National Education

Time to give up national education

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am


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It's easy for people who have lived normal lives to tell their life stories. It's far more difficult for individuals who have been traumatised or violated to give an unbiased account of their lives. As it is with people, so it is with nations. Modern Chinese history has been one of foreign invasions, civil war, famines, massacres and totalitarian state terror. As Chinese, we have had plenty of interesting times for several generations; and that is a curse indeed.

China may be rising and taking its rightful place among the family of nations. We are trying to normalise as a people, but that remains a difficult journey, despite the nation's newfound wealth and power. That, I believe, is why it would be next to impossible to formulate a national education curriculum that is acceptable to scholars, teachers and nationalists alike. For this reason, the government should accept defeat by delaying the plan, if not scrapping it all together.

In principle, the idea of national education is wholly defensible. We cannot escape our own 'Chineseness' any more than we can see without eyes or walk without feet. And it's important to know who we are, how we have come to be and what we can achieve as a people. Such knowledge can instil a sense of pride in our own culture.

In practice, that will mean glossing over key but unpalatable episodes in our recent past: Mao's famine, the Cultural Revolution, the June 4 crackdown, endemic official corruption and failure of political reform. Nationalism usually involves sanctioning a narrow, official version of history that promotes the transient or contingent interests of a state leadership at particular moments in time. But there can be a higher nationalism that accepts the search for an elusive historical truth as the ultimate goal while recognising the extraordinary achievements of China's unique development model.

But unless and until we have come to terms with our past, warts and all, we cannot become a 'normal' nation and produce a historical narrative that can withstand the scrutiny of genuine scholarship and nationalism. We must not force contentious subjects on our children as if there are no controversies.