many years it should be taught .
Like any other subject, history is a tool of knowledge. People study history to understand what countries have been through, what their peoples have done, and actions and inaction carry over into the future.
I believe people can love where they come from naturally and organically. This love is not necessarily forged from a compulsory teaching of history.
However, ignoring history as a boring subject, failing to understand that understanding the past is highly relevant to the present and the future will result not only in an inability to know one’s own country better, but also in a lack of analytical knowledge and even emotional tools to deal with problems that exist and will arise in the future.
On the one hand, getting to know your country better in all its facets strengthens patriotic love; and on the other hand, we know the famous saying that those who do not know history are bound to repeat it.
*Vu Viet Tuan is a journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.