by Chu Lan Huong
On a TV show this week, viewers were laughing at the absurdly low knowledge of Vietnamese history among student participants. Most of the students in the show showcased their ignorance of the simplest historical fact.
One student asserted confidently: "Nguyen Du is King Quang Trung."
Laughable, yes, but also mortifying.
For a student not to know that Nguyen Du is the nation's most celebrated poet who penned the epic Truyen Kieu (the Tale of Kieu), and to confuse him with one of the most famous kings in the nation's history, is shameful.
But the students cannot be blamed entirely for their ignorance. Their elders – parents, teachers and education officials – have also failed them.
The disinterest in history among our school students has been discussed and debated for many years now.
In the national high-school exams this year, besides the three compulsory subjects of Math, Literature and Foreign Language, the optional subjects are physics, chemistry, biology, geography and history. As in previous years, the subject chosen by the least number of students was history.
Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Education and Training show that just 15.3 per cent of nearly a million students sitting for the exam selected history as an optional subject.
In Ha Noi's Viet Duc and Dinh Tien Hoang schools, just 3 per cent and 6 per cent of the students registered for the subject, respectively. In the central province of Nghe An, a district had just one student sitting for the history exam.
What this means is that all the debates, the conferences and discussions of the past several years have led to nothing.
History is one of the most interesting and important subjects, so we can surmise without much difficulty that the disinterest shown by students has to do with the way the subject is taught.
In all 12 years of my own schooling, I had one history class that I found interesting. That day, my regular history teacher was sick and a substitute took over. For the next 45 minutes, 50 students listened raptly to his recounting of how the Vietnamese people fought against Chinese Han Dynasty invaders. I have to admit that it was then that I realised that my country had such an interesting past.
So, I guess I can safely say that the teaching of history and the textbooks used have not changed for several decades now.
"I did not find anything interesting in the history class. My teachers read from text books and I was asked to memorise long lessons with several dates and numbers," said Nguyen Lien Phuong, a mother of two children in Ha Noi.
"Now, when I see the textbooks that my children use, I find that they are pretty much the same as the ones I used 25 years ago."
Another Hanoian mother, Nguyen Thu Trang, said: "My son loves to read historical stories and see movies on historical events. But he does not find his history lessons interesting."
With regard to revising our history textbooks, historian Phan Huy Le has told the media several times that it is necessary that there is clarity about the purpose of teaching and learning history as well its relevance for younger generations. Once this is achieved, the content can be presented better and teachers retrained, he has said.
It should not take anyone anytime to realise and articulate the significance of history. Without a sound knowledge of national and world history, Vietnamese students cannot develop their critical thinking skills, because they will have no context for analysing anything.
The advent of the Internet and social media should be seen as useful tools that allow students to access a vast amount of information outside their textbooks. Instead of forcing them to remember facts and figures, we should let them think for themselves and ask questions.
Pham Ngoc Minh, an 11th grade student at the top-notch Ha Noi-Amsterdam High School, said she liked learning history because she was lucky to have teachers who know how to make the subject interesting.
"My current teacher always encourages me to learn history through movies, books, stories and the Internet. I found that history helps me learn literature better. It even helped me get a high TOEFL score," Minh said.
A large part of the blame for the current situation falls on parents who do not encourage their children to learn history, focusing instead on economics or science as subjects that are seen as having better job prospects.
It is incumbent then, for parents, teachers and educators to not only realise history informs all subjects, but also ensure that this aspect comes through in our curricula.
Nguyen Duc Long was downcast after seeing the show. "Many people laughed at the ridiculous answers given by students in the TV show, but as a history teacher, I felt heart-broken. I cannot imagine that a Vietnamese student does not know who Nguyen Du is."
I agree. Talk about poetic injustice. — VNS