Teaching Complex Processes of Identity Formation

National history is the nation-state’s enterprise. Within the education system of the nation-state, history can never be alienated from ‘national identity.’ The notions of national identity, however, have been contested. National identities have been constantly formulated, ruptured, and re-established by diverse groups. Many historians and educators in South Korea, reflecting on the political use of history by the colonial and authoritarian regimes, have been dubious of the state’s imposition of history and thus have constructed counter-narratives of official history and stressed teaching historical thinking.

However, debates on national identity and national history have persisted. Recently, the changes brought by globalization and the consequent increase of immigration in Korean society have called renewed attention to the relationship between identity formation and the teaching of history. In particular, the current new-rightists’ revision of the history of the Japanese colonial period and the Rhee and Park regimes has provoked debate on how Korea’s modern and contemporary past should be taught and what kind of national identity should be formed through history education.

As the debate on the new-right’s Korean history textbook intensified in 2013 and 2014, an academic journal interviewed eight scholars of history, one middle school teacher, and one scholar of history education, regarding teaching Korean history (Lee et al., 2014). One of the questions asked was whether school history should aim at ‘national identity’ or ‘critical thinking.’ Almost everyone gave priority to critical thinking but not to the exclusion of national identity.

However, national identity is not singular, nor does it have a fixed composition. The elements on which national identity is founded change according to fluctuations in social and cultural composition. Therefore, it is important to give students opportunities to explore the issue of identities in certain historical contexts when they attend to historical processes involving massive migration, the communication of beliefs, and the negotiation of values across cultural boundaries, that is, processes that have the potential to bring about a thorough transformation of an entire society and identity reformation.

History educators need to continue to construct a persuasive discourse that recognizes multiple identities, including ones transcending national concepts of self and encompassing a national identity that is inclusive, difference-tolerant, and flexible. Such identities would help students live in the world where diverse cultures, although they are hierarchical in some ways, rapidly cross and sometimes intensely conflict, while still frequently intermingling. Critical and reflective thinking must be reconciled with identity issues.

In particular, ‘self-reflection’ on identities’ formation and reformation should become one of the central objectives of history education in the view of postcolonial consciousness. It can be developed by giving students opportunities to reflect on their own identities, while exploring the complex processes in which cultures, circumstances, context, and social structures in a society produced a particular form of identity, and by giving them opportunities to examine how a particular individual’s and group’s interactions with large and small cultures and social structures redirected their identities in a given historical situation.

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