Sunday, 24 August 2014

Comment On Chris Wang's "Thinking Taiwan" Article: "Forgotten Souls: Where Are Taiwanese Soldiers In History?"

I woke up too late today to go to Hsinchu (too tired), so I've been pottering around the house doing chores and catching up on my reading. Here is my comment on Chris Wang's currently headlining feature article..


I would be somewhat skeptical of the claim that Taiwanese school children mistakenly believe that Taiwan was bombed by Japanese rather than Allied forces if that claim hadn't been qualified as referring to "some" of them*. After all perhaps no other historical event is as well documented and widely published as world war two. The widespread availability of popular history books and television documentaries and the absence of government censorship on this subject should ensure that generally accurate information is available to those who wish to have it. Moreover, although the specific details about how many Taiwanese soldiers fought and died, where, when and for whom may not be present in school textbooks, the simple fact that Taiwan was a Japanese colony during the war easily facilitates the inference that large numbers of Taiwanese soldiers fought for the Japanese and large numbers of them were killed, captured or went "missing". So again, it is not as if the absence of this information from school textbooks means that it is absent and entirely unavailable to Taiwanese school children (or anyone else). Those who wish to have this information need only look for it and may obtain it for free or for a relatively trivial price.

It seems to me that the author's sense of outrage, largely directed at the government, is only partially justified. Yes, the government attempts to indoctrinate schoolchildren through the national curriculum and through political vetting of (especially, but by no means exclusively) history textbooks, and yes this is to be rightly lamented. However, the idea that this should be corrected by re-vetting the history textbooks and forcing all schoolchildren to learn a history of world war two that includes some focus on Taiwanese nationals is not something I would wish upon Taiwanese children. It's not that the veterans do not deserve recognition and some form of compensation for the unjust suffering they endured, it's that it involves the presupposition that children are the property of the State and must be educated in particular subjects against their will and irrespective of their own valuations and those of their parents. There are many children, particularly girls for instance, who lack any interest in history and especially military history and will not be more receptive to it the harder you try to ram it down their necks. Why should these children have their time and energy - the only life they will ever have - wasted by compelled attention to something in which they have no interest?

And it is not as if all or even the most important injustices of the history textbooks are the exclusive outrage of political and military affairs. The market for textbooks is rigged by the political selection of a national curriculum, and consequently Taiwanese students (like students in other countries) have little to no exposure to the history of commerce, the history of materials sciences and the history of finance. Yet all three subjects - commerce, materials sciences and finance - are arguably (and I would say clearly) far more relevant to students' future job prospects and broader participation in society. Yet in almost every country with a politically controlled national curriculum, these subjects tend to be comparatively neglected if not omitted entirely. How many Taiwense schoolchildren, for instance, are aware of Taiwan's importance via the camphor trade for the development of the world's first plastic (celluloid) and the consequent development of film-based photography, the increasing use of celluloid for household products such as combs and toothbrushes and the eventual end of the Belgian trade in African ivory? I would wager that number is very small. Yet that is no reason to ram it down their necks against their will.

If it is to be argued that there are problematic gaps in the content of what is taught through the national curriculum, then it must be accepted that other people will claim there are still other gaps. You cannot devise a single national curriculum that will satisfy all those who have various competing complaints for the simple reason that classroom time is a limited resource. This is one reason for abolishing the national curriculum and allowing parents and - crucially in my view - the children themselves to have greater control over how they spend their educational time and how. I was fortunate enough to have established good reading habits by the age of six or seven years old, and those habits were established at home not at school.

In sum, it seems to me that beside the injustice of soldiers being forgotten is the forgotten injustice of children being denied the chance to learn to make their own choices and develop their own interests under parental guidance. Whilst we may be able to estimate the number of soldiers who lost their lives or who were captured or mistreated in various ways because these things occured in the past, there can be no such estimates for the number of lives slanted, businesses never started, scientific achievements never reached due to the strangling effects of compulsory education because these things always belong to the future. Past injustices can never be truly righted, none of us can ever go back. The human will can only act from the present into the future, and no more can be asked of it than that.

*Of course, there will always be those who lack any interest in history and consequently are unaware of historical events, but that can hardly be blamed on textbook authors.


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