Looking Back to Vietnamese History

I bet a quarter that for many Vietnamese students as well as other Vietnamese who used to be students, History will always remain a nightmare.

That explains why the school subject makes national headlines almost every single year, especially around the time of high school and university entrance examinations. Mistakes by students, exam writers, instructors, and even reporters – on the dates, the people, the relationships between those people, the places – re-ignite familiar and similar social discussion and scrutiny on the pedagogy of history. Everyone joins hands to lament the difficulties and the backwardness in learning and teaching history at school. Everyone calls for a reformation to make History more socially relevant.

Nguyen Quoc Vuong, a graduate student at the University of Kanazawa, Japan observes that the pedagogy of History in Vietnam has been in a crisis for the past few decades due to inadequate critical approaches to answer the classic question: “Why do we learn History?”  In his book “Giáo dục Việt Nam học gì từ Nhật Bản”(What Vietnamese educational system can learn from Japan) , he writes that History as a school subject in Vietnamese public schools is now still a tool “to teach nationalism, preserve national traditions, and learn from the lessons of the past”. Eventually, that tool is to promote “The History” – the single, absolute collective memory intentionally passed and embraced from generation to generation. However, the perception, despite the rationality behind, is both limited and limiting.

When I came across this passage in Vuong’s book, I immediately recalled an event back in February, 2017. It was a seminar called “Lịch Sử Được Hình Thành Như Thế Nào?”, roughly translated as  “How Is History Written?” The guest speakers were two young Sino-Vietnamese studies scholars, Dr Tran Trong Duong and Tran Quang Duc. It was an interesting and intriguing introductory talk, until toward the end when the audience was invited to ask questions and give comments and then the whole discussion got heated too uncomfortably. While both Dr Duong and Duc advocated the evolving nature of history due to different, sometimes conflicted personal experiences and perceptions – that there are multiple histories and that each history is always in the making, a professor took over the podium and outrageously demanded them to speak “correctly” (“nói cho đúng”) about The History. After all, everything is already written in our history books, why should we question the otherwise?

I found the professor’s insistence on The History quite mind-boggling, simply because her statement was the first I heard after many years reading histories of other peoples who don’t speak my mother language (That said, I also spent many years not reading my people’s history in my mother language). At the same time, it knocked me out. I’ve already taken to my heart that the past is always present. That history will always find its way back to teach us the lesson(s) that we haven’t learned.

Isn’t it profound to witness how interpretations of theories play out before one’s eyes? What is right and what is wrong can be basically the same.

However, I now understand a bit more why many social scientists, including historians, tend not to stay with those what-if questions for too long. After all, while the history of the past needs scrutinizing, the history of the present needs constructing and the history of the future needs preparing.

The significance of the discussions about learning and teaching History in the mediascape, in classrooms, in meeting rooms, in households in Vietnam is that – to borrow the young scholars’ words – we Vietnamese are in an identity crisis, khủng hoảng bản sắc.

And we have no other choice but to face our history. The one that doesn’t just contain the glamour or the demand of blind nationalism and loyalty.


Feature Image Credit: 4travel.jp

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