This paper seeks to investigate the materials from Vietnamese high schools, under the two RVNs to answer how mainstream history narrated the beginning of French colonial conquest between 1884 and 1898, and how this official narration was perceived by people at the time. As stated below, I would argue that history, as a subject at schools, was approached as a science that came along with the academic freedom that allowed a diversity of narrations; however, the narration of history was subjected to the promotion of nationalism that was to serve nation-building. The narration of history was affected by various factors and education reforms were the main contributors to such changes in the historical narratives.

It has been 46 years since the end of the Vietnam war, the war that left an unforgettable remark on not only Vietnamese people but also Americans and people from around the world, the war whose consequences transcend into the modern days. Vietnam war has always been a topic that arouses researchers’ interest, and the scope of research is prone to expansion, not limited to military and political circumstances. Apart from the war of politics and military, the contrast images in social realities in the Republics of Vietnam (RVN) and Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) within the period from 1954 to 1975 also intrigued the academic. As newly established independent polities, besides fighting the Vietnam War, the States were also required to focus on nation-building and state-building in various terms, politics, economics, and education. It is crucial to recognize the importance of education to both polities in the interwar period. The governors of both states used education as both a means of communication to the public and a tool to gain public support. Satisfaction of citizens towards the education that the State provided counted towards the accountability of that State, hence, contributed to the larger amount of support that State gained. One of the strategies was that the State would praise its achievements in education to indicate how successful their governance was and attacked the opponent’s education to belittle his credibility. Therefore, education played a crucial role not only in strengthening the polity’s legitimacy and fostering societal development but also in gaining people’s support for each side in the war. At schools, one of the key subjects that served the aforementioned purposes was history. Briefly speaking, in the case of the DRV, they consistently promoted the history of the unified Viet Nam from the North to the South and claimed that they were the legitimate descendant of the country. In the history narrated by the DRV, RVN was no more than the shadow polity built by America and a tool through which America practiced the new form of colonialism in Vietnam. The RVN, in a similar sense, used mainstream history for its political purposes. On that note, it is important to learn about mainstream history in education so as to learn about the social circumstances, specifically how politics might affect education, which in results, directed a whole generation under the regime, and how the society and its State functioned during the interwar period.

It is crucial to note that there were two RVNs, the first RVN (1954-1963) led by Ngo Dinh Diem and the second RVN (1967-1975) led by Ngo Van Thieu. From 1963 to 1967, after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the South of Vietnam was under the control of various military governments. Regarding the education under the regimes, the educational system consisted of three stages: primary school, from class five to class one – [lớp năm, lớp bốn, lớp ba, lớp hai, lớp một], high school, from class “seventh” to class “first” – [lớp đệ thất, lớp đệ lục, lớp đệ ngũ, lớp đệ tứ, lớp đệ tam, lớp đệ nhị, lớp đệ nhất], and lastly, university. Starting from the Second RVN, the new high school system, known as the General High School, was established and put into practice. The main difference between General High School and traditional high school was that General High school, apart from teaching theoretical knowledge, was also to provide students with practical skills related to a specific job. Apart from the Vietnamese education provided by public schools – schools established by the government and private schools – schools established by the professor(s) and related, some of the former French schools were allowed to continue to run and there were also Catholic schools.

This paper seeks to investigate the materials from Vietnamese high schools, under the two RVNs to answer how mainstream history narrated the beginning of French colonial conquest between 1884 and 1898, and how this official narration was perceived by people at the time. As stated below, I would argue that history, as a subject at schools, was approached as a science that came along with the academic freedom that allowed a diversity of narrations; however, the narration of history was subjected to the promotion of nationalism that was to serve nation-building. The narration of history was affected by various factors and education reforms were the main contributors to such changes in the historical narratives.

This part is dedicated to further explain the use of key terms in this paper. First, the idea of academic freedom will be closely connected with the extent to which politics influenced education and interpretations of history. Academic freedom, in this case, shall be understood as the flexibility that teachers and students have in the zone of academia. Second, regarding the nation-building, I would abide by the definition developed by OECD quoted in René Grotenhuis’s book “Nation-Building as Necessary Effort in the Fragile States”:

Actions undertaken, usually by national actors, to forge a sense of common nationhood, usually in order to overcome ethnic, sectarian or communal differences; usually to counter alternate sources of identity and loyalty; and usually to mobilize a population behind a parallel state building project…[1]

To practice nation-building, the RVN used mainstream history to foster the sense of identity and loyalty within each citizen by circulating Vietnam-centric and Revolution-centralized narratives at schools. Vietnam-centric is a word to describe narratives that focus on national affairs and exclude foreign factors that might have influences on the historical events. Revolution-centralized narratives described how resiliently Vietnamese people fought military wars or led ideological movements against foreign invaders.  In Vietnam-centric and Revolution-centralized narratives, people could not read the full nature of historical events. For example, when students studied about the French colonial conquest, they could not see how Vietnamese society changed progressively but they were taught how the French exercised their power on Vietnam and how this colonial conquest negatively affected Vietnamese people that triggered people’s will to fight heroically against the foreign invaders. As the students took pride in their history, they would eventually recognize themselves as people of the heroic and legitimate RVN and follow the rule of the State. Finally, apart from the political agendas, the way education operated, including but not limited to the governance, the school’s operation, and the examination system also affected the way mainstream history was interpreted. Most importantly, education reforms were not the only but the most influential factor towards the narration of history, especially the narratives circulated among high schools.

As mentioned previously, interest in the topic of education in RVNs has recently arisen among researchers insides and outsides of Vietnam. Regarding Vietnamese researchers, one of the earliest discussions on the topic was the book written in 1995 by Tran Thanh Nam and et al, Research on 30 years of education in South Vietnam (1945-1975)[2]. However, in the Chapter talking about RVNs’ education, the authors were severely critical and expressed extreme negativity against the education system, labeling its “fake education established by the Americans to make Vietnamese people dumb and unconscious of the current situation”[3]. Within the book shows no proper research but merely harsh criticism against RVNs and the promotion of Communist education in the South of Vietnam. Later in 2014, there were various researches from Vietnamese researchers on the topic. Most of the papers in the Research and Development Magazine, no 7-8 – Focus topic: Education in South Vietnam (1954-1975) were based upon the descriptive approach. In other words, the authors focused on describing the system, its structure, and curriculum rather than analyzing the education in the social context and how the political agendas drove the building of the education system. However, what makes this collection special is that there are excerpts from memoirs of people who lived and worked in the education service by the time. Recently, published in 2019, “Giáo Dục Phổ Thông Miền Nam 1954-1975[4]” is a book that offered technical insights into education in RVNs. Similar to the project in 2014 of the Research and Development Magazine, discussion about education in RVN is limited to the description of the system. Vietnamese researchers based abroad also made serious attempts in analyzing the philosophy of education in RVNs. The two notable figures to bring into the discussion are Phạm Cao Dương, the author of the set of textbooks published in 1974 and Võ Kim Sơn, an intellectual in the RVN. Both provide a brief notion of their personal opinions and experiences. In the case of Phạm Cao Dương, he insisted the written analysis shall be treated as personal reflections and further research shall be made prior to making a conclusion. Foreign researchers also conducted research on the education of RVN. Olga Dror in her writing, Education and Politics in Wartime: School Systems in North and South Vietnam, 1965–1975[5], mentioned how history was taught in schools of RVN and inferred a link between education and politics of the time. As she wrote about education in the South, the author pinpointed how apolitical the education was and how that apolitical education benefited or did harm to politics. Matthew Masur captured the idea of cultural nation-building in his dissertation “Hearts and minds: The cultural Nation-building in South Vietnam, 1954-1963”[6]. Masur emphasized how Ngo Dinh Diem, via multi-media and education, proclaimed the legitimacy of the newly established nation and projected his ideologies of Nationalism to the public. Both Dror and Masur cited what they regarded as one of the first research on the education of the RVN, Schools, and politics in South and North Viet Nam: A comparative study of state apparatus, state policy, and state power (1945-1965)[7] written by Thaveeporn Vasavakul, the dissertation in which Vasavakul tackles with how education and curriculum were built according to the national policy and to serve the State. Another general idea about education in the RVN is the education of RVN was an adoption of the “Hoang Xuan Han educational program” with minimal adjustments until it was radically transformed in 1972. Prior to the establishment of the education of RVN, the legitimate educational system that was installed and developed by the French under the period of French colonialism until 1945 and the “Hoang Xuan Han educational program” developed in 1945 and applied for the polity called “The State of Vietnam” ruled by Bao Dai-who was also known as the last emperor of Nguyen dynasty, between 1949 and 1954. Few people could access mainstream education and the reality was complicated as private and/or pro-revolutionary education inevitably existed. Numerous researchers claim that the education of RVN was an adoption of the “Hoang Xuan Han educational program” with minimal adjustments until it was radically transformed in 1972. The paper would not seek to further inspect this claim but focus on investigating the education of RVN as an education of the legitimate polity in the South of Vietnam. The scope of this paper primarily focuses on the historical narratives of the beginning of French colonialism 1884-1898 and what affected these narratives.

The research consists of 2 components, primary resources, and oral history. To dive deep into the historical narratives concocted at the time, I would explore 3 different textbooks: first, Việt Sử_Đệ Nhất of Tăng Xuân An[8], published in 1961. This textbook, similar to its name, Việt Sử – which is Vietnam’s History, provides students knowledge about the history of Việt Nam, from 1884 until the contemporary days. As mentioned in the introduction, the book was written based upon the 1958 program of Bộ Quốc Gia Giáo dục – The National Education Department; and second, the two textbooks: Sử – Địa_Đệ Nhất of Đỗ Quang Chính[9], published in 1966 and Sử Ký – Địa Lý_Đệ Nhất A.B.C.D. of Lê Kim Ngân[10] published in 1969. The two books of Đỗ and Lê share a similar structure, which involves three main parts, first is Việt Sử – Vietnam’s history from 1884 until that time, second is Thế giới sử – The world history, and third is Địa lý – Geography. Apart from textbooks, I looked into books written by historians of the time to view their portraits and comments on French colonialism. The set of history book includes Việt Sử Tân Biên 5,6,7 of Phạm Văn Sơn[11], published in 1962 and Việt Nam Pháp thuộc Sử of Phan Khoang[12], published in 1961. Both provided a relatively similar picture with the same Nationalism-centralized chronology that I would inspect later on. Besides, there are memoirs and written reflections from 3 intellectuals in the RVN, namely Dương Văn Ba[13], Võ Kim Sơn[14], and Phạm Cao Dương[15].

For the oral history component, I would include 3 interviews with the academics in the RVN, 2 of whom received high school and higher education and later worked as professors and teachers in universities and high schools, the remaining one was a student of a high school in the RVN. There would be questions of three topics, textbooks, history embedded in the textbooks, and opinions, thoughts, and comments on the teaching and learning of history and these interviews aim to collect and synthesize the individual narratives as well as to propose a possible explanation for certain inferences.[16]

In the following paper, I would, discuss first, the upsides and second, the downsides of the historical narratives concocted for high school teaching. Along with comments on the narratives, I would lay out the political or apolitical influences on the narration of history. Finally, I would point out how education reforms played the most critical role in the narration of history.

  • Academic Freedom: History as an apolitical Science

In theory, academic freedom was, under the regimes of RVN, relatively connected with the freedom of thought and freedom of speech. According to the constitution of the first RVN, section II, point 16, people have the freedom of speech; however, they are not allowed to use this right to criticize, attack social moral standards, and rebel against republics.[17] The law about the freedom of speech was alternated under the second republic, in the constitution, section II, point 12, stated people have the freedom of thoughts and speech if the execution of these rights does no harm to individual credits, social security, and/or cultural values.[18] In practice, while applied to education, professors and students were allowed to approach knowledge without restrictions as long as they conducted discussion in a scientific manner. On that note, history, as a subject, was no exception and treated as a science, rather than a tool for circulating political philosophies.

History was taught as a science that required ones to take and defend their personal stand with logical processes. Education was, to a certain extent, free of political influences. This certain extent, according to most interviewees, was one must not “promote of communism and call for communist revolutions”.  It is crucial to note that the State did not prohibit students from learning about communism but praises for communism that were used to evoke communist revolutions were banned. As the DRV – the enemy polity was a communist regime, communism was a sensitive subject of discussion in the public. Besides, several attempts of rebelling against the republics and disturbing the social security, involving bombing public buildings, were associated with the communist attempts to pull down the regime. Therefore, any association with communists’ attack would be considered illegal. The academic limit on the circulation of communist ideologies that were useful for the call for communist revolutions against the republics was reasonable in comparison to what was elaborated in the constitutions. History, as one of the subjects in high school, could be interpreted according to one’s logic and all logic was accepted as long as one managed to defend their stands. Teachers could build the curriculum based upon the official guidance from the government and students could further process the conveyed knowledge to develop their personal stands. According to professor Bui Tran Phuong[19], teachers and students perceived history as a science. All had to respect the historical truth and any personal interpretation had to include arguments and valid evidence. She also proclaimed that none had been caught for writing books or expressing their thoughts in academia. Regarding books used in high school, Tran Van Chanh noted in his research, “Education programs and textbooks in the Republic of Vietnam”:

“Under the democratic educational system in RVNs, in both High Schools and Primary Schools, every teacher had the right to narrate his own textbook based upon the program of the Ministry.”[20]

It is crucial to note that the term textbook can be easily misleading. Under the contemporary Communist regime in Vietnam, textbooks are defined as sets of books that contain true and exact knowledge which professors and students must not question. For resolving any arisen issues, the information contained in the textbooks is the only legitimate source of information. However, under the RVN, textbooks were simply known as books used in schools based on the choices of professors and students. Both professor Bui Tran Phuong[21] and professor Nguyen Nha[22] claimed there was no such definition as “Textbooks”, all history books were written for everyone’s references, and teachers, as well as students, could choose whatever books they wanted to abide by. Popular books circulated in academia were written by the best professors of the time.

In the teaching and learning of history, teachers and students were opened to different perspectives. There was no limit, either politically or academically, on the individual perception and interpretation of history. Both professor Bui Tran Phuong[23] and professor Nguyen Nha[24] emphasized that there was legislation upon the interpretation of history and there was no need that students shared the same viewpoints with their professors. Taking a step further, professor Bui[25] mentioned to understand the dynamics of academia by the time, apart from reading textbooks, it is crucial to inspect other references books that youngsters read. Nguyen Hong Cuc[26] and professor Duong Van Ba[27], in their reflections, reiterated the same idea of how they, as students, developed their ideologies and philosophies based upon the books they encountered. In the case of Nguyen[28], she was more of a Mathematics student, hence, she admitted the history that she perceived, was merely from her professor rather than the extensive history any student could access via reading different books. In the case of Duong[29], he was caught up with Marxism and the Western philosophies, spending his 16 and 17 reading these topics. As the reality proposed, students in the RVN had room to develop individually according to their interests, rather than be indoctrinated with the ideologies of the government.

To explained what allowed education to be free from political influences, Olga Dror argued:

“Subjects such as literature and history, transmitters of ideology in the DRV system of education, and even moral and civic education, which were taught beginning in the first grade in the South, did not deal with these issues”[30].

As she further explains, the apolitical education stemmed from many factors and two notable of which were the goal of education was one, to fulfill educational philosophies, saying to educate “a non-programmed individual” rather than to focus on the system and two, to not enforcing the concrete doctrine on the diverse, in terms of religions, ethics, and ideologies, groups of people in the South, which may cause the stability of the nation to be tilted. [31]

As Dror proposed, it was the demographic of RVN that enabled the nation to run an apolitical education amid wartime. I would approach this differently as what allowed apolitical education was the human resources. Human resources, in this case, involved the governors who took charge of the education system, the professors, and the students. To be specific, education, from the top down, was relatively free from the control of the government.

Pham Cao Duong reflected:

“Education was for educators… Except for the Minister of Education and jobs related to politics, any other leaders in the Ministry of Education were all professors, simply because they were well-experienced, let alone their passion for education. Politics, to them, was temporary work, and the future of the nation, or at least, of the young generation was the highest priority.”[32]

According to Pham’s note, educators were allowed to run the education on the governmental level. Although there is no exact description of how educators, via working in the system, may affect the governance of education, it can be inferred that educators were at least independent in terms of running assigned educational programs. Besides, within academia, professors and teachers were also the ones who kept education programs apolitical. Pham also noted:

It was the teachers and the professors who graduated from Universities of Education, who insisted, at the young ages, that their life mission was to be teachers, and they would only do teaching for a living, and who took pride in being teachers, no matter if they taught in primary school or high school… Each of their actions told us how professional they were as someone who worked on education… Thanks to such factors, education remained apolitical and no politician could enter education.[33]

In combination with narratives of other figures and the reality by then, human resources, including governors, professors, and students who maximized the learning of history and allowed it to be independent of political influences.

It is crucial to note that although there was no absolute freedom or absolute objectivity, history, likewise any other subjects in the education systems of the RVNs, was treated as a science in which diversity of interpretation was embraced. Educational policies allowed educators, including those who worked in governmental system and those who taught at schools, to operate education for the purpose of facilitating students’ development rather than infusing political philosophies into students’ mind and allowed students to explore history and philosophy according to their interest.

  • Limitations: Vietnam-centric and Revolution-centralized Chronology

As written in Việt Nam Pháp Thuộc Sử[34] and Việt Sử Tân Biên Quyển 5[35], both historians of the time, Phan Khoang and Phạm Văn Sơn shared the similar chronology of Frech colonial conquest and French Colonialism in Vietnam between 1853 and 1946. Due to the scope of the paper, I would elaborate on the history of the given period, from 1884 to 1898.

French colonial conquest started in 1853 as French-Spanish colonialists attacked Son Tra Peninsula in Da Nang province. Between 1853 and 1884, the Nguyen Dynasty, ruled by Tu Duc, signed multiple treaties with the French, The Treaty of Saigon I (Nhâm Tuất) – 1862, The Treaty of Saigon II (Giáp Tuất) – 1874, Harmand Treaty (Quý Mùi)- 1883 – this treaty was rejected by King Tu Duc, Giáp Thân (Pananotre Treaty)- 1884. According to many historians of the time, the Patenôtre Treaty remarked on the shift of Vietnamese dependence from Chinese power to French colonialism and foretold the vivid possibility that sooner in the future French would exert their power upon the whole country. The possibility came into reality as the Nguyen Dynasty failed to function properly due to various factors. In 1884, the Patenôtre treaty officially declared that the South of Vietnam since then served as colonial land of the French, meanwhile the Central and the North became protectorate lands and remained under the rule of the Nguyen Dynasty. Afterward, as the French consolidated their power in the South, they managed to gradually exert their power on the North, after the successful fight against the Chinese empire, who refused to give up on their benefits in Annam – the former name of Vietnam under Tu Duc rule, and then, the Central of Vietnam. It was not until 1898 that the French took total control over the three regions of Vietnam. 1884 was the year in which Vietnam gave up on the South and accepted protectorate from the French in the Central and the North and 1884 was the year in which the 1884 Fournier Treaty was signed between French and Qing empire on the removal of Chinese troops from the North of Annam. However, the Qing empire continued to fight in the North of Annam and it was not until the 1885 Treaty of Tianjin was signed between French and the Qing empire on June 9th, 1885 that the French excluded completely Chinese influence in Vietnam. As noted in Việt Nam Pháp Thuộc Sử:

Hiệp ước Fournier tách nước Tàu ra ngoài vòng quan hệ với nước Nam, hiệp ước Giáp Thân công nhận rõ ràng Pháp là chủ nhân ông ở nước này, không còn chối cãi gì được nữa.

(The Fournier Treaty cut off the relation between China and Annam, Patenôtre Treaty recognized the French as the owner of this country (Annam), there shall be no further debate on this matter.)[36]

Besides, in Việt Sử Tân Biên Quyển 5, Phạm Văn Sơn wrote:

…Hiệp ước 6-6-1884 nên được gọi thẳng là một hàng ước[37] vì xét nội dung của nó ta thấy các điều này, khoản nọ hoàn toàn là mệnh lệnh của kẻ cả, của một thắng quốc đối với một nước chiến bại. Do hàng ước này Pháp nắm hết chủ quyền của Việt Nam từ trong ra ngoài, từ chánh trị đến kinh tế, văn hoá, xã hội,… Với hàng ước này, từ nay vận mệnh tương lai của dân ta hoàn toàn ở trong tay Pháp…[38]

(The Treaty 6-6-1884 should be called “the surrender of Annam” as the content of the Treaty itself reflected the directives of French, the winner, that imposed on Annam, the loser. According to this “the surrender of Annam” treaty, the French, from then, would have total control over Việt Nam, from politics to social affairs, etc… As the treaty was signed, the future of Việt Nam would lie in the hand of the French…)

On that note, historical narratives took 1884 as the initial year of French colonial conquest because the Nguyen dynasty recognized the colonial conquest of French in the South and the French protectorate on the whole nation and Annam was no longer influenced by the Chinese.

It can be concluded that historians managed to cooperate not only the interactions between Vietnam and French but also between Vietnam and China, and French versus China and managed to deliver Vietnam history in a regional context, in this case, including China, the influential figure in Vietnamese history. However, this was not the case for narrations in high school textbooks. Most textbooks used in high school interpreted the history of French colonial conquest in the same way, which focused greatly on revolutions of Vietnamese people and excluded the foreign subject, in this case, China, from the narratives.

Vietnam-centric interpretation hindered one to look at history more critically and comprehensively. The history textbooks published in 1961, 1966, and 1969 shared a similar chronology that used to describe French colonialism between 1884 and 1946, which provided the knowledge on how the French gradually exerted their power on Annam and applied policies of colonial conquest in Annam. Apart from Viet Su 12 of Tang Xuan An, which summarized the relationship between China, French, and Vietnam in a sentence:

Sau khi Pháp thắng Trung Hoa và ký hoà ước Thiên Tân (9-6-1885), Pháp loại trừ được địch thủ đáng sợ. Từ đó, Pháp không còn e dè ai nữa và tìm cách lấn quyền của triều đình Huế.[39]

(After the French won the fight against China and the Tianjin treaty was signed, no other threat could hinder the French from diminishing the power of Nguyen Dynasty and expanding its power throughout Annam.)

the other two books completely excluded China from the story. It was reasonable that professors failed to deliver the full contents of the history due to limited time in class and since there was no need of diving deep into the details when students merely needed to pass exams with a certain amount of knowledge. As explained later, the examination system and education reforms strongly affected the historical narratives in high school. With limited resources and time at high school, the history of French colonialism in Vietnam was limited to narratives and events surrounding Vietnam, rather than providing the history of Vietnam in a greater context, for instance, in the relationships between French, China, and Vietnam, and later on, Cochin-China- the South of Vietnam named by French, in the context of Indochina, the colonial region including the South of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. To elaborate on this point, while investigating the French colonial conquest in Asia, it is crucial to note that French colonial territory included the South of Vietnam – starting from 1884, Laos, Cambodia – starting from 1899, and  Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan – starting from 1898. The French also exercised different forms of colonial conquest to better control its territory in Asia. However, mainstream history only focused on the exercise of French colonial conquest in Vietnam, including how the French managed to seize control over the Central and the North progressive and how they exploited Vietnam throughout this period. This interpretation limited students’ access to the full nature of French colonial conquest in the region. As a result, what students acquired was merely a one-side history. It may relate with the agenda of the State that the centralization of the nation in historical narratives directed students’ focus on the history that benefited the legitimization of the State. However, in case of French colonial conquest, the aforementioned details were eliminated not because it went against the will of the State but they were considered redundant details.

History was interpreted via the lens of revolutions. Since French colonialism was portrayed as “evil forces”, historians described in detail the progressive revolutions of Vietnamese people against the foreign force. The French colonial conquest described in most history books showed only how resilient Vietnamese people were fighting against this foreign colonial force to regain independence. The common chronology for all books included movements, revolts, and revolutions led by influential figures like “Phong Trào Cần Vương”[40] led by Hàm Nghi King, “Phong trào Văn Thân” led by Phan Đình Phùng, Nguyễn Thiện Thuật, and Hoàng Hoa Thám, “Phong Trào Duy Tân và Đông Du” led by Phan Bội Châu, Phan Chu Trinh, and stories of numerous revolutionary Parties and revolts against the French. The resilient will to fight for national independence had always been a key of Vietnamese history as it highlighted the characteristic of Nationalism of Vietnamese people. Regarding books used in schools, Matthew Masur argued that the narration of history in these textbooks was to serve the promotion of Nationalism, which in his definition, the love for the country and the willingness to sacrifice for the nation, which contributed to the Nation-building[41]. To add on to the discussion, René Grotenhuis iterated:

Nation-building in fragile states starts with the acknowledgement of the people as the sovereign of the fragile nation-state.[42]

The greatest struggle of RVNs was that they could never fully legitimize themselves to the domestic population. It can be interpreted that the way history was told focusing on the revolutions of Vietnamese people allowed the polity to promote national pride, which brought national unity, the element that supposedly not only evoked Nationalism within youngsters but also legitimized RVN as RVN was portrayed as the successor of this heroic history. This method was also embraced by the DRV to gain people’s trust and support.

To explain why the historians shared the same approach to Vietnam history, professor Bui Tran Phuong[43] believed that there was no legislation that enforced one to write in such chronology but it was the limitation of materials for references and the presumed prejudices of professors themselves that resulted in the same limitation in their interpretations. Students, if happened to accept these approaches without questions, were affected by either how convincing the professors were or the traditional way of learning in Vietnamese society – students taking teachers’ words for granted. This explanation offered contemporary people a more balanced viewpoint on the narrations of history in schools of RVNs. To be specific, although academic was forced to follow the same chronology of history developed by the government, the reason why historians repeated the same limitations in their interpretation also resulted from the fact that they accessed the same types of materials for references, and they echoed other historians’ opinion.

Although academia was allowed to enjoy the flexibility of academic freedom as explained above, history, specifically, the narration of the French colonialism, was limitedly concocted using the ubiquitous approach, the Vietnam-centric, and revolution-centralized chronology. As argued above, dissecting the content of mainstream history could help decipher the underlying political agenda, which was to promote the sense of Nationalism that benefited the process of nation-building.  However, there are two key ideas not to take for granted: one, limitations of history narrated in textbooks could not be used in generalization for other historical narratives concocted by historians and two, the government’s policy on the narration was not the only one to blame for the limitations of the narratives.

  • Education reforms and their effects upon the narration of history

Apart from the aforementioned factors that affected the narration of history, education reforms played a key role in the changes in the narration of mainstream history. As argued below, the two notable changes took place were the reform in examination system in the year 1969, and several attempts made by the academic of Saigon Education University in 1970s.

The reform in the examination system may affect the way professors write textbooks. There was a great reform in the examination system in 1969, which changed the format from written assignments into multiple-choice tests. On that note, in order to pass the exam, students no longer needed to acquire wide-range knowledge but focused only on the specific events and figures. Therefore, professors tended to abridge the content in the textbooks, leaving only the core information needed for choosing the correct answers. Furthermore, by categorizing the events into specific timeline, for instance, phases of revolutionaries against French colonial conquest, it would be easier for students to locate the piece of information they needed. First, the history of the year 1884 – specifically related to the Patenôtre treaty (Hoà ước[44] Giáp Tuất 1884), transformed gradually throughout time. To be specific, the full translation of the treaty was included in Tăng Xuân An’s book that was published in 1961 was eliminated from Đỗ Quang Chính’s book that was published in 1966. Second, Lê Kim Ngân, in his book published in 1969, abolished the process of French gradually exert its influence on the whole nation. As a result, history taught at school was eventually abridged and simplified as the reform in examination system forced teachers to convey lessons differently to facilitate students’ need of passing multiple-choice tests. To add in the conversation, Nguyen Hong Cuc[45] claimed as a student whose major was in Mathematic, she rarely learned history and her teacher only instructed students how to memorize historical details to do the test properly. Professor Bui[46] also criticized how negatively this reform affected the nature of learning and teaching history. Speaking on behalf of the community of academic she knew well, they believed the reform was regressive. Students no longer developed critical thinking and logical reasoning while learning history, and history lost its place in the academia.

By 1972, there were several attempts in reforming history as a subject and as a subject of scientific research. Via the establishment of new high schools and universities, and Trung Tam Hoc Lieu, professors and students put effort into conducting research, writing new history books, and translating foreign materials. According to professor Bui Tran Phuong[47], new schools were established and they invested effort into reforming history as a subject and as a research subject, such as Kiểu Mẫu Thủ Đức High school (Trường Trung học Kiểu Mẫu Thủ Đức), whose ideas were developed by academic of Saigon Education University (Đại học Sư phạm Sài Gòn) starting from 1965. The school was a project developed based on the model of American education, which was, according to professor Nguyen Nha[48], provided more practical knowledge for students compared to the current French-like education. Kiểu Mẫu Thủ Đức High school was the first high school that replicated American education. In 1970, the school was first operated and by 1975, due to the collapse of the RVN, the first cohort of students of the school only stopped at grade 11. Another notable attempt of reforming education was in 1974, professor Phạm Cao Dương and Nguyễn Khắc Ngữ finished their project on reforming textbooks and the new textbooks were published by Co so xuat ban Su Dia, whose director was Professor Nguyen Nha. As professor Nguyen Nha[49] reflected on this project, the project was led by a group of academic in Saigon Education University. According to the policy no 1286 – GD/ND implemented on August 12th, 1958, students in high schools had to take a one-hour class of history on a weekly basis.[50] As history occupied limited time in students’ schedule, students rarely poured their effort into learning history. Besides, as mentioned above, the reform of examination system further discouraged students from learning history. On that note, with the successful launch of the project, the academic hoped to promote the importance of history at schools and motivate more students to engage with history. This group of academic in Saigon Education University also published a variety of research relating to history and social affairs. Tập San Sử địa (The journals of history and geography) was a project launched in 1966. Until April 30th, 1975, the group had published 22 articles. Most of the articles were rewritten historical narratives about specific topics. What was special about this journal was that many well-known historians of the time took part in the project, namely Phạm Cao Dương, Phan Khoang, and Phạm Văn Sơn. As professor Bui[51] commented, the attempts to reform education in the RVN took place too late that the results could not be seen due to collapse of the RVN in 1975.

It is evident that the reforms in education, either by the government or by individuals’ attempt of people in academia affected the way history was inspected and narrated. However, due to the fact that these attempts were made within 5 years prior to the collapse of the regime, none could evaluate the effect of these reforms upon the education of the RVN, specifically, on the narration of mainstream history and the teaching of history at high schools.

CONCLUSION

It can be concluded that, from the investigated materials and from the viewpoints of people living in that time, education in the RVNs was to an extent, was free from political influences. The factors that allowed such apolitical education were both the education policies and the human resources in academia. However, the state would intervene in case one promoted communism and circulated these ideologies to call for rebel or revolutions against the republic. With the relative academic freedom, teachers and students in the RVNs treated history as a science that enhanced one’s skills of critical thinking and defending their personal stands. Diversity of thoughts was also embraced at schools.

Besides the upside of this educational system, the limitation in the way people narrated history, specifically, using the revolution-centralized narratives to promote Nationalism, hindered them from looking at history with a more comprehensive viewpoint. However, apart from education policies, aforementioned limitations also stemmed from examination system and limited resources and these limitations could only be used to criticize the narratives circulated in high schools.

Last but not least, the attempts to reform the educational system, either by the government or the individuals, may also have affected how history was narrated in the textbooks. However, the results of these attempts could not be perceived as the regime collapsed in 1975, 5 years after one of the first projects initiated.

[1] OECD, Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations: From Fragility to Resilience, (2009) in René Grotenhuis, “Chapter 5 Nation-building and state-building and the challenge of fragility”, in Nation-Building as Necessary Effort in Fragile States, (Amsterdam University Press, 2016): 73-92.

[2] Tran Thanh Nam and et al. Education in South Vietnam during the period of anti-American colonialism (1954-1975)”,in Research on 30 years of education in South Vietnam (1945-1975), (Ho Chi Minh city: Giao Duc publisher, 1995).

[3] Ibid

[4] Ngo Minh Oanh and et al, “History as a subject in general high school”, in General Education in South Vietnam 1954-1975, (Ho Chi Minh city: Tong Hop publisher, 2019).

[5] Olga Dror, “Education and Politics in Wartime: School Systems in North and South Vietnam, 1965–1975”, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer (2018): 57–113.

[6] Matthew B. Masur, “Heart and minds: Cultural Nation-building in South Vietnam 1954-1963.” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2004).

[7] Thaveeporn Vasavakul, “Schools and politics in South and North Viet Nam: A comparative study of state apparatus, state policy, and state power (1945-1965). (Volumes I and II)”, (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1994).

[8] Tăng Xuân An, Việt Sử_Đệ Nhất, (Sài Gòn: Tao Đàn publisher, 1960-1961).

[9] Đỗ Quang Chính, Sử – Địa_Đệ Nhất, (Sài Gòn: Đường Sáng publisher, 1966).

[10] Lê Kim Ngân, Sử Ký – Địa Lý_Đệ Nhất A.B.C.D., (Sài Gòn: Văn Hào, 1969).

[11] Phạm Văn Sơn,  Việt Sử Tân Biên. (Sài Gòn publisher, 1962).

[12] Phan Khoang, Việt Nam Pháp thuộc Sử. (Khai Trí bookstore, 1961).

[13] Dương, Văn Ba. Hồi ký: Những ngã rẽ. 2015, accessed on August 1st 2021

[14] Võ Kim Sơn, “Chapter 9: Personal Reflections on the Education System”, in The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975. (Cornell University Press, 2020)

[15] Pham Cao Duong, “Sự liên tục Lịch Sử trong nền Giáo dục của miền Nam thời trước năm 1975” in Nghien Cuu Lich Su, accessed on August 1st 2021, https://nghiencuulichsu.com/2016/04/22/su-lien-tuc-lich-su-trong-nen-giao-duc-cua-mien-nam-thoi-truoc-nam-1975/.

 

[16] Background of interviewees and memoir’s authors:

  • Professor Bui Tran Phuong: a student in a French high school and a teacher in a Vietnamese high school in the RVN from 1972-1975.
  • Professor Nguyen Nha: an undergraduate of Dai Hoc Su Pham Sai Gon and also a professor of Dai Hoc Su Pham Sai Gon, the director of Co so xuat ban Su Dia.
  • Professor Pham Cao Duong: a professor of Dai Hoc Su Pham Sai Gon, the author of textbooks published in 1974.
  • Professor Duong Van Ba: Undergraduate of Dai hoc Su Pham Da Lat in 1964, became the professor in Philosophy in My Tho province from 1964, a representative in the RVN Congress, 1967-1971
  • Professor Võ Kim Sơn: “an undergraduate in biology and education at Saigon University, a teacher at the National Wards High School and in 1967 and a lecturer at Saigon University’s Faculty of Education”
  • Nguyễn Hồng Cúc: a student in high school in RVN and an undergraduate of Đại học Văn Khoa Sài Gòn in 1971.

[17] “Hiến Pháp Việt Nam Cộng Hoà 1956”, Internet Archive , accessed August 20, 2021,  https://web.archive.org/web/20210503044513/https://vi.wikisource.org/wiki/Hi%E1%BA%BFn_ph%C3%A1p_Vi%E1%BB%87t_Nam_C%E1%BB%99ng_h%C3%B2a_1956

[18] “Hiến Pháp Việt Nam Cộng Hoà 1967”, Internet Archive , accessed August 20, 2021,  https://web.archive.org/web/20210505134924/https://vi.wikisource.org/wiki/Hi%E1%BA%BFn_ph%C3%A1p_Vi%E1%BB%87t_Nam_C%E1%BB%99ng_h%C3%B2a_1967.

[19] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[20] Tran Van Chanh, “Education programs and textbooks in the Republic of Vietnam, in Research and Development Magazine, no 7-8 – Focus topic: Education in South Vietnam (1954-1975) (2014): 202.

[21] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[22] Nguyen Nha, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, August 2, 2021, emails.

[23] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[24] Nguyen Nha, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, August 2, 2021, emails.

[25] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[26] Nguyen Hong Cuc, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, August 9, 2021, emails.

[27] Dương Văn Ba, Hồi ký: Những ngã rẽ. 2015, accessed on August 1st 2021.

[28] Nguyen Hong Cuc, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, August 9, 2021, emails.

[29] Dương Văn Ba, Hồi ký: Những ngã rẽ. 2015, accessed on August 1st 2021.

[30] Olga Dror, “Education and Politics in Wartime: School Systems in North and South Vietnam, 1965–1975”, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer (2018): 57–113.

[31] Ibid

[32] Pham Cao Duong, “Sự liên tục Lịch Sử trong nền Giáo dục của miền Nam thời trước năm 1975” in Nghien Cuu Lich Su, accessed on August 1st 2021, https://nghiencuulichsu.com/2016/04/22/su-lien-tuc-lich-su-trong-nen-giao-duc-cua-mien-nam-thoi-truoc-nam-1975/.

[33] Ibid

[34] Phan Khoang, Việt Nam Pháp thuộc Sử. (Khai Trí bookstore, 1961).

[35] Phạm, Văn Sơn,  Việt Sử Tân Biên. (Sài Gòn publisher, 1962).

[36] Phan Khoang, Việt Nam Pháp thuộc Sử. (Khai Trí bookstore, 1961).

[37] “Hàng ước” in Vietnamese could be understood the following way. “Hàng” in “Đầu hàng” means “Surrender” and “ước” in “hiệp ước” means “Treaty” or “Agreement”. Therefore, “Hàng ước” means “the treaty that indicated the surrender of the dynasty ”. “Hàng ước” is different from “Hoà ước” – which was ubiquitously used in various history books, including textbooks. “Hoà” in “Giảng Hoà” means “Compromising”. Therefore, to refer the Treaty as “Hoà ước” is to indicate that Nguyen dynasty and French compromised with each other. This is why the author emphasized on calling the Treaty “Hàng ước” as he believed via signing this treaty, the Nguyen dynasty accepted that it lost the war and gave the French authority to exert power on the nation.

[38] Phạm, Văn Sơn,  Việt Sử Tân Biên. (Sài Gòn publisher, 1962).

[39] Tăng Xuân An, Việt Sử_Đệ Nhất, (Sài Gòn: Tao Đàn publisher, 1960-1961).

[40] “Phong trào” in Vietnamese means “Movements”. Apart from “Phong trào”, the textbook also included “bạo động”, which means “revolts” and “khởi nghĩa”, which means “revolution”.

[41] Matthew B. Masur, “Heart and minds: Cultural Nation-building in South Vietnam 1954-1963.” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2004).

[42] René Grotenhuis, “Chapter 5 Nation-building and state-building and the challenge of fragility”, in Nation-Building as Necessary Effort in Fragile States, (Amsterdam University Press, 2016): 73-92.

[43] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[44] In all three textbooks, authors used the word “Hoà ước”.

[45] Nguyen Hong Cuc, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, August 9, 2021, emails.

[46] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[47] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

[48] Nguyen Nha, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, August 2, 2021, emails.

[49] Ibid

[50] Ngo Minh Oanh and et al, “History as a subject in high school”, in General Education in South Vietnam 1954-1975, (Ho Chi Minh city: Tong Hop publisher, 2019), 340-347.

[51] Bui Tran Phuong, “Personal Reflections on the education of RVN”, interview by Do Cam Hoang Hoa, July 29, 2021, audio.

Hoa Đỗ
Hoa Đỗ Student of Class of 2024 -------------------------------- Fulbright University Việt Nam Crescent Campus 105 Ton Dat Tien District 7, Ho Chi Minh city E: hoa.do.200030@student.fulbright.edu.vn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.