An Interpretation of Powerful Knowledge for History Education

Maayke De Vries Articles

At the moment, I combine teaching with pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Education at University College London which, according to its slogans, encourages innovative and disruptive thinking. One of the ideas that has created quite some attention is the formulation of Powerful Knowledge (PK) by Professor Michael Young. Since the beginning of this century, Professor Young promotes the idea of a re-focus on knowledge in the curriculum and moving away from a curriculum based on 21st century skills or other competencies. Initially, this sounded like a reactionary attitude to me: while there is some recognition for multiple ways of knowing, there are also the conservative voices calling to bring ‘real’ knowledge back into the curriculum. However, the more I started to read about PK and its essential complementary ideas, the more I realized that theoretical knowledge can also be empowering. Encouraging ways of thinking that are specific for a certain community of inquirers will allow for a deeper understanding of reality. For now, this idea is mostly put into practice by geography educators at UCL, however the principles of PK are also very much applicable to history. In this blog post, I would like to explain the essential characteristics of the idea, along with important criticism focussing on social justice. Lastly, I would like to suggest an implementation in history education. 

A curriculum on the basis of PK perceives subjects as specific disciplines with their own procedures and protocols to understand and examine the world. In an article in 2010, Young and Muller elaborated on three possible futures of education: 1) the continuation of the elite system as it exists today; 2) the end of disciplinary knowledge which is replaced with generic outcomes hereby - unintentionally - educating students solely for employability, while also deprofessionalizing teachers and de-specializing research; 3) emphasizing the role of specific knowledge communities in acquiring and producing knowledge, whereby the aim is to supplement the everyday experience with theoretical knowledge. Young and Muller predicted that future 2 will remain most popular because of the (hidden) neoliberal tendencies of this educational system, while future 3 has, according to Young and Muller, more potential to confront contemporary challenges such as the growing inequality, polarization, and misinformation. 

PK is not about dominating, but rather empowering the learner. According to Young, there are two types of power: the kind that wants to dominate, thus exercising power over something or someone; and the emancipatory kind, namely the power to do something or to think something. What makes PK emancipatory, according to Young, is that it provides students with the ability to critique society as it exists. 

Biesta is another proponent of bringing knowledge back into the curriculum, as a way of indicating to students what might be worthwhile paying attention to. Biesta suggested that emancipatory teaching would let students “figure out what they do with what they may encounter there. The judgement, and the burden of the judgement is, in other words, on them [the students]”. Young claims that all students should have access to emancipatory knowledge as it allows for generalizations, imaging the yet unthinkable, conceptual understanding, and embedment within specialized inquiring communities. In contrast, future 2 education will place the focus on everyday experience without complementing it with theoretical knowledge that allows for a more complex understanding. Hence, Young claims, future 2 will only make the achievement gap wider between students, as the theoretical knowledge can act as an equalizer. Young exemplified the difference between everyday knowledge and PK on the basis of geography: everyday knowledge is your knowledge about how the public transport works or where the stores are located, whereas PK is an understanding of how cities are organized and how they might change. 

The idea of PK is based on a social realist perception of knowledge, which can be dismissive of ways of knowing outside western perceptions of ‘knowledge’. A social realist perception of knowledge means that the acquisition and production of information involves systematic concepts and methods within communities of enquirers who search for truth within their distinctive disciplines. Hence, it can be said that a critical attitude towards PK is necessary to understand that knowledge is never neutral and always highly political. 

Therefore constructive criticism of PK has complemented the theory and encouraged the integration of social justice. In 2018, Wrigely expressed his worry that social structures influence knowledge formation and distribution, inevitably creating silences due to dominance of certain voices. Hence, Wrigely argued for the incorporation of a theory of knowledge called critical realism, which would acknowledge that the curriculum is political and never neutral. Students should therefore have the ability to evaluate any knowledge claims because they understand that social structures and conventions play a role in the formation and distribution of this knowledge. Thus, Wrigely suggested that PK should incorporate a critical element by supplementing the everyday experience with a focus on “underlying forces which are at work, that these forces might not always be active or visible, that everyday experience is not always the best guide to understanding the structures that impact on our lives..” (p.12). Therefore, Wrigely suggested “Productive Pedagogies” to complement conceptual thinking with students’ everyday life experience. So PK in a critical realist interpretation would still mean a focus on key concepts and challenging ideas, but would account for the social structures in society that allow for some knowledge to emerge and be distributed more widely. 

Another useful addition to the idea of PK is the concept of Powerful Pedagogies, which encourages enquiry as a way of learning. Roberts wrote in her response to PK that everyday experience is a necessary element in teaching in order for students to make a connection between the theoretical concepts and their own lives. According to Roberts, the everyday experience of students is not just their location but also the media in which they interact or the circles in which students find themselves.  As a result, Roberts argues that subjects, like geography, have powerful ways of understanding this world: ”through the kinds of questions it asks and the ways in which it investigates them” (p.201). Roberts furthermore stresses the political element of knowledge, hence there should always be a reckoning of its origin and context in which it was created. Roberts emphasizes the importance of how the teaching takes place, thus the method of instruction which truly allows for knowledge to become powerful or not. According to Roberts, PK can in other words only become emancipatory when Powerful Pedagogies are used. Roberts summarises Powerful Pedagogies with three characteristics: 1) Enquiry-based; 2) Dialectical Teaching; 3) Critical. Thus, PK alone will not provide students with a complex understanding of the world it needs to co-exist with powerful ways of teaching. 

The powerful element of knowledge is not only in the hands of the teacher. The students themselves need to feel agency in order to act upon the newly acquired insights. Alderson enlists in her response to PK four necessary conditions for knowledge to become truly powerful: 1) The Known; 2) The Knowers; 3) The Social and Cultural Context; 4) The Application. The Known in the case of PK refers to knowledge that is constantly changing and emerging through research and creativity, aiming to move towards reliable truth. According to Alderson, this knowledge can never be powerful if there is no human agency involved (the knowers), thus for knowledge to be powerful there should be an active and creative dialogue between the knowers and the known. This power of this dialogue depends on social and cultural contexts, as this learning is not happening in a vacuum but influenced by real life challenges, which needs to be considered for PK to truly be emancipatory. Lastly, the application of the known by the knowers in particular social and cultural context will determine whether it can influence society. Thus knowledge might claim to promote social justice but this will only be the case if the application of the knowledge is done in such a way. 

To summarize, PK as originally suggested by Young could have indeed promoted a reactionary response to the increasing liberation of marginalized voices, however when PK is informed by a critical realist perception of knowledge this can be averted. Thus, PK has the potential to act emancipatory when it accounts for the political nature of knowledge and thus reveals structures and conventions in society that allow for dominant voices to be (over)heard while marginalized communities are silenced. Furthermore, knowledge can only become powerful when teaching is emancipatory through a focus on enquiry, dialectical teaching, and a critical understanding of the subject. And lastly, knowledge is only powerful when its application indeed promotes social justice. 

Powerful Knowledge in history education

As of now, most of the debate and application of PK took place in the discipline of geography. The critical application of PK can however also suit a subject such as history. In early 2021 a book will be released (and edited by Arthur Chapman) that applies the idea of PK to the subject of history. In another contribution from 2018, Counsell mentioned the potential of PK for the subject history in a blog post. For this sake, Counsell uses substantive knowledge –  content as facts, e.g. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Fall of the Berlin Wall – and disciplinary knowledge – evidence, causality –, as both a part of historical knowledge. Counsell suggests that this division is a helpful tool when engaging with PK in history education: it is impossible to teach students all the substantive knowledge, therefore discipline knowledge is required. 

To make this a bit more clear, I will try to give an example of PK in history on the basis of the topic women’s suffrage movement in the Netherlands. In 1919, active women’s suffrage was achieved when a bill was approved by the House of Representatives, after more than fifty years of protest. However, it was only in 1937 that women older than 25 years in the Dutch colonies received passive suffrage, which became active suffrage in 1948 after more than a decade of protest movements.

Example substantive knowledge: cult of domesticity;  cult of domesticity; Aletta Jacobs; Rosa Manus; Vrije Vrouwen Vereeniging (Free Women Association); National Exhibition of Women’s Labor 1898; Demonstration 18 June 1916; active suffrage 1919; passive suffrage 1917;  Damanan di Djarason 1937; Clarita da Costa Gomez; Altagracia de Lannoy-Willems 1949 

Example disciplinary knowledge: using evidence from sources to make a claim; indicate change and continuity.

In this case, the PK might be that students are able to assess to what extent the women suffrage bill of 1919 was a change or continuation for women in public life. For this, students use their substantive knowledge about the historical context of the 19th century and the ways in which women were protesting. Students need disciplinary knowledge to be able to critically analyze sources and ‘read against the grain’ when analyzing primary sources to indicate whether women’s role in the public indeed changed or how certain systems continued, especially for women in the colonies. The emancipatory element of this knowledge could be that students understand the historical relationship between gender inequality now and then, while being able to actively search for marginalized voices in public debates. This knowledge can then be used in a very practical way by having students write a commentary on current representations of women in politics, or set up a campaign to encourage political participation of everyone. 

As we currently live in a pandemic during which universities, again, make most cuts on their social science and humanities departments, it would be good if we as educators can be vocal advocates for the importance of our subjects. The idea of PK shows the importance of having different knowledge disciplines, as each discipline brings with it their own ways of knowing and viewing the world. Hence, the subject history can emancipate students by allowing them to understand the present through knowledge of the past, utilizing the historical method for research, and having a healthy sense of suspicion towards any source. It would be great if history educators can be more vocal and explicit about the power that historical knowledge provides to students, to avert authoritarian tendencies in our multicultural democractic nations in Europe. This blog post is merely intended to start a conversation among history educators about the powerful knowledge in our subject and how we can better advocate for our subject and discipline.

 

Written by Maayke de Vries
History teacher at an international school in The Netherlands & PhD Student UCL Institute of Education
www.mizsdafreeze.com


Sources:

Forthcoming: Arthur Chapman (ed.) Knowing History in Schools. Powerful Knowledge and the Powers of Knowledge UCL Press. Open Access. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/130698#

Information about Women Suffrage in the Netherlands: 

“Vrouwen Kiesrecht in Nederland”- Atria https://atria.nl/nieuws-publicaties/vrouwen-in-de-politiek/vrouwenkiesrecht-in-nederland/

“Vrouwenkiesrecht op de voormalige Nederlandse Antillen” - Atria https://atria.nl/nieuws-publicaties/vrouwen-in-de-politiek/vrouwenkiesrecht-op-voormalige-nederlandse-antillen/

Learning to Disagree Offline – An in-person workshop for teacher trainers in Miskolc, Hungary

Djoera Otter Articles, Report

Learning to Disagree Offline – An in-person workshop for teacher trainers in Miskolc, Hungary

Picture: Participants discuss the Lesson Plan in small groups.

 

Learning to Disagree is slowly but steadily coming to an end. This project was initiated in response to the needs of educators who experience difficulties in addressing sensitive and controversial issues in their classrooms.  The project offers workshops and support materials for teachers to face these controversial topics head-on in their classrooms.

This is of course bittersweet as the team has had a wonderful time working together over the past three years. However, this also means that we can finally share the learning activities with the wider EuroClio community. The sharing of the learning activities often happens during national teacher trainings, which would usually have people meet in person. Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions to limit the spread of the disease, have made meeting people in person a little difficult. Nonetheless, we are happy to report that Zsolt Vódli, core member of the Learning to Disagree team and board member of the Hungarian History Teachers’ Association (Törtenelemtana'rok Egylete), managed to organise a national training in person on September 18, 2020.

The workshop was held at the University of Miskolc at the faculty of Arts and Humanities. 19 graduating teacher trainers, most of who majored in history, partook in the workshop that presented the learning activity Leaders in Times of Turmoil, created by Zsolt and Juraj Varga.  This learning activity allows students to work in small groups and discuss provocative statements about decision made by leaders at the most pivotal times in history. Then, according to the Four Corner Teaching Strategy that is incorporated in the learning activity, students must decide whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statements and come to a shared understanding.

Thus, besides gaining a more in-depth understanding of the historical context in which these decisions were made, students will simultaneously develop a plethora of skills and abilities, such as: substantiating their opinion with relevant (historical) sources, eloquently and respectfully voicing their opinions to others, considering and valuing different viewpoints, critical thinking, and it goes without saying that they learn to disagree. These are all skills and abilities students will be able to enjoy long after leaving secondary education.

During the workshop Zsolt taught the teacher trainers that were present how they could foster and facilitate this process of learning for students, by illustrating and discussing how teachers could directly implement the lesson plan in their own classroom.

The participants found the content of the material very informative, as it provided a wide range of historical background knowledge. This was specifically considered valuable in the Hungarian context in which the workshop took place, as students in secondary schools do not learn much about the events of recent past, and in particular of events from other countries. The four-corner strategy was also received very positively as participants said the statements were provocative and generated interesting discussions and helped to improve critical thinking as well as debate tactics. Some of the participants said the activity could be supplementary material in secondary schools, as it was so well grounded in both history and civic education. We are happy to conclude that the workshop was a great success!

You might now wish you could have joined Zsotl’s workshop. And if you do, we have good news for you! While COVID-19 might prevent us from meeting face-to-face in most situations, it hasn’t stopped us from meeting online. You can join Zsolts’ workshop, which he will host with Juraj, online on November 16, at 16:30 at EuroClio’s Annual Conference! For more information on the workshop and how to register, please click here.

Besides registering for Zsolts’ workshop, do check out the other workshops that are part of EuroClio’s Annual Conference as well. EuroClio’s (first!) Online Annual Conference and Professional Development Training Course: Controversy and Disagreement in the Classroom will present 20 different workshops that will give you hands-on, ready-to- use lesson plans that will help you teach your students to articulate and substantiate their arguments in a debate.

To see the full, ambitious programme of our conference, please click here.

Can’t wait to use the learning activity? Check out the learning activity on Historiana here!

A Discussion with Michael Mail on the Importance of History Education and Jewish Heritage

The Jewish presence in Europe goes back over 2,500 years, and this can be seen through a rich cultural and historical legacy, stretching from western through eastern Europe. At the beginning of September, EuroClio had the opportunity to speak with Michael Mail, the founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage to discuss issues related to the topics of Jewish Heritage and education concerning Jewish history in Europe.

Zaira: What inspired the creation of your Foundation?

Michael: The Foundation for Jewish Heritage was created in London in 2015. The main reason for the establishment of the organisation was due to the fact that there were no institutions working solely on preserving Jewish heritage on an international scope. Jewish heritage today faces special challenges that can be associated with two major factors — the Holocaust and Jewish migration. The Holocaust not only led to the tragic death of 6 million Jews, but it also meant that many buildings lost their community of users. Jewish migration also played a part as buildings formerly attached to Jewish cultural life and activities became orphaned heritage.

A stark statistic is that, at the beginning of the 20th century, 9 out of 10 Jewish people lived in Europe, today it is 1 out of 10. There are various reasons for this pattern of migration. One is that in the 1880s, which witnessed a resurgence of antisemitism predominantly in Eastern Europe, thousands of Jewish families chose to migrate to the West. Many went to America, which was seen as ‘the land of freedom and opportunity’. In central and eastern Europe, Jewish heritage was especially affected by policies that were effectively “cultural genocide”. During the communist era, places connected to Jewish religious life were closed down by the authorities. Under this form of repression, combined with the suppression of religious life and antisemitism, Jewish cultural heritage faced huge challenges.

The story of migration also applies to Jewish heritage in Western Europe. In England for instance, Jewish families settled in London’s East End with other migrant communities. However, as time went by, they moved to the suburbs, leaving behind the synagogues in their former neighbourhoods.

Zaira: How do you select and prioritise the heritage buildings you work on?

Michael: The Foundation for Jewish Heritage decided to prioritise synagogues as these were the most iconic buildings pertaining to Jewish communal life, and typically the most artistically and architecturally rich buildings. Moreover, synagogues became important representations of Jewish participation within European society as, during the period of emancipation in the 19th century, Jews were accepted as citizens of Europe.

With this focus, the Foundation mapped out all the historic synagogues existing in Europe today. They found that less than a quarter had survived the Second World War. In 1939, there were around 17,000 synagogues in Europe. Today there are about 3,300 sites. The Foundation also categorised the synagogues according to significance and condition, which allowed them to identify the most important buildings and those most in danger.

Currently, the organisation is profiling 16 buildings. One of these projects is in the town of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Merthyr Tydfil was an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century and the largest town in Wales, with a big Jewish presence starting in the 1830s. The remarkable gothic synagogue was built in the 1870s.  However, with the industrial decline in the latter part of the 20th century, the Jewish community moved away, and the synagogue was closed in 1983. It has been empty since 2006 and was listed as being at risk. The Foundation bought the building in 2019 in order to turn it into a Heritage Centre. By saving these vulnerable synagogues, they have the ability to become powerful sites of education regarding Jewish life and contribution, and this is the driving idea behind our mission.

Zaira: Is it possible to draw a parallel between the poor state of Jewish heritage and the place that Jewish history has in history books?

Michael: The place that Jewish history has in history books may very well reflect attitudes within society. If we take the example of Belarus, the capital Minsk, was the only capital city in the world that once had a Jewish majority. The Jewish contribution to the city — and country — over the centuries was huge, and the synagogues date back to the medieval period. Nevertheless, Jewish history is a neglected topic in the country. If you visit local museums you will find that there is little mention about the Jews and even less about the Holocaust, in fact, the memorials to the Holocaust use the generic term ‘victims of fascism’. This is a feature of the Soviet-era, following the Second World War when such memorials would consciously not mention that the victims were Jews. Belarus is an extreme case of “absent history”.

The Foundation has taken on an important project in Belarus — the beautiful Great Synagogue in the town of Slonim which was built in the 1640s. In 1939, out of 25,000 inhabitants, 17,000 were Jews. During the war, they were marched out of the town by the Nazis and their collaborators and executed in the most barbaric fashion. Only 200 survived. The Holocaust is probably the most tragic event in Slonim’s history and we like to think that, in saving the Great Synagogue which represents the last physical remnant of this lost community, in recognising what happened and presenting it, in educating and engaging people rather than ignoring it, we might also bring a level of healing to a place like Slonim.

Zaira: How can these places of Jewish Heritage contribute to education?

Michael: All the Foundation’s Trustees agree that saving Jewish heritage is a means to an end, and that end is education. The main goal is to use these historic synagogues as centres of education. The Foundation aims to create educational projects working with the towns, institutions, and schools  – local ownership and participation are crucial to success. We want to adapt Jewish heritage sites for a new purpose which recognises its original function while bringing value and serving the local community of today. We are taking buildings that had become meaningless and making them meaningful again.

The educational component in the Foundation's mission has an important contemporary relevance. Jewish history contains a profound message for society about what prejudice unchecked by law, morals and ethics can lead to. Furthermore, this history addresses issues of pluralism and diversity, as well as the value of intercultural dialogue and cultural exchange in society. These concepts help to make history relatable and understandable to pupils. It can play an important role in contemporary education, hopefully building understanding and empathy and combatting ignorance and prejudice.

Zaira: How do you deal with issues such as Multiperspectivity and Competing Narratives?

Michael: The Foundation is interested in using oral testimonies. Oral history, being personal and intimate, can allow for a deeper connection with the past. The Foundation is intent on using oral histories on Jewish life from both the Jewish and non-Jewish perspectives. When it comes to competing narratives, there can be various ways the same event is understood. Therefore, a constructive solution lies in acknowledging sensitive areas in history by addressing them and presenting the different narratives and how these arise. We know history is complex and often controversial.

Zaira: What are some of the dreams and plans of the Foundation?

Michael: The core of the Foundation’s work remains…saving Jewish heritage at risk. Certainly, there are multiple projects that we are and could consider, but this is a question of resources and time. For example, the Foundation is keen to explore how we can use digital materials to provide educational resources. One idea connects the mapping of the historic synagogues in Europe to a second phase which would be to collect narratives associated with each building, to create a space where people can share pictures, documentation, or stories of their families and ancestors. In essence, we would establish a repository of memories connected to the towns and synagogues in question. This would allow people to visit the synagogues virtually, and have access to resources such as photographs, texts, and oral histories without having to travel. People would be able to connect with the story of the past Jewish life…and get access to various types of information.

The Foundation wants to transmit the message that “Jewish heritage is shared heritage”, — it is a Jewish, a national and a European heritage. Another key message is that Jewish history is far more than simply addressing the Holocaust. This is a civilisation that in Europe stretches back 2,500 years with a unique, dramatic and remarkable history. 

Contested Histories: Robert Towns’ Statue and his Blackbirding Legacy

Grace Sahota Articles ,

We are pleased to present the case on a statue of Robert Towns in Townsville, Australia, as part of a series of in-depth studies for the Contested Histories Initiative. We hope that this series will provide insights and lessons learned for engaging with and addressing instances of disputed historical legacies in public spaces. This case comes amid global debate on historical statues and monuments, related to and inspired by this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and calls for a reckoning of Australia’s colonial history.

Townsville, in north Queensland, is home to a life-sized statue of its namesake Robert Towns. Unlike many of the cases catalogued by Contested Histories, this statue was erected in recent history--in 2004--with funds from the local council, in spite of instant controversy. Towns was a merchant entrepreneur and ‘blackbirder’, whose ship ‘Don Juan’ brought one of the earliest shiploads of South Sea Islanders from present-day Vanuatu to labour on his Queensland properties in 1863.

 

What is ‘blackbirding’?

‘Blackbirding’ refers to the kidnapping or luring of South Sea Islanders, mostly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, but it also included ‘recruiting’ from parts of New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Fiji. Blackbirding occurred from 1863 until the early 1900s and saw more than 62,000 South Sea Islanders transported to Australia for labour in pastoral, sugar and maritime industries. 

There exists debate as to whether blackbirding can be likened to enslavement, and the (il)legality of the process by which South Sea Islanders were recruited for indentured labour. The Australian South Sea Islanders organisation (ASSI) notes that the degree of choice in recruitment does not negate the reality of exploitation, nor is the distinction between kidnapping and choice so simple. Professor Clive Moore, a leading researcher on South Sea Islander history at the University of Queensland, coined the term ‘cultural kidnapping’ to refer to the exploitation that many Islanders unknowingly signed up for. According to Moore, "whether you call them slaves or not, they [blackbirded Islanders] definitely worked in slave-like conditions. It was often horrific." 

 

Still standing

The statue of Towns remains despite controversy. While there have been calls for its removal, Emelda Davis, president of ASSI, argues instead that “there needs to be a greater understanding, a broader discussion”, that “the full truth needs to be told”. Removal, which has the potential to become erasure, is often a quick-fix which leaves the underlying cause of the dispute unconsidered and unresolved. In the case of Towns, simply removing his statue risks burying the legacy of his involvement in blackbirding. 

Engagement in discussion and the notion of ‘full truth’ is central to the work of Contested Histories. Contextualising disputed historical sites can balance and/or resignify narratives concerning historical figures and events to present multiple perspectives, including those that have been and perhaps remain enduringly under-represented, marginalised and oppressed. Moreover, additive elements can act as a means through which uncomfortable histories can be reflected upon and worked through for deeper, more nuanced understandings of the past and present. It is here that the educative potential of public spaces shines through, potential which may have otherwise been lost with hasty removal. 

For Towns, who signifies the white settler majority in Australia, the installation of a counter monument may present an effective remedy. The creation of a counter monument offers opportunities for dialogue, reflection and learning; a means to decentre the colonising gaze of Robert Towns and address intergenerational trauma from blackbirding. 

 

Image by denisbin titled “Statue of Robert Towns in central Townsville. The man after whom the city was named.” CC BY-NA 2.0.

 

Further readings

https://theconversation.com/australias-hidden-history-of-slavery-the-government-divides-to-conquer-86140  

http://www.assipj.com.au/southsea/wp-content/uploads/docs/02_blackbirding_kidnapping_and_slavery.pdf 

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/24/full-truth-needs-to-be-told-descendants-of-blackbirded-south-sea-islanders-want-memorials-amended

 

Drawing on more than 160 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names, building names and other physical markers of historical legacies. The aim is to distil "best practices" for decision-makers, policy advisors, civil society activists, scholars and other stakeholders faced with similar disputes in their communities or societies. The case studies will also inform the development of educational resources that address disputed historical legacies and highlight the complexity of historical memory. 

Call for images: photographs documenting disputes are central to our research and the team is often constrained by images that are copyrighted. If you have an image of a contested monument, street name, statue or other physical representation of historical legacies in public spaces, please share them with us! Appropriate credits will be given.

For more information and to share images, email info@ihjr.org.

Three Promises: The Kalef family of Belgrade, a Centropa multimedia film

“The film is a valentine to a lost Sephardic world, but one that doesn’t shy away from the horrors that destroyed that world.” Lilith Magazine, New York, March 2016

 

 

I promise I’ll protect our daughters, no matter what happens. I promise I’ll hide you, no matter who comes looking. I promise if I get out of this alive, the world will know about this priest.

Backgound: what makes Centropa different

Centropa was founded in 2000 so that they could interview over a thousand elderly Jews still living between the Baltic and the Black Seas and ask them to tell stories about the entire century, just as they lived it.

Centropa was not founded as a Holocaust-interview project. They did not use video in those interviews. Instead, Centropa’s teams spent a decade sitting in 1,200 living rooms in 15 countries, held up 25,000 old family photographs, and asked their respondents to tell stories about the people in those pictures—from the small comedies of everyday life to the great tragedies that befell them.

You can find the English language online database here. It is also available in German, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, and other languages. No one had ever captured European Jewish memory in this way before. It is sadly too late to begin such a project now (in 2020).

Using personal stories to bring history to life

That’s why films like the Kalefs of Belgrade is so important. Matilda and Breda Kalef  take us into their Sephardic Jewish community in the 1930s to tell us about cousins, aunts and uncles, Jewish holidays and family vacations. And when the Germans invaded Serbia in 1941, their mother hid her giant family photo album, grabbed her daughters and knocked on the door of a church in a nearby suburb.

In October, 1944, they returned from hiding to find their home wrecked but the photo album still there. Everyone in those photos, however—from babies to great grandmothers--had all been murdered, including all those pictured above.

This is the story Centropa tells in the award-winning film, Three Promises, which has now been shown in six international film festivals.

Teachers — and students — love this film because

  • very few of us have ever seen Holocaust-related stories about Balkan Sephardic families;
  • even fewer have seen photographs of Sephardic women dressed in traditional costume;
  • and most important, this is a film with a strong moral and ethical core to it: of reaching out, leaning in, and saving a life.

There’s a punchline to Three Promises: Father Andrej Tumpej, the priest who saved their lives, always told Breda Kalef she had a lovely voice and she really should do something with it. And did she ever!

Watch the film here:

 

Black-Lives-Matter and the importance of history education: 
a conversation with Professor Maria Grever on how to deal with the past

Looking back at her illustrious career, recently retired Professor Maria Grever can not only be proud of her achievements, but also rest assured that her work is especially relevant today. Emeritus Professor of Historical Culture at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Professor Grever and her team have relentlessly investigated how people deal with the past, including what and why they remember and celebrate. Therefore, she has a lot to say about the current destruction of statues related to the Black-Lives-Matter movement taking place around the world. Interviewed by Erasmus Magazine shortly after the launch of her latest book, Onontkoombaar verleden (Inescapable Past), she warns against the total eradication of monuments and statues that constitute testimonies of past injustice: destroying statues is no medicine against racism! Moreover, without such evidence, modern societies would forget, instead of facing, their mistakes. But, she stresses, we cannot expect monuments alone to tell the whole story. While on-site explanations can help contextualisation, it is crucial to improve history education in schools so that the young generations are equipped to critically approach this material heritage, and to understand the controversies surrounding it.

History education is a topic dear to Professor Grever. Once a high school teacher herself (1980-1984), as an academic she has relentlessly advocated increased co-operation between the two sectors, and also the domain of heritage institutes. In order to further research on this relationship, she founded in 2006 the Center for Historical Culture, and conducted extensive investigation into processes of canonization in the historical discipline and history education. Another research project focused on how history education can benefit from a critical and dynamic approach to heritage related to the Transatlantic slave trade and WWII /Holocaust. Recently, she co-investigated the opportunities and risks of popular representations of modern war heritage as informal ways of history learning. In August, the bilingual Journal for the Study of Education and Development (Infancia & Aprendizaje) will publish a Special Issue edited by Maria Grever and Karel van Nieuwenhuyse on Popular uses of violent pasts in educational settings ( Los usos popularos de pasados violentos en entornos educativos): https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/riya20/current.

Over the years, Maria Grever has been critical of a top-down canon for history education. In her view, such a canon fails to stay up to date with the latest research findings, particularly regarding multiple perspectives on the past. For example, while in the past few decades historiography has grown more and more interested in the history of women and slavery, it has been challenging to incorporate these topics in school curricula. Nevertheless, Professor Grever is quite satisfied with the current situation in the Netherlands, where there is growing interest among academic historians into history instruction and historical culture in general. Young generations of professional historians are now keen to engage with their subject in new ways, confident that their research will have a positive impact on society. But the drafting of the Dutch canon has not only benefited from the contribution of academia: the involvement of local museums and heritage associations has produced a variety of (counter-)canons built on regional particularities, including the history of migrants and colonialism.

While enthusiastic about the co-operation of teachers, historians and museums, Professor Grever rejects the interference of governments and politicians into the contents of history education. These actors tend to promote a single and frozen narrative of past events focusing on the formation of the nation, thus often overlooking world history and excluding the perspectives of minority groups. They fail to grasp the complexity of the subject, overlooking the importance of critical discussion, and expecting students to simply acquire knowledge of facts without engaging in their interpretation. In order to guarantee a high quality of history education practices, it is necessary not only to resist this kind of interference, but also to allow teachers the freedom to deviate from the prescribed canon to organise activities fostering discussion. For example, Professor Grever recalls that once when she was still a teacher, she organised a debate about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It took her a lot of effort and planning as she had to prepare the students in advance, find appropriate material and effectively chair the debate. In the end, it was a very positive experience for her and the students. Hence, she encourages teachers to organise this kind of activities. However, she is well aware of the difficulties that teachers face, such as the constraints of curricula and the inadequacy of textbooks. And it is this awareness that makes Professor Grever a firm supporter of EuroClio.

The Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College

Oliver Anthony Articles , , ,

When a protestor left a sign on the doors of Oxford’s University Church reading ‘Rhodes, You’re Next’, there was little doubt that the monumental Black Lives Matter movement, sweeping the world after the death of George Floyd, would next be turning its attention to the statue of the imperialist figure adorning Oriel College’s entrance arch. 

With the pulling down of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol only days earlier, a fresh series of protests, beginning on Tuesday 9th June, sought removal of the controversial monument of Cecil Rhodes, fuelled by the 19th century mining magnate’s association with colonialism and racism on multiple accounts.

On the 12th June, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, released an open letter that reached no binary view about Rhodes’ legacy, though did warn against “hiding our history and indicated little accord to the aims of the protestors. Her statement was also later criticised by fourteen dons at the University who wrote that it was “inappropriate” of Professor Richardson to “ventriloquise” the anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, by using his words to defend a colonial-era statue. (1)

Following Professor Richardson’s statement, significant headway was made within Oriel College’s Middle Common Room (MCR – graduate student body of Oriel College) in response to the renewed protests. On Sunday 14th June, numerous motions were passed in support of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, including 124 votes for and 62 votes against endorsement of the removal of Cecil Rhodes on the high street façade of Oriel College, with a further 143 votes for and 32 votes against preserving Rhodes’ statue in a museum/exhibition. (2) 

On Wednesday 17th June, the governing body of Oriel released a much-awaited statement, recommending the removal of the statue and the King Edward Street plaque (3). The report stated that an Independent Commission would be launched to  examine Rhodes’ legacy, chaired by Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College, and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund (4). It has more recently been announced that broadcaster Zeinab Badawi, former Conservative shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth, and Oriel College’s alumni advisory committee chairman Geoffrey Austin will also sit on the inquiry group (5). Alongside deliberating on the legacy of Rhodes, the commission will additionally consider improvements to BAME access and attendance at the College. A public notice is expected to be posted near to the statue, outlining how people are able to contribute their views, including both written and oral submissions, as well as further oral evidence public sessions to take place at a later date.

It will undoubtedly make for an interesting case to reflect upon as the Commission’s findings are published in January 2021, particularly since a similar consultation was organised by the College in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign initially called for the removal of the statue. In this earlier instance the Oriel’s governing body released a statement suggesting they were seeking information from the city council relating to the removal of objects of listed status (of which the Rhodes Statue is Grade II listed) (6). A six-month listening exercise was also set to take place but fell short of becoming fully realised, with some leaked documents to The Telegraph suggesting that this was in part because of threats made by College Alumni to withdraw funding equating to £100 million if the statue were to be removed (7)

Since the protests in June there have already been pledges to cover any withdrawn funds. Particularly notable is that of Oxford alumni, Husayn Kassai, founder of Onfido, who has pledged to “make up for every penny any racist donors pull”, further stating that, “All racist status and symbols belong in museums, where we can safeguard our history, in all its gore and glory” (8). While there are yet to be any reports of donors withdrawing support to Oriel, there is certainly the capacity for future disputes to arise from stakeholders less receptive of the statue’s removal.

The decision made by Oriel College to seek consultation to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has been described by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a founder of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, as a “greatly vindicated” feeling (9). Although, as he further outlines, a successful outcome is only dependent upon the Commission’s decision to remove the statue, which, given the the earlier short-lived inquiry of 2015, is certainly not one which is inevitable. In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, the current inquiry’s Chair, Carole Seuter, said it “was not a forgone conclusion” that “Rhodes would fall”, adding that, “We acknowledge politely that the governing body has expressed a view but there wouldn't be any point at all setting up this sort of Commission if it was already a foregone conclusion” (10).

Oriel College’s recent statements have certainly not quietened protests. Further Black Lives Matter marches took place in Oxford on the 18th and 26th June, with sustained emphasis on Rhodes, further calls for the removal of a statue of slave owner Christopher Codrington at All Souls College and demands for decolonisation of the curriculum. Discussions of Oxford’s problematic past are clearly not diminishing, with organisations such as Uncomfortable Oxford dedicating tours, talks, and blogposts to the histories of inequality, discrimination, and imperialism throughout Oxford (11). Taking these movements as indicatory of unresolved points of contention, it is fair to say that campaigns for social justice in Oxford are only just beginning. In regard to the statue of Cecil Rhodes, it will be an interesting case to watch now that significant advances have been made with regards to its future legacy.

Monuments Matter: A Singaporean Solution

Miranda Richman Articles

We are pleased to present the case on The Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles and His Legacy as part of a series of in-depth studies for the Contested Histories Initiative. We hope that this series will provide insights and lessons learned for engaging with and addressing instances of disputed historical legacies in public spaces.

Oftentimes, the Contested Histories Team encounters statues embroiled in conflict, which can result in destruction or removal of a monument. The public debates over images of Cecil Rhodes or the watery ending that met the Colston statue in Bristol, England are two memorable examples. In stark contrast, the case of the Sir Stamford Raffles statue in Singapore presents an absence of contestation that offers an innovative way to simultaneously preserve and contextualize history in the public space. Despite its associations with colonialism, the Raffles statue attracts very little controversy. This case study provides a unique opportunity to examine the role of States in shaping narratives and underscores the positive power of public space to spark thoughtful dialogue.

The white polymarble statue of Raffles occupies a very public and central location, along the banks of the Singapore River where Raffles allegedly stepped ashore in 1819. Thousands of tourists pass by the statue daily where it stands against a backdrop of the sleek Singapore skyline. The statue was intentionally installed in this iconic spot for the 1919 Centennial celebration of Singapore’s founding. Today’s statue is a 1972 replica of the bronze original, with a plaque that celebrates Raffles’ ‘genius and perception [that] changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis’. This complimentary and curated historical narrative, which paints the colonial period as ‘ineffectual’ rather than cruel, helped facilitate Singapore’s transition into independent statehood.

Modern Singaporean history begins with Sir Stamford Raffles; his arrival to the Southeast Asian city state brought Singapore under the British Imperial umbrella in 1819. Today, Singapore openly acknowledges both the benefits and detriments of its colonial legacy, celebrating its independence from colonialism while also attributing modern Singaporean institutions, like the rule of law, to British influence. This 1819 origin story was not an accident; Singaporean officials deliberately centered Raffles at the beginning of Singapore’s modern history. As the country embraced independence in 1959, public officials sought to craft a historical origin story that achieved two goals. First, they did not want to elevate any single ethnic group over the others. Although British colonial structures reinforced racial stereotypes in Singapore in many ways, pinning modern Singapore’s inception on Raffles’ arrival allowed the state to celebrate the diversification and globalization of Singaporean society. Officials also wanted to send the message that Singapore was still open for business. Investors were wary of the new socialist republic, and Singapore wanted to emphasize its connection to the past in order to reinforce relationships moving into the future. Thus, Raffles became a household name in Singapore and 1819 became a date to remember in history class.

Singapore decided to use the 2019 Bicentennial as an opportunity to revisit the Raffles statue in a new, contextualized way. A committee of government ministers, an advisory panel composed of civilians, and over 300 partner organizations contributed to planning the Bicentennial event. As a teaser for the upcoming celebration, artists painted the front side of the Raffles statue a dark gray so that when onlookers observed the statue head-on, it blended into the industrial steel building behind it. Raffles being indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape was meant to spark reflection and broaden people’s understanding of Singaporean history beyond the role of a single man. Once the Bicentennial truly got underway, officials added 4 additional statues beside Raffles, each honoring a key historical figure in Singapore. Together the 5 statues are meant to represent the multiculturalism behind Singapore’s founding and reflect the diversity of modern Singaporean society. Free exhibitions exploring Singapore’s history and the colonial period also called on the public to ask questions and consider a deeper understanding of Singapore’s origins. One exhibition helped visitors explore Singapore’s pre-1819 history, starting at 1299. The second exhibition offered a multidimensional analysis of Raffles, investigating the authenticity of his historical contributions while also acknowledging his imperialist role. Some wished the exhibition had done more to critically frame Raffles within Singapore’s history.

However, this use of public art and public space created access for Singaporeans to reflect on the 200 years of history since Raffles’ landing. Singaporean officials chose to contextualize Raffles by adding monuments to the public space that commemorated the achievements of other local communities. By visually transforming the Raffles statue to make a familiar monument unfamiliar, it became dynamic. Officials leveraged the public space to elicit curiosity about Raffles’ role in history and challenged passersby to take a second look. The Singapore case provides a unique opportunity to explore the absence of contestation and the active role that the state can play in narrative formation, contextualization, and public debate.

Drawing on more than 160 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names, building names and other physical markers of historical legacies. The aim is to distil "best practices" for decision-makers, policy advisors, civil society activists, scholars and other stakeholders faced with similar disputes in their communities or societies. The case studies will also inform the development of educational resources that address disputed historical legacies and highlight the complexity of historical memory. 

Call for images: photographs documenting disputes are central to our research and the team is often constrained by images that are copyrighted. If you have an image of a contested monument, street name, statue or other physical representation of historical legacies in public spaces, please share them with us! Appropriate credits will be given.

For more information and to share images, email info@ihjr.org.

The Contested Histories project made news in Chile

EuroClio Articles

During the last week, the Contested Histories project had intensive activity in Chile, the South American country where even before the Black Lives Matters movement, over a dozen statues and monuments were vandalized or removed in a matter of days. One of our team members participated in an online talk and was interviewed by CNN Chile, reflecting on  how monuments and statues have become the center of our attention, both locally and globally. 

By Contested Histories Team

 

In the midst of a turbulent Spring of 2019, when Chileans came out to the streets protesting against inequality and poor living conditions, statues became the epicenter of the riots. From Spanish conquerors to Chilean military commanders, several examples throughout the country revealed how statues mattered, especially in times of crisis. 

The monument to General Manuel Baquedano in the Plaza Italia (“Italian Square”), a traditional meeting point for protestors in the capital Santiago, went through the uprising covered in paint and ropes of different types: one day against police brutality, the next day in favour of LGBTQI+ rights; the week after in favour of indigenous peoples rights. 

The military general who served as a Commander-in-chief during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), when Chile clashed with Peru and Bolivia over the rich lands full of saltpeter in the Atacama Desert, was utterly resignified by thousands of people. Protestors and civil society organizations, such as political collectives and football fans, coordinated schedules to use and paint the statue each day of the protests. The monument to General Baquedano acquired an entirely different meaning.

Meanwhile, in the south of Chile, in the city of Temuco, the statue of Caupolican, an indigenous hero, was vandalized by protestors, who achieved a brief but worthwhile moment of justice.

The statue to the Mapuche toqui
Caupolicán in Temuco, with a
Mapuche flag in one hand and the
head of Pedro de Valdivia in the other.
By EIE__oAX0AAvTJD /

Caupolicán was a war leader, toqui in mapudungun, the local indigenous language. As such, he led the resistance against the Spanish conquest, causing the retreat of Spanish troops in several battles, until he was captured and sentenced to death by impalement in 1558. During the outcry of 2019, protestors toppled a statue of Pedro de Valdivia, a highly praised Spanish conqueror, located in the same city. Once off the pedestal, protestors beheaded the statue and hung his head from Caupolican's hands. The powerful picture spread all over Chilean and international media. 

Cases like these were reported from North to South between October and November of 2019. Today, just six months after the social outburst, Chile is reaching the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and thus protestors are confined in their homes. The monument to Manuel Baquedano in Santiago has been cleansed by authorities, while most local governments are looking for the fastest and least expensive way to reinstall removed statues. The issue appears to have been overruled by more pressing concerns.

Nevertheless, the outbreak of the Black Lives Matter movement in late May 2020, and its spontaneous focal point on statues and monuments devoted to slave-traders and colonialists, attracted Chileans attention to this phenomenon. In spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, some media outlets have devoted time to talk about the removal of statues all over the world, finding  linkages between BLM and their own social movement last year.

In an online talk organized by Monumentos Incómodos (“Uncomfortable Monuments”), Catalina Gaete, Research Associate at the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, and part of the team of Contested Histories initiative discussed several issues around the removal of statues and monuments around the world, calling attention to different types of remedies and decision-making processes. 

“The main point I wanted to raise in this conversation was that, according to our research, after reviewing hundreds of case studies, the participation of local communities and all the actors involved, particularly the victims and their relatives, is a must in this debate. But their representation should be in the right proportion, thus avoiding the overrepresentation of the ruling elites and promoting marginalized voices to join the debate”, she concluded. The talk can be viewed here (in Spanish).

Subsequently, in an article published on July 1 by CNN Chile, Catalina joined historians, local authorities and civil society activists to comment on this pressing situation. 

In this article, Catalina  highlighted the complex issue at hand. "Many of these characters (the figures honoured with statues and monuments) gave prestige to their countries and they call for feelings of pride. Yet at the same time, their public representations are evidence of a forgotten history", she said. Therefore, the focus of the current protests in monuments and statues is calling for a wider reflection upon these issues, because “falling into an attitude of denial, pretending like these underlying problems do not exist, will bring consequences in the future. That is the lesson we can draw from Black Lives Matter”, Catalina concluded. 

The article can be reviewed in this file (in Spanish).

Featured image credit: "MG_7046" by notroborts (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Parallel Histories: An interview with Michael Davies and Theo Cohen on how to handle teaching controversial history in the classroom

Across Europe, history teachers are grappling with the subject of how to handle controversial history in the classroom, and of course, it is the theme of this year’s conference in November 2020. At EuroClio we like to keep an eye on educational innovations, and we are delighted to e-meet with Michael Davies (UK) and Theo Cohen (France) to talk about Parallel Histories, a UK educational charity which aims to change the way we study the history of conflict.

Alice: What’s the purpose of Parallel Histories?

Michael: I set up Parallel Histories as an educational charity in 2017 in order to change the way we study history, and in particular, the history of conflict.

I was frustrated that controversial historical subjects were gradually disappearing from the UK school curriculum when I knew from personal experience that these were exactly the historical subjects which students loved to study. For example, many British schools in 2014-2018 gave close attention to the history of the First World War, but no attention at all to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the consequences of which have shaped the Middle East and underpin the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine and still cause controversy in Britain today.

Research showed us that the main reason teachers avoided controversial subjects such as Israel and Palestine was that they felt ill-equipped to teach it without exposing themselves to the potential accusations of bias, and in some cases they worried that bringing the study of conflict into the classroom would stir up trouble within the school or in the wider community.

So, with those obstacles in mind, we set out to create a teaching methodology which would:

  1. change the teacher’s role from teaching history to students, to teaching students how to think like historians,
  2. protect the teacher from accusations of bias,
  3. emphasise the critical evaluation of source evidence, and
  4. encourage debate and discussion in the classroom.

The core idea in the methodology is that we retell the standard history of a conflict as two parallel but competing histories. We then place them side by side for students to compare, contrast, analyse, debate, and ultimately form their own historical judgment. We believe that the very best place for controversial subjects to be discussed is in the classroom and that this gives teachers an opportunity to show students how to critically evaluate competing evidence and how to debate with each other robustly, but respectfully. We believe that all of these skills are increasingly important for young citizens in pluralistic democracies.

We understand that history teachers have always shown their students a range of alternative viewpoints and interpretations about particular historical events or people, and we want to build on that tradition by making the learning process more immersive so that students will understand the complete and cohesive historical narratives of both sides.

Alice: Where did the idea come from?

Michael: As a teacher, I was struck by the powerful impact on my students which came from visiting areas of conflict like Belfast, or Israel and the West Bank and talking to opposing sides about their history. It really brought alive the importance of history and its uses – both good and bad.

I guess I have always been interested in identity and conflict - I spent formative years as a child in Northern Ireland as the Troubles began. I have a very clear memory of my father taking me aged nine to see the aftermath of the previous night’s rioting on Bombay Street in Belfast. The sight of a Catholic family carrying their furniture out of their terraced house with its smashed windows and loading their possessions onto a lorry to make the move to a safer area made a profound impression on me.

Alice: What has been the impact so far?

Michael: Parallel Histories is used in over fifty schools in the UK, up from twenty last year, and we think it will be over eighty by the end of this year – we have begun to feel that we are now pushing on an open door. We organised some online training – it filled up in two hours and we have had to run seven further sessions to cope with demand. I believe that this interest must be the same in the rest of Europe given that the central theme of this year’s EuroClio conference is ‘Controversy and Disagreement in the Classroom’. We have also used it in an Israeli and Palestinian university and as teacher training for an international school in Israel, but at this point it’s not possible to use it in Israeli and Palestinian schools.

Alice: How have you responded to Covid19?

Michael: We have been running inter-school debates on zoom involving schools mainly in the UK, but also France, Ireland and Turkey. Teachers have found this a good strategy for keeping their older students involved, especially the ones for whom exams have been cancelled and there is no planned return to school.

We have also had the chance to work on some new controversial topics like the Parallel Histories of the Union between Scotland and England told from Unionist and Nationalist perspectives, and we have started to work with HTANI (History Teachers Association of Northern Ireland), another member of EuroClio, to create a Parallel Histories of Northern Ireland told from Catholic and Protestant perspectives.

Alice: What are we trying to do now?

Michael: We would like to work with EuroClio and find partners in other countries who would like to develop this model and methodology in their own language and designed for their own school systems. Our work with Theo Cohen in Lyon is a very good model for this. We all share the same philosophy and belief in the key elements of the methodology, and Theo has been able to take our English language resources and reformulate them as part of a teaching programme designed to meet the very specific requirements of the French educational authorities and the French school system.

 

 

Theo Cohen French case study

Alice: Why did you choose to get involved with Parallel Histories?

Theo: I thought, here’s a programme which is very relevant to solving a challenge we face in French schools right now – we have to teach about Israel and Palestine (unlike in the UK where it can be avoided because it is too difficult), and I don’t think in general we do it as well as we could – at least I am sure I don’t!

As a high school teacher, I am regularly challenged by my students' views, passion and sensitivities whilst teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, this conflict is extensively covered by mass media in France while being regularly on the top of most discussed topics on social media. This is partly due to France’s demographic specificity with the largest Muslim community in Europe and the 2nd largest Jewish community in the world outside Israel. Often students come into the classroom with a strong sense of identification with one side or the other and can view any challenge to their received understanding coming from a position of hostility.

Nor are the textbooks any help. It’s the same problem in France as Britain - traditional history textbooks by aiming at a so-called "balanced view" leave out the historically-rooted perceptions underlying the protagonists' actions on each side, and so leave students with an inadequate explanation for the intensity and intractability of the conflict.

So a couple of years ago I was feeling, here is a really important historical topic with profound impact on French society today and yet we are in a position where many teachers feel poorly prepared to teach it, the official textbooks are no help, and we run the danger of making our students feel we are hostile to the historical narrative of their own community and that we are not listening.

So, I started to research and I came across Michael and Parallel Histories – we talked about all of this one evening and immediately hit it off – I found the Parallel Histories approach to teaching very refreshing personally, and absolutely appropriate for teaching a highly controversial subject like Israel and Palestine.  Unlike a top-down pedagogical approach which revolves around an impossible objectified vision, learners are presented with competing historical narratives, leading them to engage with the available historical materials in order to formulate their own opinion. This helps them to develop their ability to critically analyse the arguments, assess the evidence made up of the documents provided to them and synthesize different stories. Parallel Histories is not about teaching students what to think, but how to think. We give them the tools to deconstruct their own and other historical narratives to better understand how the historical interpretations which underpin conflict are constructed

Alice: Do you provide ready-to-use in materials in French?

Theo: Yes. I felt it was important to make ready-to-use materials dedicated to French-speaking students and teachers. They all have been designed to be in line with the new French curriculum of History and Geography and the new subject “Histoire-Géographie, Géopolitique, Sciences Politiques”.

As of now, three chapters in French are available on a dedicated page: https://www.parallelhistories.org.uk/le-conflit-israelo-palestinien

  • an introduction delivering a complete overview of both narratives. This helps learners get an overall understanding of the chronological arc and begin to see points of comparison and contrast between the two narratives.
  • Lesson 1 deals with the pivotal year of 1948 and asks the question of who can be held responsible for the Palestinian exodus. Of course, Israeli and Palestinian narratives disagree on this.
  • Lesson 2 is designed around another simple but controversial question: who can be held responsible for the failure of the peace process since 1993, Israelis or Palestinians?

The use of our videos is really flexible but we know from our practical experience that these videos can be used in a 4 to 6 hour timeframe of work. There are more details and ideas for lessons on the French page of our website, and we are available to answer any questions or provide further materials, if needed.

Alice: What is your teaching experience so far with Parallel Histories in France?

Theo: I’m very happy so far. Of course, the first place any teacher tries out new material is his own school and my students have been very supportive. They enjoy this approach and push me to get on with creating more programmes. We have also been taking part in an online debating programme with schools in the UK, Ireland and even Turkey, and I have been very proud of the way my students have risen to the challenge of not only debating these difficult topics but doing it in English, too. We were fortunate to get some Erasmus + funding for a project with British and Irish schools, and we are planning (Covid permitting) for an international conference next year.

We put our materials online earlier this year on a dedicated French resources page and this has generated many new enquiries. Teachers from Brittany, the Lille urban area and French schools abroad (Lycée Français de Rome, de Bruxelles, d’Irlande…) expressed strong interest in using Parallel Histories in class. We also have some official recognition – we are proud to be part of the official teacher’s trainings catalogue in the Académie of Lyon, which is the country’s 2nd largest urban area. Our materials are also used by numerous schools in Brussels, as Parallel Histories tools and approach are now fully integrated into Belgian NGO’s training programmes dedicated to school learners and teachers.

Alice: What are we trying to do now?

Theo: The core idea of Parallel Histories is the same in every country – to change the way controversial topics are taught and learned in classrooms. To achieve this in France we set up three goals:

  • Delivering virtual or in-person training to French-speaking teachers and educators interested in using Parallel Histories;
  • Welcoming teachers and educators willing to adapt our materials to their local educational requirements and context as we know that what may be true or expected in France, or in the UK, is surely different elsewhere;
  • Broadening our studies spectrum to other controversial topics. Here, too, collaboration is key – if you have an idea for other historical conflicts which are still causing controversy today, we’d be happy to hear from you. This could take the form of new ERASMUS + projects in the near future.

 

Parallel Histories focusses on creating groundbreaking learning resources to aid students in examining controversial historical topics. Their inaugural syllabus covers the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Micheal Davis is the founder and editor of Parallel Histories. Theo Cohen operates as the French editor at Parallel Histories.