UPDATE (11 Jul 2012): Korean scientists have mobilized, recognizing the importance of taking a public stance on the subject after the publication of the article in Nature. See here for more on what some Korean scientists had to say about the article, and their reaction to it.
I stand by my argument that the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology’s action of passing on the petition from the Society for Textbook Revise (but apparently not for Proper Grammar) constitutes a form of communication in itself.
However, I think the main thing to learn from all this is that if we want to prevent successful attacks by evangelicals against the teaching of evolution in schools, we need textbooks not to be woefully out of date. That was the problem with the images they criticized in the Korean case: they were outdated and in conflict with the latest understanding of how horses and birds evolved. And the evangelicals, while they don’t give a damn about the latest understanding of any aspect of evolution, do appreciate us leaving Achilles’ heels around for them to attack.
UPDATE (6 June 2012): According to this posting on Richard Dawkins’ website, it was the Ministry of Education who circulated the petition to textbook publishers, “letting them decide.” Which of course utterly overlooks the social dynamics of the organization that chooses which textbooks get used in classrooms being the ones to circulate the anti-evolution-in-textbooks petition to the publishers. The Ministry of Education would not circulate a petition arguing that all mention of cancer be struck from textbooks, or teaching the “theory” that humans descend from smurfs… ergo, the Ministry, in circulating this petition, implicitly communicated a position on it.
As I said, textbook publishers don’t risk exclusion from the Ministry of Education’s textbook lists. But then, we already knew how religious Lee — and some of his administrative policies — are.
ORIGINAL POST: Note: I started writing this post a few weeks ago. I haven’t seen any new news on this front, after having had a look around, but maybe there is… I decided to post it as it is, but welcome updates and/or corrections…
We all know the situation in the US — some places, there’s enough morons around to actually get evolution banned from textbooks, and enough morons in the government to carry out the idiocy too. Well, I’ve been wondering when religious fanatics in Korea would finally get around to attempting to ruin Korean science education1 the way Christian fanatics have been systematically working to do in the USA for decades now.
Well, it looks like that day has arrived: Mike Brotherton alerted me a few weeks ago to the fact that several major Korean textbook publishers have caved to the pressure from Christian extremists, and will be removing all mention of evolution from biology textbooks. (One publisher decided to replace the explanatory example of horse evolution with the evolution of the whale: the other four caved to pressure from religious groups and cut evolution altogether, if I understand the news right.)
Which is kind of like removing all running from physical education courses, with the difference that science education is useful, important, and matters for our future.
How can you teach biology without talking about evolution? Just how much of biology would you need to avoid, in order to avoid treading on the toes of religious fanatics by mentioning evolution? You may as well not bother walking, if you’re walking on broken glass that thick on the ground.
The problem, as a friend explained Miss Jiwaku, is that a lot of Korean biology textbooks have outdated material when it comes to evolutionary theory; the explanation of horse evolution was so old that it had actually been badly needing updating. This, of course, is a deadly situation when you have religious nuts around fighting a holy war against science.
So they struck. Sometimes it’s embarrassing how ignorantists can be so coordinated, so organized, so clever about this stuff.
But I am thinking about this from another angle. You see, I’ve seen the process of textbook making before. It’s a bit like watching people make law or sausage: if you can bear to see more than a little bit of it, then you have a strong stomach, at least in this country. One reason is that in Korea, there are official textbook lists made by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry renews its lists every few years, and at every step there is a huge competition — often involving a lot of last-minute revisions, according to new government guidelines — which decides what gets onto the textbook lists. Those books sell in huge quantities, and so every textbook publisher’s or author’s goal is to get a book within the guidelines, and then have it score high on Ministry evaluations, so that it can be included on an official school textbook list… and, bing! Profit.
(I wish I could say that the guidelines are amended well in advance — say, the day after the previous period’s textbook submissions were accepted for evaluation, so that textbook editors could get to work on the revisions needing to get done for a few years away. That would be the sane and organized way of doing things.
(But in my experience, like so much else in Korea, this amendation of the guidelines and required content lists happens at the last possible minute. The result is that textbook publishers and authors spend about three weeks to a month in a mad scramble trying to finalize their textbook content: rewriting new chapters, changing chapters, freaking out because they will not be sleeping for at least half of the coming month, if everything is to get done in time…)
The reason I bring up all of this is because textbook companies normally do not take risks when it comes to content and their potential inclusion on the Ministry of Education’s textbook lists for public schools. They are, indeed, so risk-averse that they will publish outdated material just to avoid being left off the list. This is because exclusion from the list means a loss of billions of won (ie. millions of dollars) of revenue; I’ve personally seen cases in textbook projects where broken English went uncorrected despite a native English speaker’s proofreading it, or publishers insisted on the inclusion of bizarre, dated, or contextually nonsensical idioms because, according to the government’s English textbook guidelines, that particular example of broken, outmoded, or obsolete English was “correct” and “was supposed to be included in a book for this grade level.”
Which brings me to the ominous subtext I see in all of this:
I don’t believe that major textbook publishers would not be willing to consider these cuts, regardless of pressure from Christian groups, unless they believed that the cuts would not jeopardize their books’ chances of official government endorsement. I’m not talking conspiracy, mind you: but I imagine there have been discussions among the major players. If there hadn’t, this kind of cut probably would never have been contemplated.
And need I remind you, when the current President was criticised for many things, but among them a discriminatory preference for Christians over Buddhists, and alliance with some of the most unsavory elements in Korean Protestant Christianity. (Which is no surprise: anyone so hare-brained as to declare Seoul “a holy place governed by God” and the city’s residents as “God’s people” — and then goes so far as to dedicate the city to his god — is bound to put his foot in not just his mouth, but also to use it to trample on others’ freedoms sooner or later.) For me, the religious criticisms of Lee (and much more here) are second to much more serious criticisms (outlined here and here)… with leadership like that, I certainly find it unsurprising that textbook publishers expect a welcome government response to the omission of evolution from Korean textbooks, and ultimately from Korean education generally.
Which to me looks like something of a hijacking. Which is something people should be angry about, and talking about, except they aren’t.
1. Such as it is. I can’t speak authoritatively or anything, but I’ve been unhappily surprised how often undergraduates in my classes — even science majors — were confused about whether heavier things fall faster than light ones (ie. they didn’t understand the basics of gravity) or were unable to explain either in English or in their mother tongue why the sky is blue, or why there are four seasons in Korea. Which is ironic, since for so long the most popular bit of trivia I was offered by Korean students was that Korea has “four distinct seasons.” I can’t say whether the situation is worse than back home, though: I tend to avoid the sorts of people who don’t know whether heavier objects fall faster than lighters everywhere I go, so comparison is impossible for me.