Changing Perspectives on Using and Reading History Textbooks

Major Trends in Textbook Research

As the dominant teaching tool, history textbooks invited research early on. The main question of earlier studies was whether the content of the textbook appropriately accommodated the results of historians’ research on the related topics. This, of course, is important as newly found facts or changes in interpretations may be expected. However, these textbook studies did not consider their educational purpose, which may very well differ from their academic objectives. In other words, the priority was not duly set on the importance of the selection and the organization of textbook content for teaching students. History textbooks were regarded as “a reduced edition” of the compiled research monographs.

Another issue addressed in textbook analysis research was ideological bias. Especially after the publication of the national textbook in the mid- 1970s, the Association of Korean History Teachers (AKHT) criticized that this textbook was written from the perspective of the dominant class throughout Korean history, thus legitimizing the present oppressive and authoritarian government rule and disregarding the continued struggles of the subjugated class for emancipation (The Association of Korean History Teachers, 1998).

Starting in the 1990s, a new trend in textbook research emerged. Introducing Barthes’s characterization of “historical discourse” and Wineburg’s exploration of its implication on students’ reading of historical texts, Yang tried to draw attention to the characteristics and nature of historical accounts in textbooks, taking the concepts of meta-discourse, author’s presence, and rhetorical devices into consideration (Roland Barthes, 1970; Wineburg, 1991; Yang, 1996).

The “objectivity” of historical accounts in textbooks also went under critical scrutiny. In keeping with postmodernist skepticism, the author’s absence in relation to the pretended objectivity in historical writing now had to be considered. As Roland Barthes (1970) argues,

Where the author seeks to stand aside from his (sic) own discourse by systematically omitting any direct allusions to the originator of the text; the history seems to write itself. This approach is widely used, since it fits the so-called ‘objective’ mode of historical discourse, in which the historian never appears himself (sic). (pp. 148-149)

Furthermore, with “objective” history, the historian “tries to give the impression that the referent is speaking for itself” thus causing “referential illusion” or “reality effect” (Barthes, 1970: 149). This is maximized in history textbook writing by hiding the author’s presence and perspective and omitting such elements of meta-discourse as hedges, a rhetorical device used to indicate authorial reservation or tentativeness in arguments and justification (Crismore, 1984).

Barthes’s distinction of the two types of text was also applied to understanding the characteristics of the history textbook. “Readerly” texts, such as manuals for changing tires or explanations about volcanic lava eruption process communicate information clearly. “Writerly” texts, on the other hand, invite readers to actively participate in its meaning making. This way, reading the writerly text involves the reader’s writing process. Readers can also be divided into two groups. A “mock reader” accepts the text’s meaning implied by the author as is or is easily influenced by the author’s rhetorical devices. On the other hand, an “actual reader” actively constructs meaning in reading and critically monitors his or her comprehension (Gibson, 1950, as cited in Wineburg, 1991).

By crossing these two different types of texts and readers, we can produce four different reader-text relations as categorized in Table 33.1.

Section 1 of the diagram refers to passive readers’ acceptance of plain, written meaning of texts. National textbooks, regarded as a typical example of readerly texts, have, in effect, imposed non-critical reading. Korean history textbooks have mainly been used in this way and the earlier research on history textbooks has also assumed the Section 1 type of reader-text relationship. The consequence of such an approach is that it concentrates on a factual basis of textbook accounts without the proper consideration of the supposed readers and their modes of reading.

It can be argued that recent research on textbooks in Korea has begun to explore other aspects of reader-text relations. For example, the AKHT tried to make up for the deficiency of the readerly national textbook by publishing its own “alternative textbook”. By using source documents and other historical texts, some researchers are investigating the possibility of students’ ability to recognize the history textbook as merely one type of historical text that can be presented in various forms. With respect to the implication of the reader- text relationship in Section 4, other researchers are addressing the following

Readerly text

Writerly text

Mock reader



Actual reader



Table 33.1 Reader-text relation question: how can the meaning of textbook be critically or deconstructively read in the student’s own active meaning making process? These approaches are intertwined with each other in their common pursuit of history education beyond the textbook.

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