Recently, the US-based World History Digital Education Foundation (WHDEF) distributed the COVID-19 Module to teachers at American secondary schools. This collection of educational materials explaining how Korea has countered the COVID-19 pandemic was produced through a KF-supported project by the WHDEF, which works with American teachers to help them include Korean history as a subject in their regular curriculum. Dr. Han Jong-woo, president of the foundation, affirms that this is an important time for the promotion of Korean studies, as Korea draws worldwide attention for its successful control of the pandemic.
Promotion of the inclusion of Korean history in the educational curricula of American elementary and secondary schools
Close cooperation with the US National Council for Social Studies (NCSS)
KF-supported publication of educational materials for teaching and learning about COVID-19
Korea’s successful control of COVID-19 — a great opportunity for dissemination of Korean studies
Q. Could you introduce your foundation?
The WHDEF is a non-profit organization established in 2018. It’s headquartered in the US, in the state of Maryland. Our main job is helping American history and social studies teachers at regular educational institutions understand the need for Korean history education, and to provide training to them. We used to hold conferences for teachers three to five times a year, but this year, we had to hold an online gathering instead due to COVID-19. We hosted a webinar in May.
Q. What was the theme of the May webinar?
It dealt with COVID-19. The first lecture was on historical comparison of the ongoing pandemic and the Spanish flu. The lecturer was Dan Barry, Pulitzer-winning reporter and columnist for the New York Times. Korea’s countermeasures against COVID-19 were introduced by Dr. Jee Young-mee, who was recently appointed as the KF’s Special Representative for Health Diplomacy, and Professor Kwon Soon-man of the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health. Dr. Jee is a former head of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research of the National Research Institute of Health, under the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The webinar also discussed the North Korean situation through a question and answer session with Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center who is concurrently the deputy director of Stimson’s 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea-related information and analysis. As is well known, Korea’s actions against COVID-19 are drawing great interest from nations around the world. Teachers at home here in America have been looking for related materials for online education. The webinar was so popular that 200 teachers applied to participate within the first five hours.
Q. Much like the webinar, the COVID-19 Module seems to have become very popular. What was the main motive behind the module’s production?
Many people in America are thinking hard about what lessons they can learn from the current situation. There is a broad consensus about the need to properly inform and educate the young generation who will lead the future. With that in mind, the WHDEF enthusiastically joined hands with our partner teachers of the NCSS, and, with the support of the KF, we’ve been able to realize our plan to produce this collection of materials. We drew upon lessons learned from the Spanish flu that killed 500,000 Americans in 1918, as well as from the experience gained in the global fights against Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In particular, we thought that it was meaningful to introduce the Korean practice of vigorous social distancing within its own frameworks of society and state, which are different from those in Western countries.
Q. The role of the NCSS in producing and distributing the module looks significant. Is there a secret behind the smooth cooperation between the WHDEF and the NCSS?
From the start, the WHDEF has exerted enormous strategic efforts to build a cooperative relationship with the NCSS. The council is the largest organization of social studies and history teachers in the United States, wielding great influence over the content and direction of American elementary and secondary education. When I first attended the NCSS annual conference in 2015, only one teacher listened to us. Now, we hold a pre-conference clinic on the eve of the general meeting, and our session is so popular that we can’t accept all the applicants we receive. Presentations are made in six sections, and each section is attended by over 50 teachers. Whether we’re making educational materials or holding a conference, our focus is on the teachers, always. We want to show our belief that we can’t have access to future generations without teachers, and we try to earn their support through consideration of their needs. For instance, in the course of producing the COVID-19 module, we shared many humorous memes created by Korean netizens, which the teachers got a kick out of. They seemed amazed by the creativity and were proud to be among the first to share these memes and images with their students.
Q. What do you think needs to be done to further expand educational projects for the publicity of Korea?
Now is the time when Korea stands at the center of global attention thanks to its control of COVID-19, and we’ve caused quite a stir by releasing our module and holding the webinar at just the right moment. Korea is seldom taught as a subject in US elementary and secondary education, and so we find this new trend surprising and fulfilling at the same time. What counts now is how we’re able to take advantage of this opportunity in securing many teachers who are interested in and friendly towards Korea. We want to increase the number of teachers participating in WHDEF projects and build closer cooperative relations with them.
Q. How would you assess the KF’s support for WHDEF projects? Do you think it’s been sufficient?
The KF has made tremendous efforts to promote Korean studies at higher educational institutions around the world and has accomplished a lot so far. The KF fully realizes that it’s crucial to bring Korean studies into the curricula of elementary and secondary schools that lack a basis in the subject, and it’s expanding its support for this endeavor. The support we receive from the KF is a big help for the WHDEF’s projects, including the production of the learning module. More impressive is the KF culture of respecting the creative ideas of on-the-job professionals instead of following the hierarchical system in which high-ranking officials make plans and direct their implementation. I think the KF earns its success, not only in America but in other countries as well, because it adopts ideas for Korean studies programs from teachers who are well-versed in each area and lets them put those ideas into action.
Q. Are there any other educational materials or activities you’re preparing now? Or is there anything else you’d like to share about Korea’s public diplomacy or the KF?
In December 2019, we produced educational materials by collecting articles on interviews with Korean War veterans from 21 countries. This year, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, we plan to publish a book on Korea-US relations. The book will expound on major events in pre-modern history, such as the General Sherman incident of 1866 and Sinmi Yangyo, also known as the US Expedition to Korea in 1871, as well as current issues on and around the Korean peninsula, including North Korea-US and US-China relations. So far, we’ve concentrated our efforts on supporting the inclusion of Korean history in the realm of public education in the United States, but from now on, we plan to expand our educational projects publicizing Korea to the 21 countries that dispatched troops to the Korean War. I hope the KF, as an institution with expertise in this regard, will continue to work with us.