The announcement by Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) in late April that it would make history an option in the national secondary school curriculum sparked a wave of anxious opinions in the Vietnamese press and social media. From the 2022 cohort, Vietnamese high school students can choose to study, at a minimum, one of three social science subjects: geography, history, economics and legal education. Public concerns about the move – that marginalizing history will erode the national consciousness of the younger generation – reflect growing anxiety over national identity in a globalizing Vietnam.
According to MOET, the change is the result of wide consultations and is in line with international standards on education and previous guidelines. The move is part of the ministry’s new comprehensive education plan, promulgated in 2018, which aims to implement the Central Executive Committee’s 2013 resolution 29-NQ/TW on comprehensive education renovation. The plan calls for the last three years of high school to be the “career-focused education phase” after a nine-year “basic education phase.” These policies are aimed at modernizing Vietnam’s outdated education system that indiscriminately trains students in all subjects without career specialization. Their criterion of “global reintegration” underscores the need to bring Vietnam’s education system in line with international standards, in response to growing demands for professional labor since Vietnam entered the global economy in 1986. owe meor “renovation”, reforms.
Public opinions on the change vary from reluctant support to vocal dissatisfaction. Proponents argue that the change allows students much-needed academic flexibility. Current history teaching – replete with repetition, rote memorization and the rigid presentation of dry, factual information – has dissuaded students from embracing the subject. Critics, however, fear the move could lead prospective students to neglect historical learning and undermine their national consciousness. The decision even prompted the mass state organ, the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, to call for the restoration of history as a compulsory subject, citing the teaching of history in other Asian countries from ballast.
These concerns stem from the particular status that history teaching occupies in the Vietnamese political imagination. Standardized history, in Vietnam as in many Asian countries, is the most direct and effective means of inculcating national identity and official ideology through sanctioned narratives such as the “national humiliation” of China or Singapore’s meritocratic notion of “Asian values”. from vietnam owe me has not translated into substantial changes in the teaching of history. Classical socialist narratives always present a purposive view of revolutionary Vietnam from past to present, struggling against capitalist and imperialist forces under the legitimate leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam (VCP). the owe me reforms and the creation of a “socialist-oriented market economy” are presented as a step towards the realization of socialism, in contrast to its collapse in Eastern Europe.
With Vietnam’s opening to the world, however, its teaching of history is proving rigid and dated. Vietnamese youth have gradually adopted materialistic and consumerist values and a more “cultivated” lifestyle. Recent British Council research on young Vietnamese found that they are more individualistic than their previous generations, with the internet “completely integrated into their lives”. Students find little value or utility in purely descriptive historical knowledge in an increasingly stressful educational environment. With market competition and job hunting in mind, Vietnam’s rising middle class is being depoliticized and politically apathetic, much to the chagrin of the old VCP Secretary General, Nguyen Phu Trong. Vietnamese students and their parents instead turn to more hands-on pursuits, in pursuit of natural sciences or IELTS scores.
These effects of globalization on Vietnamese youth have given rise to national identity anxieties, typically among academics and establishment elites. Complaints about students’ lack of historical knowledge have become a social trope in contemporary Vietnam. From 2005 to 2021, history has consistently been one of the worst-performing subjects in Vietnam’s highly competitive national exam. The youth’s lack of historical knowledge and basic historical facts have been widely and repeatedly reported in Vietnamese media since at least 2005. These once prompted the late revered General Vo Nguyen Giap to write a letter in 2008 warning of its serious consequences for the “revolutionary” of Vietnam. traditions” and patriotism. The late historian and ex-president of the Vietnam Association of Historical Sciences, Phan Huy Le, remarked in 2012 that “history is the most rejected subject in high schools”. Today’s views echo concerns expressed in 2015 when MOET originally considered making history an option.
With these anxieties unappeased by history education, nationalist voices in Vietnam are steadily rising in public discourse. Here, the Sino-Vietnamese conflicts are a major point of contention. Official discourse downplays them in line with Vietnam’s rapprochement with China after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Their euphemistic portrayals in a few paragraphs in history textbooks have come under fire amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. Anti-Chinese nationalism has even challenged the legitimacy of the VCP at times, escalating into protests and riots whenever China encroaches on areas of the Vietnam-claimed waterway. To this, officials have responded with an ambivalent mix of repression and tacit recognition, appeasing its nationalist populace while keeping it on the straight and narrow.
Nationalist sentiments remain too reactive and contested to pose a significant threat to the regime. A wide range of voices are speaking on behalf of the nation, from indigenous to diaspora, retired party cadres and pro-democracy progressives to pro-regime supporters and conservatives. Yet it’s the China-related issues – the 1979 border war and the 1988 Johnson Reef stalemate – that excites people more than the stark textbook narratives. However, a substantial reform of history teaching remains unlikely. True historical thinking could make young people wonder about Vietnam’s complicated history, while putting Sino-Vietnamese conflicts in textbooks could have consequences for bilateral relations, as has happened in the past. .
With a conservative education in history and a penchant for creative censorship, the VCP could “lose the narrative” in the future as this identity politics escalates. For a glimpse of such a scenario, Vietnam can look to its northern neighbor, where populist nationalism has become feverish enough to influence China’s domestic and foreign policy. The deterioration of the discourse on relations between China and the United States should serve as a reminder of how virulent identity politics can become. Vietnam has always walked a tightrope on both globalization and its relationship with China, but the rope is becoming increasingly fragile as nationalism becomes a more important domestic force.