I still don’t understand what the term “khoa học” means to Vietnamese scholars. It is how the term “science” was originally translated into Vietnamese, but today I don’t know anyone who would consider history to be a “science” anymore.

However, Vietnamese historians do use the term “khoa học” to talk about research, conferences, etc. So do they think of history as a “science” or is the term used to simply refer to something as “academic”?

hist science

Whatever the case may be, I think things that are “scientific” or “academic” have at least one point in common, and that is that they are supposed to attempt to avoid being biased and strive to be as neutral as possible in the presentation of information.

With this in mind, it always confuses me when I hear Vietnamese scholars talk or write about “lịch sử nước ta” (our country’s history) or “người Việt ta” (we Viet[namese]), because once you start talking about something as “ours” then it can no longer be neutral. “Ta” immediately adds a bias to the information that is being presented, and that is not “khoa học,” however one wants to understand that term.

The concept of “we” is also very problematic. The world today is divided into nations and every nation marginalizes and silences some of its population. So in such a situation, the use of terms like “we” or “our” is always problematic.

waterboarding

Think, for example, about the US conquest and colonization of the Philippines. Let’s imagine that an author writes a history about that topic and judiciously covers both what we could call the good things that happened (the establishment of a “modern” school system, the promotion of a common language across the islands, etc.) and the bad things that happened (crushing an independence movement, torturing people, etc.).

Let’s also imagine that this author refers to the Americans in the book as “we Americans.”

Now, to take this exercise in imagination further, imagine an African-American reads this book, and that that person’s ancestors were brought to North America 200 years ago as slaves from Africa, that they were sold to a white plantation owner, that their descendants were eventually freed after the Civil War, but that they were still very much discriminated against at the time that the US conquered and colonized the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century.

WEB Du Bois

Would that person associate herself/himself with the “we” in this author’s book? Maybe, or maybe not. Instead, s/he might associate herself/himself more with people like the African-American intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois, who criticized the US government for its conquest of the Philippines, and who did not see himself as part of the dominant “we” in the US at that time, just as this person might know that her/his ancestors were not part of the dominant “we” at that time either.

However, as a living person today, that reader is part of a society, and s/he has responsibilities toward that society. So it is important that s/he have a sense of being part of a “we” today.

This then is where it gets tricky.

society

Every society has to find a way to create bonds among its people for the society to function effectively (and this is a very important contribution of elementary and high schools in many countries around the globe). At the same time, the ultimate purpose of “khoa học” is supposed to be to increase human knowledge in general, and to do so in a neutral manner, free of overt biases.

Of course it’s never that simple, but people who engage in “khoa học” can at least try to do that. But is that even possible when scholars refer to history as “ours”?