Decolonising the History Curriculum: Considering National Narratives in History Textbooks from a Global Perspective

Written by Tina van der Vlies

Tina van der Vlies is an assistant professor of history at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2019, she successfully defended her PhD dissertation ‘Echoing Events. The Perpetuation of National Narratives in English and Dutch History Textbooks, 1920-2010’. Since her research provided a better understanding of the potential mobilizing power of national narratives in societies, it was awarded with several prizes.

 

Decolonising the history curriculum is a topical issue.[1] Decolonising in this context means a call for what Meera Sabaratnam describes as a "better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced".[2] Especially since the nineteenth century, knowledge about the English and Dutch nation has been built on colonial and racial structures. Sabaratnam asks us to look at our shared assumptions about how the world is.

One way to achieve this aim is to challenge traditional frames in which history is taught and understood. The most well-known frame in which history has been presented in history textbooks is the national one. This is understandable since history is a compulsory subject in many national curricula. National regulations and public discourses about school history are often connected to debates about citizenship and values, in attempts to attribute specific characteristics to the nation and its inhabitants. However, stories from different countries that emphasize national unique characteristics often share interesting similarities. For instance, various politicians stress ‘national features’ in their speeches, while perpetuating nostalgic and heroic images of the nation as well as implicit colonial world views. Hence, this article considers national narratives in history textbooks from a global perspective in order to shed light on some of these resemblances. Transnational narrative structures are easily overlooked when national contexts and their accompanying stories dominate the history curriculum.

National narratives can share the same underlying interpretation pattern. Memory scholar James Wertsch makes a distinction between specific narratives and schematic narrative templates. Specific narratives are uniquely situated in space and time and deal with specific events, persons and periods. These different stories about the past can – although they vary a lot in their details – look like replicas as they share the same underlying narrative structure. Wertsch describes this shared storyline as a schematic narrative template, as a basic building block of collective memory that connects various specific histories.[3] However, Wertsch warns that these schematic narrative templates are not universal archetypes; he explains that certain narrative templates are part of a specific cultural tradition. For example, the “triumph over alien forces” template dominates Russian collective memory and although this template is available to members of other cultural traditions as well, it is not as prevailing as in Russia. For example, it can also be found in the American tradition but will be outweighed by the dominant American “quest for freedom” template.[4]

During my PhD research, I discovered how national narratives in English and Dutch history textbooks overlapped and interfused, and how certain national frames of references were perpetuated over time. Textbook authors narrated different histories as ‘echoing events’ by interpreting them in the same way and by using the same combinations of historical analogies. They gave meaning to history with these recurring connections.[5] Next to the fact that this mechanism was visible in history textbooks from both countries, my research revealed some transnational narrative structures as well.

A first example is interpreting history as a fight between freedom and tyranny. This interpretation is visible in Dutch history textbooks, but also in English and American history textbooks. This interpretation can dominate sixteenth-century war narratives but also stories about the two world wars. Dichotomies often have a great effect on national narratives: the rhetoric is simple, recognizable, and appealing. Sometimes the dichotomy between freedom and tyranny is related to the contrasts between ‘light’ and ‘dark’, or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, in both countries the history textbooks hardly questioned the meaning of freedom and tyranny during the colonial period.

Another similarity is the David-Goliath narrative structure, referring to the Biblical story of the shepherd boy David who courageously fought against the giant warrior Goliath who was twice his size. Although the shepherd boy was armed with nothing more than a few stones and a sling, he defeated the heavily armoured and weaponed giant. It is a classical story about how the underdog can champion over a major power. This structure is present in several national narratives as well. For example, Dutch national narratives are often presented in line with the phrase ‘small but brave’. The Netherlands is a small country and its founding narrative is located in the sixteenth century: the low countries revolted against the mighty Philip II and this resulted in the independence of the Dutch Republic. It is interesting that the same narrative structure is present in the southern low countries, nowadays Belgium. In 1999, ‘the three Belgians’ released a modern musical version of the Belgium national anthem and the phrase ‘small but brave’ plays a key role in this song.[6] More recently, in 2014, the Belgian author Mark De Geest published his book Brave Little Belgium.

In England the same narrative structure is visible, although the exact phrase differs from Belgian and Dutch national narratives. English history textbooks emphasize how England had repeatedly ‘stood alone’ against a superpower, for example against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars or against Hitler during World War II. The latter interpretation was reinforced by the British prime minister Winston Churchill’s wartime speech on 20 August 1940 in which he stressed: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. This myth of ‘standing alone’ has dominated in various English history textbook series. Although the myth is debunked and various new textbook series have been published without the myth, it still appeals to people and continues to play an important role in English collective memory. That is why the well-known expression also surfaced several times in the Brexit debate, which is based on nostalgic images of Britain as a colonial empire: "Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”.

A third similarity between history textbooks from various countries is the “quest”, such as the quest for freedom, tolerance or progress. The idea of a quest is a well-known storyline of several novels and films, such as Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan. A hero needs to overcome several problems during the journey to reach the ultimate goal in the end. It is certainly not my goal to downplay history textbooks – it is extremely hard to compose a textbook that suits a certain age-population and their interests. Next to contents, textbooks need to be pedagogically in line with the audience and – also important – the text and the assignments need to be read and accomplished in a limited time frame. Moreover, politics and society are demanding as well. What I would like to stress in this paragraph is that the story-form of national narratives can intertwine with ideas about history itself. (National) history can be defined as a process towards freedom, tolerance, or progress. This is also visible in academic historiography: in 1931, Herbert Butterfield published his well-known book The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he criticized historians’ retrospective creation of – especially national – progress.

This article discussed the decolonisation of the history curriculum by showing that ‘unique’ national histories in textbooks from former colonial empires often share remarkable similarities: the stories often include implicit colonial references and images, and contain the same underlying storyline or interpretative structure. It is important that pupils understand how national histories are framed by the selection of specific persons, topics, periods, and sources – while ignoring others – and by the underlying interpretative structure. Although this is a difficult skill, it is necessary to obtain insight in national narratives’ frames in order to genuinely decolonise the history curriculum.

 

References:

[1] I would like to thank the founder and special advisor of EuroClio Joke van der Leeuw-Roord for her valuable comments.

[2] https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/decolonise-history-curriculum-education-how-meghan-markle-black-study/. May 10, 2021.

[3] James Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; James Wertsch, ‘Specific Narratives and Schematic Narrative Templates,’ in P. Seixas (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, 49-63.

[4] James Wertsch, ‘The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,’ Ethos, 36 (2008), 120–135, 124.

[5] Tina van der Vlies, ‘Multidirectional war narratives in history textbooks,’ Paedagogica Historica 52, no. 3 (2016), 300-314; Tina van der Vlies, 'Echoing national narratives in English history textbooks,' in M. Carretero. S. Berger & M. Grever (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 243-258.

[6] De III Belgen, Zwart geel rouge (1999): ‘O dierbaar België, klein maar dapper, van stad tot vlakke land’.

Keynote Lecture by Peter D’Sena: An introduction to Decolonising the Curriculum

Alicia Rijlaarsdam Articles ,

Given the disparity and inequity in education, methods and methodologies, change is not just an educational imperative but a moral one.  Prof. Peter D'Sena

At the start of the lecture, Peter D'Sena asked participants: 'What does decolonising the curriculum mean to you?'. These are the answers.

In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town, South-Africa, called for the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the nineteenth-century British coloniser, to be removed from their campus. Their clarion call, in this quick spreading #RhodesMustFall movement was that for diversity, inclusion and social justice to become a lived reality, the full gamut of educational provision should be challenged, and schools and universities decolonised. 

But before understanding how we can decolonise education and the curriculum, it is crucial to understand our colonial past and coloniality. In EuroClio’s Keynote Lecture of the Decolonising Webinar Series, Prof. Peter D’Sena gave an introduction to decolonising the curriculum by focussing on the historical dimensions of colonialism and coloniality. 

Colonised lands and commodities: the creation of a global economy built on blood and suffering

Prof. D’Sena explained how the colonised world was formed with the help of the Black Atlantic. Slavery was a complex part of the colonial world. The implications for humanity were enormous. A vast number of people died during the middle passage, the forced passage from enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the New World. Ships were organised to carry people like cargo and people were treated like cattle. While the exact number of people transported remains unknown, estimates surpass 10 million. What we do know is that on the passage people were deprived of their language and liberty and were subjected to brutality. The Black Atlantic displaced so many people that we lost their voice. Once people arrived in ports, they were separated from their families and sold. They were deprived of their cultural identity. Finding the voice of those who were enslaved has proven very problematic, only rescued by a number of historians in the 20th century, most notably by Trinidadian Historian C.L.R James in the Black Jacobins (1938).

World map of the Queen's Dominions, late 19th Century. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Commodities formed an important part of the colonised world. During the Columbian exchange, one of the greatest gifts of the Europeans to the Americas were smallpox, measles, typhus and cholera. Colonies were for and about exploitation. The blood and suffering of slaves and indigenous people fuelled a consumer revolution in Europe. This led to a global economy with ongoing vestiges today. Apart from an exchange of commodities, coloniality also meant the exchange of ideas. Underlined by Rediker & Linebaugh (2000), ships carried ideas of revolution. In Europe this established itself in a dependence on tobacco and coffee, the establishment of cotton fed industrialisation, and an example being how mahogany changed people’s tastes. 

Prof. D’Sena explained how indentured labour has been relatively ignored when talking about coloniality. Indentured labour, a form of labour in which a person works without payment for a set amount of years, has existed throughout history. When Britain abolished slavery in 1807, and in the colonies in 1833-1834, new forms of slavery were introduced. From 1838 to 1920 indentured labour was a system which helped to make the plantations work. Transoceanic movement meant more cultural change and hybridity as well as greater complex identities. Prof. Peter D’Sena drew upon his own heritage explaining how his grandfather had been an indentured labourer, having travelled from Calcutta to Trinidad and Tobago. He subsequently fled, becoming the first East Indian to settle in Barbados (Nakhuda, 2013). 

Colonised bodies and minds: the pseudo-science of race and epistemicide

When talking about colonialism, the pseudo-science of race developed in the 17th and 18th century, is an important aspect to consider. It led to a theory of scientific racism and the dissemination of an ideology of racism which would come to underpin exploitation and supremacy. This pseudo-scientific racism culminated two centuries later – in the late 19th and early 20th century – in the eugenics movement. This led to a classification of human beings, with peoples ranked according to physical features. In European culture it led to an ubiquitous notion of beauty. People of colour were objectified and hypersexualised. Many of the racist stereotypes that emerged in the 17th and 18th century still exist today. This ideology of racism was fuelled by scientific research and by fear and othering, justifying the treatment of people in plantations and beyond. Pseudo-science and the classification of human beings helped underpin the idea of race and colour aiding the establishment of racial hierarchies. In the colonies people would ‘pass’ as white (see also EuroClio’s recent review of Nella Larsen’s “Passing” for more on this subject). 

The systemic marginalisation, as well as the destruction of the knowledge systems of indigenous and colonised peoples, is called epistemicide. At the very least it is the assimilation of those knowledge systems into the dominant knowledge system and values of the colonisers. One vehicle for domination was language and education. The concept of ‘colonial minds’ helps us to understand the key ambition of the colonisation agenda. Colonising the mind refers to colonising peoples’ culture, their being, their belief, and way of thinking. The implications of epistemicide are very present in today’s society. 

Decolonising the Curriculum: a coalescence of old and new conversations

Removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015. Licensed under CC2.0 via Flickr. Image by Desmond Bowles.

In previously colonised places, globalisation and coloniality are merging to maintain Western dominance. Rather than post-colonialism, Prof. D’Sena described how neo-imperialism remains in place. Thinking of the decolonisation debate presents a number of dilemmas. Are we willing to look past misdemeanours? Reparations? Do we need to press the ‘reset button’? Is it even possible to dismantle the system built upon colonisation? Can decolonisation be seen as a spectrum? What should we think of doing for ourselves, for our society, for our curriculum?

Concerns have long been voiced by both academics and students about curricula dominated by white, capitalist, heterosexist, western worldviews at the expense of the experiences and discourses of those not perceiving themselves as fitting into those mainstream categories. In recent years these discussions have been brought together under the banner of decolonising history. The Rhodes Must Fall Movement meant more than getting rid of a statue and reaches back to movements of Black Power, civil rights, Négritude and many more. The movement came to be quickly connected to the Black Lives Matter Movement which spread across the world. The emerging conversations may have reached the news because protests were disseminated and statues were ‘attacked’ as part of symbolic attacks. The movement is about much more, about ourselves, about our own position, biases, and our own white privilege.

Education is still dominated by the values of scholarly activity determined in the West. Countering epistemicide, is going to be enormously challenging as so much has been drowned by the process of coloniality and colonialism (Sousa Santos, 2018). In our quest to decolonise the curriculum, it is not just our own view that matters but also that of our students. Prof. D’Sena urges educators to think of ways to involve students in the cocreation of knowledge. It is important to talk about the ideology of racism and the complex scheme in which not just our belonging but also our minds and bodies were shaped by coloniality. 

Initiating change

The hardest thing is thinking about our own positions, about our own biases, about our own privileges, if we are to think about decolonising the curriculum in our own practice, we have to think about our own conscious and subconscious biases in both witting and unwitting practices.  Prof. Peter D'Sena

During the lecture, participants took a moment to reflect on their practice and consider ways in which they can be part of the change they would like to see. We would like to invite you to do the same, add your commitments to our collective padlet. You can find it at this link: https://cutt.ly/decolonise-history.

About Prof. Peter D’Sena 

Peter D’Sena is Associate Professor of Learning and Teaching at the University of Hertfordshire and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. His key contributions to history education are borne from his enduring commitment, over four decades, to equality and inclusion. As a writer of the revised National Curriculum in the late 1990s he championed the introduction of black history; now he continues to lecture and write on decolonising the curriculum. As the HEA’s National Lead for History he organised the revision of the Benchmark Statement and created innovative resources for those ‘New to Teaching’. He is a fellow of the Historical Association, a principal fellow of the HEA and last year he was elected to be the first President of SoTL’s European branch for History. Professor D’Sena is also Vice-President and Chair of the Education Policy Committee at the Royal Historical Association. 

Resources suggested by Prof. Peter D’Sena for exploring ‘decolonising the curriculum’ can be found here

 

Image banner: Removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015. Licensed under CC2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Image by Desmond Bowles.

Decolonising history by reframing significance

An approach to decolonizing history education in an IB History classroom through a redefinition of the concept of significance

Ned Riley is Head of Humanities at the International School of The Hague and creator of the IB History website History Rising. He is currently creating history content and acting as Community Moderator for the IB’s new professional development platform, the PD Digital Channel.

Introduction: Why Significance?

Decolonising the history curriculum is a multi-dimensional challenge. It provokes emotional responses from different stakeholders - educators, students, and parents. In different regional and national contexts, it raises questions about what history should be taught, and to what purpose. Within our discipline - both in academic and school forms - it raises methodological questions about how knowledge is constructed.

I hope to make a very specific contribution which focuses on the last of these points - the way knowledge is constructed. In particular, I will focus on how the concept of significance can help us understand this process.

How should we understand significance?

Early in my career, I thought of significance as a synonym of importance. In my very first training position, I attempted a project based on significance. I asked my students to choose a significant historical figure and write a persuasive speech about why they were the most important in history. Later in my career, I asked similar questions about the most significant battle in World War Two, or the most significant technical innovation in the Industrial Revolution.

In 2012 I began teaching IB History. Significance is one of the six key concepts of IB History. Over this time, my understanding of the concept has changed.

The IB doesn’t completely reject the connection between significance and importance. In the DP guide (login required) it says that students should “think about, and assess, the relative importance of events, people, groups or developments” (DP Guide, p. 93).

However, the vast majority of IB literature on significance is about something entirely different. There are three strands from how the IB defines significance which I would like to emphasise.

  1. History is created from fragments of the past, which can be “included” or “excluded” from the preserved record (DP guide, p. 93).
  2. What is preserved is the result of what “someone has consciously decided to record” (DP Guide, p. 93).
  3. The decisions about what to record are based on judgements of “meaning and value”, which depend on the context of the time (MYP History Guide. p. 56 - login required)

This re-defining has had important implications for me as a history teacher.

I no longer conflate significance and importance in my classroom. It has become increasingly apparent to me that conflating these terms encouraged me to develop lessons that focused exclusively on the powerful. I still teach about “important” events, people and groups, though I would now often frame these in relation to different concepts such as causation (the most important cause), or change (the biggest impact).

In my lessons on significance, I now actively try to engage my students in two particular ways of thinking. First, thinking about what has survived, and what is lost. Second, thinking about the meaning and value of evidence in new ways.

Thinking about what has survived, and what is lost

I want students to think about what fragments of the past have survived to the present, and what has been lost. For me, this is an important starting point for any conversation about decolonising a history curriculum.

I’ve developed a few strategies to help students think about this. For instance, I get my students thinking about the work that archivists do. Archivists have to make conscious decisions to preserve some records and destroy others. I show my students a video from the UK National Archives - The records we hold. The video explains that the archive holds 11 million government records, but this is only 5% of what the government creates. The rest is destroyed. 

More recently, the UCL Professor Dr. Arthur Chapman shared an anecdote on the Euroclio Pastimes Podcast (Episode 6 - the powers of historical knowledge) about one tangible example of this process in everyday life:

“On my road there is one [...] old house of a poor person. It’s a single storey building. And I’m always really struck when I walk past it by the fact that it is the only one. The houses of the poor do not survive because they are made of such poor quality housing material that they are destroyed or they collapse. So this one old house, when I look at it I feel sorry for it. Where are the other old houses of the poor? The archives contain structural biases and so on. So, history can be disempowering and the record is silent on so many important things.”

These types of provocations can really help our students think about the very practical considerations and decisions that lead to the exclusion of the vast majority of fragments of the past from today’s historical record. 

Thinking about the meaning and value of evidence in new ways

I want my students to explicitly think about different ways, other than the importance of who produced it or it’s subject, that can make evidence have “meaning and value”.  The analytical framework I have developed uses three categories: Important, Illustrative, and Idiosyncratic.

Important evidence might be the transcript of a speech by the leader of a country. It is typically created by or about people in positions of power and can provide a unique level of insight into why important decisions were made.

Illustrative evidence might be a newspaper article interviewing eyewitnesses to a particular event. It is typically created by or about people with low levels of power, who will often come from a large or dominant social group. It can provide a typical snapshot of a time or place, and help us understand commonly held views or attitudes.

Idiosyncratic evidence could be an unpublished diary by a person without any authority, whose views do not reflect orthodox ways of thinking. Typically created by or about people who are outside the mainstream, it can reveal to us contradictory ways of thinking, or alternative perspectives. This can help us avoid assumptions of lazy generalisations about particular groups or periods of time  (I often reference the brilliant work of the historian Carlo Ginzburg, whose “The Cheese and the Worms” is a great example of the power of using idiosyncratic evidence).

I have tried to use this framework to create a language for my students to meaningfully discuss both the value placed on evidence in the past, and to re-measure this value themselves. 

Using Historiana to teach significance

Historiana is a brilliant resource for applying these ideas in a history classroom. Here is one strategy I have used with my students, called “Curating an Archive”.

Begin by collating source collections from Historiana. Using the topic of World War One, these five source collections provide over one hundred sources in total:

Explain to your students that they are taking on the role of archivists, and can only preserve 5% of the evidence in the archives. So, if there are one hundred pieces, they can only preserve five. Students should work collaboratively to decide which five pieces of evidence should be preserved, and draft a rationale for their choices.

After doing so, have your students reflect on the choices they made. Here are some reflection questions you could use:

  1. To what extent were your choices of what to preserve based on evidence created by or about important (ie. powerful) people? 
  2. Are there particular groups of people who have been excluded as a result of your choices you made?
  3. Even though you tried to make your choices as fairly as possible, what complaints do you think people might have about the choices that you made?
  4. If you could add one bonus, idiosyncratic, piece of evidence, what would it be and why would you preserve it?

Conclusion

As I wrote at the beginning of the article, decolonising the history curriculum is a complex, multi-dimensional challenge. I hope that re-defining the concept of significance can provide history teachers, both in the IB and other educational contexts, with one more valuable tool with which to approach this challenge.

Image source: A Maori lumber worker talking to a Frenchwoman. Forest de Nieppe, March 1917, Brooke, John Warwick (Lieutenant) (Photographer). Imperial War Museums via Europeana, Q 4740.

In Europe Schools: Small Narratives for European Integration

Giulia Verdini Articles ,

On February 26th, EuroClio’s Eugenie Khatschatrian and VPRO’S Odette Toeset sat down with Robin de Bruin of the Amsterdam School for Regional, Transnational and European Studies (ARTES). The discussion, hosted by the European Cultural Foundation, shed light on the precious outcomes of In Europe Schools, its relevance in building European cooperation and citizenship and, perhaps, in contributing to a new, inclusive and diversified narrative(s) for Europe.

 In Europe Schools is a unique online project that encourages a transnational approach of teaching Modern European History and focuses on the development of research skills and media literacy through documentary-making. More than 110 schools from 30 different countries have joined us so far!  

Why "In Europe Schools"?

The Community Conversation event started off with a brief explanation about how the project came to life. In 2007, Dutch broadcasting company VPRO released the ‘’In Europe’’ television series in the Netherlands on the modern history of Europe, from WWII until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps unexpectedly, the series turned out to be a source of inspiration for some Dutch history teachers. In fact, they asked whether it was possible to develop educational resources based on the series. In a way, the project represents the natural “evolution” of the series, but most importantly, it started because of a concrete demand - real needs of teachers who were struggling with teaching sensitive and controversial issues in the classroom. In 2018, a second series of the documentary was released, this time dealing with very recent history - from 1989 onwards: the series was subtitled “History Caught in the Act”. 

Catching history in the act is indeed what In Europe Schools is all about. VPRO joined forces with EuroClio with the main goal to connect youngsters working together, focusing on history whilst they are in the midst of it, and ultimately have united European youngsters. In a few words, the project requires that two European schools partner up: secondary school students do research and film their recent history; they exchange the documentary and discuss the outcome. In Europe Schools therefore enables multiperspectivity by matching schools from different parts of Europe and approaches European history from a transnational perspective. It facilitates a European network of teachers and students, and by doing so, it also more broadly encourages European cooperation.

An overview of EU’s Grand Narrative(s) and its Crises

During the discussion, Robin de Bruin asserted multiple times that the genius of this project is that it is a grassroots project, especially in a time of unprecedented crisis due to the pandemic and in which the European Union might not appear as strong as it used to.

The EU created its Grand Narrative after 1945: after WWII, the grand narrative of European integration as a peace project for the member states was building peace by creating welfare - a narrative which De Bruin, hereby following his colleague Wolfram Kaiser, refers to as “peace through a common market’’ narrative (Kaiser 368).

That the horrors of Auschwitz have become the key experience for European history-writing is a common opinion, and for some historians it represents the creation of a foundational past since 1945. This led to two outcomes: on the one hand, the memory of WWII was perceived as the memory par excellence; on the other hand, it led to neglecting the histories of other parts of Europe, the experiences of colonialism and imperialism. Colonialism and postcolonial resentment were indeed excluded from European history, and only recently they have received renewed attention.

European integration history has now the aim of trying to heal the division of Eastern and Western histories by constructing a common past that also contemplates the experience of communism - and consequently the aim of dismantling Eurocentrism, seen as conscious or unconscious tendency to judge histories from all over the world by taking Western history as the norm and role model to follow. In the twenty-first century, Eurocentrism remains powerful both at seen and unseen levels and affects contemporary politics and international affairs.

Michael Wintle argues that the Holocaust started a process in which Europe has gradually become willing to confront its problematic past: European countries have started to face their past crimes and more openly address slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and also the post-Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s. In Europe Schools includes an Education Kit on Difficult History that deals with such topics and one of the main challenges both teachers and students face is how to critically address these sensitive issues and confront strong opinions.

Nowadays, the narrative of building peace through a common market narrative does not seem to appeal anymore, especially to younger generations. To counter Euroscepticism, the EU has started several initiatives to develop a new narrative for the European integration project. Dr De Bruin mentioned the “House of European History” in Brussels, which was created to include the communist experience of the Eastern European states into the grand narrative of European integration. Nevertheless, according to Dr De Bruin, it left out all other kinds of experiences, such as the colonial experience of former colonial subjects now living in Europe:

 When you include specific parts of the population, you also exclude other parts of the population. This is always the problem with the grand narratives of European integration. It’s really very important that a new narrative for Europe is a collection of those small little narratives, such as the personal narratives of the In Europe Schools project. Robin de Bruin

The force of In Europe Schools lies in the fact that it deals with a variety of small histories, and it’s precisely by starting from personal histories that perspectives and experiences can add up and become something powerful. 

When a grand narrative is replaced by another grand narrative, it is always fed by smaller narratives that at a certain moment become an avalanche.

Dealing with counter narratives: the implications of media literacy

The In Europe Schools toolkits are about controversial topics - difficult history, migration, climate change and gender equality - and sometimes it is difficult to introduce such topics to the classrooms, either because they are too abstract and students might not feel concerned, or because they are afraid to take a stand and they do not feel comfortable about expressing their own opinion. Pupils are encouraged to take their difficult histories into the classroom, which can be seen as a microcosmos of Europe. As students come from different parts of Europe (or even different parts of the world) within the same classroom, they might have different views of the European Union and perceive topics differently such as migration or climate change. The main challenge for teachers is to promote a discussion in a context not of hatred and intolerance, but open-mindedness and inclusion. Despite monitoring strong statements and potential fake news, the project does not give a clear political direction and it does not exclude any story. The project therefore covers a wide spectrum of personal narratives and collects authentic stories, yet stories that people have the power to tell in the way they want to - thanks to storytelling and media literacy.

We don’t give political directions because it’s interesting to have different opinions. People who are against migration are allowed to make their own story on migration. But of course, there is a limit. We chose not to have the comments open because with comments open it could explode and it’s really difficult to oversee it. Odette Toeset

So far, there haven’t been clashes in the classrooms while working on the project. The main source of discomfort has rather been the question of how to protect people (for example family members) who would like to share their story but fear dangerous consequences. People are hesitant to show themselves on camera and do not want the video to be published on the Internet. Odette mentioned that as a documentary-maker, you don’t want to lose the story and at the same time you want to protect these people and ensure their safety. So how do you tell a story in a documentary without putting people, potentially, in danger? Timelapse and drawing can help anonymise a story, the video-maker can make sure that people are not recognizable in the video or just decide to leave out the actual people to tell a more generic story.

When students are done with the documentaries, they upload the video on YouTube. The use of media literacy, which may be the main strength of the project, can also represent a risk: the YouTube channel has to be monitored, as it is a potential open space on which all kinds of content can be uploaded. In order to avoid conflicts, VPRO chose not to have the comment section open.

Building European citizens?

It is clear that the project might have interesting implications in creating a European identity - a sense of belonging and personal identification with Europe. When asked whether they have the feeling of helping building European citizens, Odette replied:

These youngsters are the next European citizens that have to vote, be part of Europe and work together, and working together will be much more important in the future. We see now with Covid that there is a clash between national interests and European interests, but you can’t do without each other. We want to give people the open space to face cooperation themselves and not forcing it onto them. Odette Toeset

In Europe Schools requires students and teachers to fill out a survey - both in the beginning and in the end - in which there are questions about being European and how their awareness on certain topics has changed, but also about the use of media literacy and their perception of collaboration. 

In 2015, Wilfried Loth was writing that “European identity will therefore not simply replace national identity in the foreseeable future. Instead, what seems to be emerging is that people in Europe are living with a multilayered identity, an identity in which regional, national, and European aspects are united.” (Loth 437). Whilst the cultural form of the EU aimed to create a European identity that rests on the premise that Europe has a single, shared culture, In Europe Schools acknowledges that this is not always the case.

European culture is plural, in flux and contested; it does not rest on a shared history (...) National cultures or even a European culture may exist in perception, but that does not make us all the same. Europe and European culture are discourses, with many voices, including some from outside the conventional borders, and those of newcomers from ex-colonies and elsewhere.” (Wintle 248-249).

Students are working on their own personal narratives, but are also very excited about cooperating with other European students and, in this sense, might feel part of a European narrative. Pupils are in general super excited about filming: they are using this project instead of going out on a school trip, and thus to discover different European cultures and viewpoints. The sense of collaboration is really important: for example, two schools decided to join their forces, partner up students with the partner school and make the documentary together. 

  On the long term, the project aims at maintaining the European connection: ideally schools would continue working together to keep a European network of both students and teachers.Eugenie Khatschatrian

Bibliography - and suggested readings!

Appelqvist, Örjan. “Rediscovering uncertainty: early attempts at a panEuropean post-war recovery”. Cold War History. Vol. 8, No. 3. Routledge (pp. 327–352), 2008.

Brolsma, M., de Bruin, R., Lok, M. Eurocentrism in European History and Memory. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019.

FitzGibbon, J., Leruth, B., Startin, N. Euroscepticism as a Transnational and Pan-European Phenomenon : The Emergence of a New Sphere of Opposition. Routledge, 2016.

Kaiser, W. “Clash of Cultures: Two Milieus in the European Union's. ‘A New Narrative for Europe’ Project”. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3 (pp. 364-377), 2015.

Loth, W. Building Europe. Berlin, München, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015.

Sorrels, K. Cosmopolitan Outsiders: Imperial Inclusion, National Exclusion, and the Pan-European Idea, 1900-1930. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Van Meurs, W. et al. The Unfinished History of European Integration. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018.

Wintle, M. Eurocentrism: History, Identity, White Man’s Burden. Routledge, 2020.

Join the project

Check out In Europe Schools’ website and YouTube Channel

Contact us via eugenie@euroclio.eu or register via this form

Toolkits: 

Learn More

If you are interested in how to decolonise history, please read our blog post and join our webinar series from 16 April to 21 May 2021

You can subscribe to future Community Conversations at http://eepurl.com/haj679 

Muralling in Belfast: George Floyd and the International Wall

Luke Dunne Articles, Uncategorized

Smartphones and social media can transfigure a single, horrific event into something malleable and replayable. One might think the contemporary public (hyper)space would render more traditional forms of political communication obsolete. But grieving for George Floyd and with the victims of racism everywhere meant reconceiving that public space. Muralling – long the preferred form of self-representation for marginalised communities – constitutes one such reconception. 

Artists across the world have drawn their own meanings from the killing of George Floyd, and expressed their conclusions in their own ways. Sometimes, such meaning lies in a mural’s location: George Floyd’s face painted on a separation wall in the West Bank sends its own message. Sometimes it is the image’s content that forces us to focus on a particular aspect of Floyd’s death – his humanity, the visceral horror of the act, or the political structures that  facilitated it. 

The mural you see here on the ‘International Wall’ on the Falls Road in Belfast can be divided into three parts. In the first, you see the assailant Derek Chauvin, donning a MAGA hat, snarling at the viewer as he kneels on Floyd’s neck. Second, George Floyd’s face – enlarged, isolated – looks out of the canvas. His expression is indiscernible. His face does not express sadness, nor rage, nor fear. It is as though he is waiting for us to decide how we mourn him. He dominates the mural. Third, and perhaps most telling of all, three policemen stand aside. One covers his eyes, another his ears, another his mouth. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. 

The ‘International Wall’ is covered in an ever-shifting mosaic of Republican homages to foreign heroes and causes, from Palestinians, to Kurdish fighters, to the West Papuan independence movement. Placing the mural of George Floyd here places it at the centre of a contested narrative over antiracism and its relation to political conflict in Northern Ireland. Moreover, the role of a mural in itself has deep historic resonance as a way of representing the concerns of Unionist and Republican communities authentically. The sixth Contested Histories Occasional Paper covers the history of murals and muralling in Northern Irish cities in greater detail, and explains how murals have traced the contours of conflict and reconciliation since its foundation. 

The Republican and Unionist contestation has several dimensions, and though the emphasis is often placed on religion, the two communities are also divided by political ideology. Left-wing theory and activist practice are hugely influential in Republican circles, whereas most Unionists have adopted conservatism as a working ideological approach. That the former has pushed for more radical change to policing and race relations in general since Floyd’s death would inevitably expose that political divide.  

But besides this general division, Northern Ireland has its own distinct relationship with antiracism as a global movement. During the 1960s, the American Civil Rights movement for African American equality was an inspiration for Catholics in Northern Ireland, who consequently demanded equal rights in employment, housing and security. Many historic concerns of these two communities appear to align, most significant of which is a historic distrust of law enforcement. 

Claiming to reflect the historical legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland is a fraught and highly contested business. Republican activists and politicians were keen to emphasise ‘solidarity’ with the Black Lives Matter movement and, indeed, to draw the two struggles together. Michelle O’Neill, Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, was explicit in this: “Whether in Ireland or the US, an injustice to one is an injustice to all. Racism must be eradicated” (via Twitter on June 2nd 2020). 

Not everyone accepts this characterisation. Kenny Donaldson, who chairs a group advocating for victims of the Troubles, said in aftermath of Floyd’s death: “Why are local people justifiably horrified by George’s murder not also horrified by the brutal actions of terrorists in Northern Ireland who often tortured their victims before stealing away their lives, and often within the glare of wider public view?” 

George Floyd’s death and the resurgent movement for racial equality has forced crises of self-consciousness across the Western world. How can a country learn to condemn unjust or oppressive episodes in its past? In an important sense, Northern Ireland is home to two divergent national imaginations. Whether gradual reconciliation can be reached over time remains an open question. In grief, latent divisions continue to peek through the cracks.

Image “George Floyd mural in Belfast” by Rossographer CC BY 2.0

Right-wing extremism and the importance of history education in deradicalisation processes: An interview with Michel Letteboer

Alicia Rijlaarsdam Articles ,

Michel Letteboer is currently a history teacher in the Netherlands. As a high-school student, Michel was involved with extreme right-wing parties. He talked to EuroClio about his experience with radicalisation, how he managed to deradicalise and the role history education has played in his life.

Radicalisation

Michel first came into contact with right-wing extremism as a high school student. Michel explained: ‘there was a lot of identity development. I loved alternative music, like metal. Also in clothes, I had long hair and wore army boots and trousers. I had a striking appearance and liked being the centre of attention’. When he was fifteen years old, Michel made a new friend at school: ‘A Black boy with extreme right sympathies, he wore a bomber jacket with a Dutch flag, bald head, we loved the same music and spent a lot of time together. He liked talking about politics, explaining how the left was hostile and destroying our country. Foreigners and especially Muslims were the great enemy’. Michel fell under the pressure of what his new friend was telling him. With great curiosity, he found more and more sources confirming his newfound beliefs. Due to specific algorithms, his online search brought him into a rabbit hole of extreme right-wing ideology.

Convinced of the idea that Muslims were a danger to society, Michel gave a speech in Dutch class in which he presented Muslims as the enemy to the Dutch State. It turned out his speech had been filmed and put online.

The speech was very radical, the school woke up immediately. Thousands of people saw that speech. The school decided to enforce sanctions. I was not allowed to talk about politics at school nor wear my usual military clothing.

What often happens with radicalised youth, or just youth that protests something, they dig their heels in. The sanctions from school led to frustration and anger. ‘I saw school as a leftist enemy, they were against me’. Via Stormfront (one of the oldest and largest neo-Nazi hate sites), Michel ended up at the Dutch People’s Union (NVU), an extreme right-wing political party.

At sixteen, his parents did not allow him to go to demonstrations. He patiently waited until he was eighteen before going to his first demonstration. Michel explains why it was surprising he radicalised: ‘I had a great upbringing in a stable home environment. I did not feel disadvantaged. The most obvious breeding grounds were absent for me’. Previously, he had been tested for Autism: ‘I show characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, the fascinations made that whatever my new friend said was especially interesting. The development as an adolescent, discovering the world and so on, made it so that I ended up in a radicalisation process’.

The deradicalisation process

During his radical period, Michel’s parents couldn’t count on help from the police because he had always stayed within the boundaries of legality. His parents approached every institution they could think of asking for help. His school had implemented sanctions, so they did their part. Youth services couldn’t help since he came from a stable family. Initially, his mom had tried to engage in conversation but as it only escalated matters, they changed to email correspondence: ‘my family was no match for me, I was really fanatic’. The one person that was able to have meaningful conversations with Michel was his uncle, a historian and professor of intelligence and security services. He worked for the General Intelligence and Security Service in the Netherlands: ‘He was closely involved with my radicalisation, I had even been on the radar at his work, he knew the world I claimed to know so much about, he was the only person that could make me doubt. It is very difficult to have a substantive conversation with radicalised youth, it is fighting on their turf, they possess all the knowledge’.

Answering as to why he was able to deradicalise: ‘mainly [through] my uncle, the conditions were present. I had a clear goal in life. Radicalisation endangers that. It helped that my social environment exercised pressure. My fellow football supporters distanced themselves from me and that world is very important to me. It makes you realise what is at stake if you hold onto your beliefs’. The true tipping point came in 2011 when he went to a demonstration that escalated due to a high number of counter protesters. He recognised himself on the front  page of a Dutch newspaper. Following the lawsuit of the leader of the NVU, Constant Kusters, Michel saw his picture once again in a newspaper, recognisable this time, realising he was jeopardising his future career.

After high-school, Michel studied to be a history teacher: ‘The teacher training helped me develop very fast. It had always been my dream to become a teacher. With this dream in mind I have always stayed within the boundaries of the law which aided deradicalisation. The teacher training did the rest, it made me critical, I met people, dressed professionally for internships, I was very serious about becoming a teacher’. Besides, Michel had a strong social environment which eventually helped break up his right-wing armour. About the deradicalisation process he says; ‘you become more critical, you start doubting, conducting research and eventually you can break away from the radical path’.

Deradicalisation is not something that happens from one day to another. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been radicalised in the first place.

 Experience as teacher

After graduating from the teacher training programme, Michel had a few other jobs before becoming a teacher. He currently works in special education, a group of youngsters that is especially vulnerable to radicalisation. As a lot of his students are on the autism spectrum, nuance is often a challenge. When asked how his previous experiences have influenced him as a teacher, Michel answers: ‘The experiences are very valuable in my work. I teach a lot about citizenship, culture, and fake news, in order to make my students more resilient. When they go out into the world later on, they are prepared to deal with fake news for example’. He pleads for more extensive education on democracy, practicing discussion, having debates, the influence of social media on youth and source criticism: ‘youth has to become more resilient’.

What should a teacher do when confronted with youth that might radicalise? Michel replies: ‘stay in touch, that is especially important. First find out whether they are actually radicalising. There are a lot of tools available, enter into conversation and ask yourself questions. What do we think? How does the student develop him-/herself? Is the development negative or harmful? The student should never feel they’re being rejected or that their thinking is wrong. Students should know that they are allowed to think everything, but their choices will have consequences and it is important to be aware of those’.

The role of history education in radicalisation and deradicalisation processes

Wanting to become a history teacher has been an important motivation throughout Michel’s life. But what role can history education play within radicalisation and deradicalisation processes? Michel: ‘A good history class lends itself perfectly for discussion with students: ‘Why is it important we have democracy? Why have other state forms failed? History also tackles citizenship and civics. What influence can you have on governance?’. Helping youth understand they can exercise influence can help tackle radicalisation as it discourages them from joining groups that might claim the state as the enemy.

When asked about the differences between radicalisation processes of Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism, Michel explains: ‘Both are based on the threat of the other. Within extreme-right extremism it revolves around a hatred of foreigners as a threat to national culture. Islamic extremism is based on the notion of the faith being threatened. Radicalisation for the latter generally happens faster. With Syria-goers we have seen how youth can radicalise within a two week period. Like right-wing extremism, they are also young adolescents, looking for a sense of belonging’.

The one advice Michel would like to give history teachers is: ‘make your students resilient to radicalisation through source criticism. I think that is the most important thing you can do as a history teacher. Why does someone disseminate information? How do you know if the information is correct? Who disseminates the information? Did they witness the information presented or did they hear by proxy? Did they write it down directly or report twenty years later? If you, as a teacher, manage to familiarise your students with source criticism so that they can apply it in their lives, the chance of radicalisation can be minimised’.

Good source criticism always bypasses good misinformation, this is especially crucial at the moment as the media is not trusted and dismissed as unreliable and hostile.

In a recent  EuroClio podcast episode about emotions in the classroom, Cypriot professor Michalinos Zembylas, explains how - instead of calling a student out - strategic empathy should be applied when dealing with students at danger of radicalising. Michel confirms this by saying: ‘putting sanctions on your students is the dumbest thing you can do. Ask yourself why a student does something, where it comes from, but at all times, do not judge it. Oppressing their opinions will solely lead to strengthening them, you are pushing them up the radicalisation stairs if you will’.

Education has a gigantic social responsibility, it is incredibly important to recognise radicalisation as a process that you can slow down and stop. School is essential in this process.

 

Contested Heritage on Film: An interview with Oxford student & former intern Issabella Orlando on her award winning documentary ‘The Return Address’

Mechteld Visser Articles ,

When Issabella Orlando joined the Contested Histories team for a week-long research assignment in December 2020, she already had an extensive project on contested heritage under her belt. While studying full-time at Oxford University, Issabella wrote and directed the short documentary ‘The Return Address: Where Does Heritage Belong?’. The film delves into the question of how to approach contested heritage items in museums. Supported by expert interviews and footage from the world’s most extensive galleries, The Return Address highlights the same complexities inherent to the Contested Histories project: when confronted with new historical evidence and previously underrepresented narratives, how do we construct our sites of memory to reflect these nuances? After the completion of her internship, we checked in with Issabella to talk about her work on Contested Histories, the process of making a documentary, and her hopes for the future of the cultural heritage debate. 

Thank you so much for meeting with us Issabella! Before we delve into The Return Address, could you tell us a bit more about yourself and why you chose to work with us at the Contested Histories project?

My pleasure! I was born in Canada to an Italian family. When I was 17, I moved to London to study Classical Studies at King’s College London, which also presented me with the opportunity to study in Greece during the summer. Currently, I’m pursuing a master’s in archeology at Oxford. Aside from my educational background, I have always been a writer. My work focuses on travel, cultural heritage, and sustainable development. It’s the intersections between human society and the material world that keep me inspired.

Long before joining the Contested Histories project, I was fascinated by museums and their curated narratives. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s intensification in 2020, it seems that the collective psyche is also paying closer attention to the representation of history in contemporary space. For the project, I ended up fact-checking several case studies and writing a piece on how modern nations stake their claims on ancient narratives – for example,

 how Macedonian nationalists are keen to claim the legacy of Alexander the Great. I also curated a list of examples of contestations in museums and galleries, should the project’s scope expand to include them in the future. Such settings are subject to similar outcries for truthful representation of the past and restitution for historical and ongoing injustices.

Why do you think projects like Contested Histories and your documentary The Return Address are necessary in today’s society?

What I hope to underscore in all of my work is that the past is a powerful tool – narratives can be used in different ways, both positive and negative. Heritage can build up communities and heal past traumas; conversely, it can propagate hateful views and be weaponised against certain groups. Projects like ours show that history is not a dead discipline. The past is not that far away and history still affects our current points of view. It connects us to where we come from. Through these projects, we must also look at the ugly parts of the past and attempt to deal with them.

While researching contested cultural heritage debates, did you find any solutions for people attempting to deal with the past? 

As I show in the documentary, it is a very case-by-case situation. Each case is so nuanced; there is no one size fits all solution. In general, however, I believe that addressing contested history cases cannot involve a strictly top-down approach. It is crucial to involve as many community members as possible and to contact historical groups tied to the history in question to strive for inclusive decision-making. We should also consider whether a heritage object is part of a living culture or an ancient one, where the object is claimed by a nation regarding itself as its successor. When a heritage object is important to a living culture and its people, I would say claims for repatriation are the most justified.

Keeping those ideas in mind, was there a case that handled contested heritage issues in a positive, constructive way that stood out to you? 

One that comes to mind is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where curators have inherited quite a dark history but recently have done a good job contacting relevant communities about artifacts in their collection. We should keep in mind that there are solutions other than simply sending something back. In some cases, cultural groups whose heritage is on display have allowed museums to keep objects despite the questionable ways they acquired them. Some exhibitions can tour before reaching their final resting places. New technologies allow for replica making, which we can use to showcase versions of materials that no longer reside at the museum. Again, each case merits its own approach.

Going back to the process of making The Return Address, what inspired you to take on such a project?

I became aware of the debate around repatriation during my undergraduate studies, specifically while studying at the British School of Athens, Greece. When I looked to the media, I found that many reports focused on a few high-profile cases. However, when I discussed the issues with my friends and fellow students while visiting museums back in the U.K., I found that they were not as familiar with the wider repatriation debate. This inspired me to create a piece of media that would lay out the background of the discussion, as not everyone has access to academic materials. I wanted it to be engaging, cinematic, and inviting.

Could you take us through the process of developing your documentary?

I originally planned to write an editorial. On a whim, I mentioned this idea to a friend of a friend who also happened to be a videographer. He convinced me that we should make a film together. It made all the difference that I had a filmmaker who really believed in me and my vision. 

Before I started, I did around six months of research and interviewed about thirty academics from all over the world. At this point, I thought about the narrative I wanted to put forth. When I had a storyboard, I contacted the five academics that I felt best represented the discussion and would be most ‘camera ready’. Luckily, they were willing to participate, and after I wrote the questions, I interviewed them again on film. Meanwhile, I was also looking for grants and funding to supplement our shoestring budget. I built the interview clips into the storyboard, wrote the script, and then filmed the visual shots in London, Oxford, and Paris, supplemented with external footage. 

We edited it all together, which took forever. (But we did it during lockdown so that worked out).  We had a soft launch in August and submitted it to the festival circuit, where we won six awards. We’re now pushing it out, organising screenings, participating in panel discussions, and sharing it with you guys!

What were some of the main difficulties you encountered while working on The Return Address?

Summarising the debate! I really wanted to keep it under half an hour, so people could easily sit down and watch it. I was speaking to people who were highly educated and felt strongly about the topic, meanwhile in interviewing and scriptwriting I had to keep it as general and accessible as possible. While writing, I also had to be aware of how to talk about sensitive issues – carefully selecting language was crucial. What sounds okay from your perspective is not always the way a point should be formulated. I also wanted to make sure that terms with powerful connotations, such as ‘repatriation’ and ‘plunder,’ were defined with care so that we could have a meaningful conversation. In the film, I tried to invite the viewer to find their own way, letting the experts provide various arguments and using them as benchmarks for different viewpoints. I came to understand that as much as you are trying to educate people, you’re learning during the process as well. 

In the end, you have to be really committed to make such a project work. If it is the right project, you will choose to do it over leisure time. I found it was quite easy to stay engaged in that sense.

What do you hope The Return Address and the Contested Histories project will achieve? 

Ultimately, I hope we can reach a place where museums and urban spaces can be spaces where we engage with the truest representation of the past and where multiple voices are heard. There is still a lot of work to be done to incorporate all these voices in history. The people designing our museums and cities have a big job to do. Their task is to curate – to be the mouthpiece of all these different narratives. To include these narratives in the wider historical consciousness we need to begin with education – this is where I believe the Contested Histories project comes in. By presenting contested legacies in a nuanced way, the project gives us an informed start for including different narratives. However, curators and policymakers are not the only ones with a stake in the decision-making; I really believe in community driven initiatives, and I would certainly recommend involving grassroots movements and collaborative approaches to get us across the finish line. 

Is there anything else we have not discussed that you’d like to voice?

I really feel that as much as it can be difficult to come up with opinions and answers to these challenging questions, this is not a conversation we should shy away from. Making mistakes is not something we should be afraid of. I would encourage and implore anyone working on the Contested Histories project, or indeed anyone who visits museums and passes through public space, to not feel that they are unqualified to have an opinion. We all make use of public spaces where we live, we all have a stake in our own cultural heritage. This is a discussion we all take part in every day. 

Check out The Return Address: Where Does Heritage Belong on museandwander.co.uk/film and more of Issabella Orlando’s work on museandwander.co.uk, a platform for writings on travel and cultural heritage. 

An Introduction to Decolonising the History Curriculum

Rebecca Jackson Articles ,

Decolonisation, while not a new concept, has increasingly been given light in public and academic discussion in recent years. Maybe you have seen calls to “decolonise your classroom” or “decolonise the curriculum”, but are not sure what this really means, or how to go about it. In April and May, EuroClio is focusing on decolonisation - most notably with a dedicated webinar series on the topic. This blog post we hope serves as a first introduction to the concept decolonisation in the history classroom and the history curriculum more broadly, with background information and resources for how to put these ideas into practice in classrooms across Europe. 

What is decolonisation?

Decolonisation can refer to the historical events in which many former colonies became independent countries. Decolonisation as we discuss here refers to a wider movement to address and decentre hegemony established by colonisation. 

In history teaching this results in two main aims:

  • Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples. 
  • Challenging how Western and European history is traditionally constructed and taught 

Scholars emphasise that one cannot be done without the other. For example Canadian scholar Sarah Nickel criticises an “add-and-stir” approach, in which indigenous peoples may be acknowledged in Canadian history, but the conventional narrative of the country which privileges a primarily White and British story is not seriously challenged. Methods are as important as content when it comes to decolonising the history classroom. 

Why decolonise the curriculum? 

The aims and methods of decolonising history dovetail with EuroClio’s wider mission for responsible and innovative history, citizenship, and heritage education by promoting critical thinking, multiperspectivity, mutual respect, and the inclusion of controversial issues. Here are some key points for why decolonising the curriculum is important for European history education.  

Breaking down the ‘natural order’ of current (historical) hegemony. 

History has and continues to be a powerful force in European society. Traditional national narratives may ignore or not fully address the history and lived experiences of colonised people. Critically questioning what stories are left out and why helps to dismantle systems that can privilege some groups over others.

Allow for greater critical thinking.

A decolonised history curriculum, beginning from younger ages, can improve discourse at higher levels. Often ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’ topics relating to colonial history are left out of the curriculum for younger students. However without a baseline knowledge, such important topics cannot be properly interrogated at secondary or post-secondary levels. 

History skills building

A key component of a decolonised history curriculum is questioning how history is formed and taught in the first place. This offers an excellent setting for students to critically engage with history as a discipline, and gain skills in history methodology and practice.   

How to decolonise history?

It is key to point out that decolonisation does not necessarily mean an outright rejection or erasure of European history and disciplinary methods.

Lawrence Meda describes two main approaches to decolonisation: “The first is a radical approach where Western knowledge is fully rejected. The second is an integrative approach which seeks to accommodate both Indigenous and Western knowledge.” 

Many countries in Europe have national-focused history curriculums. An integrative approach in European history education would see these integrated with new content and methods. This decentres the primary place of a Eurocentric perspective and works towards decolonising the curriculum.

What might this look like in practice? Here are some examples under our two key headings.

Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples. 

  • Examining sensitive subjects such as slavery, colonisation, persecution.
  • Highlighting people of non-European descent in European history.
  • Bringing in primary sources and testimony of non-Europeans

Challenging how history is conventionally taught. 

  • Bringing in multiple perspectives and primary sources on one historical event
  • Question how narrative history has privileged one story or group over others
  • Examining resources not conventionally used in the European historical tradition. For example: oral history, legends, modern art and media.

Contact us!

  • Would you like more information on the upcoming webinar series?
  • Do you have a great lesson or practice that you would like to share with the EuroClio Community?
  • Have you read a beautiful book that can be used to teach about colonial history, or to make our way of teaching the past more representative of minorities?
  • Have you listened to a great podcast?
  • Do you know where we can find sources to make our lessons more representative?

If your answer to any of there questions is yes, we would like to know more! Please, reach out at secretariat@euroclio.eu with the subject line “decolonising history”. We will be in touch as soon as possible. You can also find more information on the webinar series on the event page.

Online Classroom Teaching Resources

Below you can find a selection of online resources and lesson plans that you can integrate into your classroom relating to decolonising the curriculum.

Resources in English

  • Zinned Project 
    • The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people’s history. They offer a wide variety of teaching materials, and have a good search function to filter by time period, theme, or keyword. Registration is free but required to access the teaching materials.
  • Facing History's Educator Resources
    • Facing History’s resources address racism, antisemitism, and prejudice at pivotal moments in history. Their online resource collection includes primary sources, videos, teaching strategies, lesson plans, and full units. Good search function which clearly labels the type of resource it is.
  • Teach Native Histories - Lesson Plans
    • The primary focus of this website is on developing curriculum resources for the United States, but its extensive lesson plan list offers inspiration for new methods as well as content for history education.
  • Teaching Black British History: A Teacher Training Guide
    • Discover how to best teach and embed Black British history into the national school curriculum with this informative course. From pedagogy in the classroom to the history of ethnocratic and eurocentric narratives, this comprehensive, three-week course equips you with all the tools you need in order to best teach and embed Black British history into your school curriculum.
  • The 1619 Project Curriculum 
    • The 1619 Project is a challenge to reframe United States’ history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as the USA’s foundational date. It offers eleven free full lesson plans relating to this topic.
  • Learning Resources — The Black Curriculum 
    • A social enterprise that aims to deliver black British history all across the UK. Offer short lesson plans based on eight topics, supported by a video. Lesson plans are geared towards England’s groups of Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) and Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). Also can be booked for virtual and in-person lessons, teacher training, and assemblies.
  • Critical Analysis: Apesh*t Music Video
    • Full lesson plan centred on a critical analysis of the music video “Apesh**t”, The Carters (Beyonce and Jay-Z) and the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of black people in museums. 
  • The Decolonization Group: Practices & Techniques In Decolonizing Teaching, A Short Guide
    • Eight-page PDF that summarizes the discussion at an October 2020 seminar. Offers classroom level examples and perspectives, and lists sources of further reading. Available in English and Dutch.
  • Historiana webinar - Colonies' Contributions to WW1
    • EuroClio webinar conducted in February 2021. Highlights reasons for teaching colonies’ contributions to WW1 and how to teach Historical Perspective-Taking (HPT). It also presents an e-learning activity using Historiana resources. You can read the article about the webinar here
  • Decolonising the curriculum one step at a time: lessons on race in the early British Empire
    • In this blogpost, Jen Thornton, Head of History at Loreto Grammar School, shares her recent work to improve the history curriculum. Jen started by listening to students, she has gone back to the scholarship to gain the knowledge she needs, she has consulted and worked with colleagues, and she is clear that this is work in progress. Her description of this work and her generous sharing of resources will be encouraging and helpful to colleagues planning to make changes too.
  • Richard Kennett's YouTube channel
    • Richard Kennett is a specialist leader of education in History and head of History at Redland Green School in Bristol. In his YouTube channel, he offers various video resources on topics such as slavery and the Holocaust.
  • Native Land
    • Interactive map of indigenous groups. It predominantly focuses on the Americas, but it also lists some groups in Northern Europe.
  • #PastFwd: "Do Students know what race is? Do we? Does it matter?"
    • Alistair Dickins makes a very compelling argument on the importance of people's understanding of the concept of "race" and its actual meaning before engaging with racism, slavery and discrimination in history.
  • Decolonising Europe: Decolonising the curriculum
    • Online lecture of the ACES (Amsterdam Centre for European Studies) on Decolonising Europe in International Politics. The focus of the discussion is on the practical applications of decolonial theories: how to decolonize the curriculum in practice, and how to apply a decolonial approach to our teaching and researching.

Resources in Dutch

Resources in French

Resources in Italian

Resources in other languages

  • House of European History
    • The museum is based at the EU parliament in Brussels, and four lesson plans relate to their permanent exhibitions. The lesson plans are made to connect the teaching of European history to the contemporary world. Available in all 24 EU languages.
  • Samer.se/skola
    • Lesson plans on Sápmi and the Sami people (in Swedish)
  • Reaidu
    • A website for teacher students on the history, language and culture of Sápmi and the Sami people and how to use it in the Norwegian curriculum by the The University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway (in Norwegian)

Additional reading and relevant initiatives

History Extra: What Does 'Decolonise History' Mean? 

Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950 

The Black Archives 

Facing History Organization 

Indigenizing the Teaching of North American History: A Panel Discussion 

EuroClio: Teaching the Ends of Empires

EuroClio: The 1619 Project: a very European history

 

Teaching Historical Perspective-Taking: Delve into Bridget Martin’s Webinar on Acknowledging and Understanding Colonial Contributions to WWI

On February 17th Bridget Martin, History Teacher at the International School of Paris, continued the Historiana webinar series, an occasion to dive into the platform’s teaching and learning tools and to discuss historical critical thinking skills. By using Historiana’s e-builder, Bridget was able to create a valid and purposeful eActivity on contributions to WWI. This article will focus on the reflections that Bridget delivered and you will get inspiration on how to use Historiana in your classroom. Watch the recording of the webinar here.

Historiana is an online portal developed by EuroClio, Webtic and UseMedia with Europeana for and with history and citizenship educators from Europe and beyond. On Historiana you can find ready to use learning activities, multiperspective historical content and digital tools that are all free to use, adapt and share.

Questioning our assumptions

Bridget started off with a challenging, imaginative request: she asked her audience to picture a soldier serving for France or Britain in the First World War and to build a mental picture of what this soldier looked like as detailed as possible - what is he wearing? What kind of vehicle does he have? Is he holding a weapon? 

[1]

The answers she got agreed on a stereotyped image of a young, white soldier wearing a dark green, muddy uniform and boots holding a rifle or a gun. She then dismantled any cliché by showing pictures of soldiers on camels, wearing turbans or conical hats.

“We often forget the contributions peoples have made over time and I think it’s important for us to questions our own assumptions and be aware of our own biases when we imagine these kinds of events.”  Bridget Martin

Bridget explained that teaching about colonial contributions to WWI represents an attempt to move away from a Eurocentric view of a particular period of history which often becomes massively focussed on the Western front. Colonial contributions have been historically significant, as over 4 million of people from the British, French and German colonies directly contributed. She argued that history education would benefit from a transnational and holistic approach that incorporates broader perspectives into teaching. She gave the example of the popular belief that the first shots fired were British, while in truth the very first shots were fired in colonial territories.

 

(Click on the image to watch) 07:37 - 13:12 In this segment, Bridget Martin explains why it is important to teach about colonial contributions.

Points for attention

Bridget made us aware of some crucial points we should consider when teaching about colonial contributions to WWI. If you are teaching this topic, it might be good to know that there is an entire Source Collection on Colonial Contributions to WWI which is freely available and ready to use on Historiana.

[2]

Bridget highlighted the racial hierarchies and stereotypes employed by the colonial powers when assigning combatant or non-combatant roles. In fact, races that were considered inferior were given labouring non-combatant roles, and even soldiers were not equally treated. There were also specific rules about where or where not they might be allowed to be sent. Troops from the colonies were stationed in the middle east or in the African theatres of war rather than in the European theater, as the European side was concerned that if peoples from the colonies became too used to using violence against Europeans, they could have become a threat. 

The manner in which colonial peoples were recruited into the war effort varied: sometimes it was voluntary, but there was also a huge amount of conscription - most often colonies were deceitfully promised greater political freedom.

(Click on the image to watch) 13:13 - 22:36 Bridget points out what is important to keep in mind when discussing colonial contributions to WWI.

“All of those colonized groups did not have the same experience and there were huge amounts of variables which would determine the nature of their experience […]. When we are taking perspectives, we should also appreciate that there are a diversity of perspectives and there’s not just one colonial view of the war or colonial experience of the war.” Bridget Martin

Reflecting on why colonial contributions are seldom mentioned when discussing WWI and on the reasons why they were involved in the war in the first place provides students (but also teachers) with food for thought. Trying to consider how colonial peoples’ experience of the war differed to those of Europeans (and how different colonial groups experienced the war differently) is the first step to historical perspective-taking.

What does it mean teaching Historical Perspective-Taking (HPT)?

Drawing on Seixas definition, Bridget described it as the attempt of understanding the minds of people who lived in worlds so vastly different from ours. It is indeed very hard not to see the world through the lenses we wear today - and it represents one of the main challenges teachers encounter when teaching HPT.

Tim Huijgen, Professor at University of Groningen, broke down historical perspective-taking into three key elements: historical contextualization, historical empathy as “identifying with people in the past based on historical knowledge to explain their action” (Huijgen, 2014), and avoiding presentism by providing students with sufficient primary source material and evidence in order to let them draw valid conclusions.

(Click on the image to watch) 23:38 - 31:00 Bridget discusses the meaning of HPT.

How to implement all of this into an eLearning Activity?

Bridget Martin concluded the webinar by explaining how she combined her insights into a meaningful eLearning Activity on Historiana called “Different Experiences of WWI”. This specific activity requires roughly two hours, but the platform allows you to make all the changes you need, shorten it and adapt it in a way that makes sense for your students.

Bridget structured the activity in a way that students can elaborate their thoughts on colonial contributions, which initially might be shaped by a retrospective view of the past times. She provides them with primary sources and also lets them do some active research to then discuss their findings in small groups, making sure that they justify their opinion using evidence.

On Historiana you can very easily adjust ready-to-use learning activities or create your own activity - and let the students engage with primary sources and both audio and visual material!

(Click on the image to watch) 31:04 - 42:25 Bridget walks us through the activity she developed on Historiana.

 

Learn More

Want to learn more about teaching about contributions to WWI and historical perspective-taking? Watch the full webinar here!

This article is part of a webinar series, in which teacher educators who are experienced in using Historiana show examples of the eLearning Activities that they created, while also diving into a specific topic and discussing a critical thinking skill to teach students. 

On December 9th, EuroClio ambassador Helen Snelson kicked off the webinar series: she talked about using sources as evidence and illustrated the eActivity on post-war Europe that she was able to create on Historiana. Watch the full event or read the article to know more.

These are the upcoming events

  • On April 21st, Jim Diskant (History Teacher retd.) will be looking at Visual Representation of Women (Thinking skill TBA). (register here)
  • On June 16th, Gijs van Gaans (Teacher Trainer, Fontys Tilburg) will be examining Schisms within Christianity and discuss change and continuity. (register here)

This article is written as part of the Europeana DSI4 project co-financed by the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union. The sole responsibility of this publication lies with the author. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Written by Giulia Verdini

 

Sources

Main image - Source: The breakthrough of the German East Africa Confederation over the Rowuma, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

[1] Source top left: Annamites à Saint-Raphaël, Bibliothèque Nationale de France via europeana (Public Domain). 

Source top right: Types de soldats indiens, Bibliothèque Nationale de France via europeana, (Public Domain).

Source bottom left: Troupes indigènes avec chameaux, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Agence Rol) via europeana (Public Domain).

Source bottom right: Revue du 14 juillet 1913, drapeau sénégalais, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Agence Rol) via europeana (Public Domain).

[2] Source: Digging Sand, National Library of Scotland via Europeana (CC-BY-NC-SA).

A Reverse on Buller: how a Council rescinded its decision for relocation of a statue

Oliver Anthony Articles

There is a strange irony in Exeter City Council’s recent reversal of their decision to relocate a statue of nineteenth-century military leader, General Sir Redvers Buller; the man who had already earned himself the nickname ‘Reverse Buller’ for his garish military tactics and organisational failings. On January 12th, 2021, it was initially determined that the statue would be relocated, following a council-led Equality Impact Review which assessed its “continued appropriateness” in the city, particularly given the monument’s prominent position in front of Exeter College. Yet, on February 9th, less than a month after Exeter’s Executive Councillors voted in favour of re-locating the statue, councillors unanimously voted to withdraw from any further proposals that sought to remove the Buller statue. Why then, has the statue of Redvers Buller been the focus of controversy in the city? And what are the reasons for Exeter City Council’s recent abandonment of attempts to relocate the statue, otherwise dubbed a ‘Reverse on Buller’? It is these questions that I look to answer herein.

The equestrian statue of General Sir Redvers Buller, situated on the junction of Hele Road and New North Road in Exeter, was erected and paid for by local residents in the military leader’s honour on 6 September 1905[1]. Sometimes interpreted as a deliberate political act, the fifteen-feet statue stands on a large plinth and is engraved with ‘He Saved Natal’ alongside a list of countries that Buller served in. The fact the statue elicited such strong support amongst Devonians is indicative of a regional pride in Buller’s actions, who was widely perceived as “one of the county’s greatest heroes”[2], particularly while on another front he was facing criticism and disrepute from political and military bodies alike[3].

In recent years, the statue of Redvers Buller has become divisive on three levels. First, as it valorises a form of aggressive colonialist-imperialist expansionism from which Buller is so inseparably intertwined, particularly given his role in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Second Boer War in 1899. It was during this War in South Africa that Buller led British soldiers against Dutch-speaking Boers in Transvaal and Orange State over control of gold mines, and where he also had acquaintance with the likes of Cecil Rhodes[4]. Second, his possible connection to, or support of, concentration camps in South Africa which were erected following victory in the war, and which subsequently led to the deaths of thousands of local Boers and Black Africans. And third, because of the disunion created today between those in support of the statue and those against, recently highlighted during the Black Lives Matter movement whereby the statue of Buller featured on crowd-sourced website ToppletheRacists.org, while on the flipside, Exeter City Council’s review of the statue was shunned by some as “ridiculous” and a form of “historical wokery”[5].

Figure 1: Extracts from The Express and Echo, a
newspaper for Exeter and surrounding area
(includes issues of February 4th and 11th, 2021)

Following heavy media-coverage of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, and after a banner was draped on the statue saying “Wanted for war crimes”[6], the true repercussions of protests directed at the statue of Buller were ultimately in their re-invigoration of council-led discussions.

To begin with, the Council’s Scrutiny Task and Finish Group was asked to investigate the appropriateness of the statue. The Group met on four occasions and took written and oral submissions from a range of stakeholders[7]. The result of this was made clear on January 12th, 2021, when Exeter’s Executive Council was presented with a ‘Review of the General Buller Statue’, carried out by Director Jon-Paul Hedge. The Review cited the statue as “the most conspicuous by way of location and controversy”[8] and concluded with the suggestion that there exist four strands of “significant strength of feeling” within Exeter’s communities. In no particular order, these favoured each of the following: removal of the statue all together, relocation as a form of cultural reference, redefinition it by way of narrative (such as adding a sign), and leaving it, instead focusing on education and inequality around the city.

Exeter’s Executive Councillors voted in favour of the Task Group’s findings, which ultimately opted for re-location as the best course of action, primarily due to the Army General’s connection to the British Empire[9]. Given that this vote was exclusive to Exeter’s Executive councillors, certain steps remained in place before a date and location could be set for its relocation, including seeking formal Listed Building consent to move the Grade II monument, a public consultation, and a final vote made by the city’s full council.

Figure 2: Snapshots from a petition on change.org that sought
to ‘Save Exeter’s Statue of Sir Redvers Buller’ (from
change.org, February 19th, 2021)

This initial decision received heavy criticism, with a petition on change.org seeking to appeal the decision receiving over 9,000 votes in just under a month, in part citing the £25,000 cost associated with its removal, but otherwise standing against the “erasure” of history (see Figure 3[10]). Elsewhere, more conservative views took to slamming the decision as a form of “historical wokery”, with the Daily Mail choosing to single out the verdict that, “[the statue] impacts anybody who does not define themselves in binary gender terms”[11].

After facing backlash against the decision to relocate the statue of Redvers Buller, the final nail in the coffin for the Council’s decision followed a statement by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who proclaimed that applications for the removal of statues were unlikely to be successful[12]. This proposition was made in reference to the UK Government’s recently revealed plans for a new law on cultural and historic heritage which seeks to ‘retain and explain’ as opposed to remove or relocate[13]. The repercussions of this are likely to have nationwide consequences but for the most part, its effect has been strongly felt in Exeter, where following a meeting on February 9th, Councillor Phil Bialyk of Exeter City Council released a statement which said: “In light of the comments by the Secretary of State, we will not be submitting a planning application to relocate the Buller state”[14].

And so, in a swift U-turn, the decision to relocate the statue of Redvers Buller has been completely rescinded. The Council in Exeter has reaffirmed its position on fulfilling the rest of the recommendations outlined in the Task Group’s findings. These include the creation of a working group to develop an anti-racism strategy for the council, as well an arts-based engagement programme project with residents in the city. The Council has also not dismissed erecting temporary information boards near the statue of Redvers Buller, nor the possibility of removing ‘He Saved Natal’ from the plinth on which Buller’s sits[15]. What these boards will say, and to what extent such actions address the statue’s divisive legacy is unclear, but one thing is certain, Redvers Buller has once again been at the receiving end of yet another heavily contested and politically replete reversal. Where Exeter’s decision-makers now turn in order to fulfil their obligations for equality and impact in the city will make for an interesting case to follow.

Main image ‘Statue of Redvers Buller’ taken by Ollie Anthony, January 29th, 2021.

[1] Donaldson, Peter. Remembering the South African War: Britain and the Memory of the Anglo-Boer War, from 1899 to the present (Liverpool: University Press, 2013), p.115.

[2] Hedge, Jon-Paul, ‘Review of the General Buller Statue’, Report to Executive, July 7th, 2020, https://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s74633/Report%20-%20General%20Buller%20Statue.pdf (PDF 19)

[3] Malvern, Jack. ‘General Sir Redvers Buller sees off his foes in Exeter statue battle’, The Times, February 03, 2021.

[4] Thomas, Roy. Two Generals: Buller and Botha in the Boer War. (Bloomington: Authorhouse), pp.33

[5] Mail Online. ‘Council is slammed for ‘ridiculous and historical wokery’ over plans to remove a statue of a British war hero – with official report claiming it ‘impacts anybody who does not define themselves in binary gender terms’, Daily Mail, January 11, 2021 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9135913/Council-slammed-historical-wokery-plans-remove-statue-British-war-hero.html (PDF15)

[6] Malvern, Jack. ‘General Sir Redvers Buller sees off his foes in Exeter statue battle’, The Times, February 03, 2021.

[7] Exeter City Council. ‘Councillors to discuss the future of Exeter’s Buller statue’, Exeter City Council, January 05, 2021.

[8] Hedge, Jon-Paul, ‘Review of the General Buller Statue’, Report to Executive, July 7th 2020, https://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s74633/Report%20-%20General%20Buller%20Statue.pdf (PDF 19)

[9] Crediton Courier, ‘Exeter councillors approve next step towards removal of statue of Crediton-born Buller’, Crediton Courier, January 13th, 2021, https://www.creditoncourier.co.uk/article.cfm?id=145042&headline=Exeter%20councillors%20approve%20next%20step%20towards%20removal%20of%20statue%20of%20Crediton-born%20Buller&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2021&action=validate/ (PDF 18)

[10] Change.org. ‘Save Exeter’s Statue of Sir Redvers Buller’, Change.org, February 1st, 2021, https://www.change.org/p/exeter-city-council-save-exeter-s-statue-of-sir-redvers-buller

[11] Mail Online. ‘Council is slammed for ‘ridiculous and historical wokery’ over plans to remove a statue of a British war hero – with official report claiming it ‘impacts anybody who does not define themselves in binary gender terms’, Daily Mail, January 11, 2021 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9135913/Council-slammed-historical-wokery-plans-remove-statue-British-war-hero.html (PDF15)

[12] Clark, Daniel. ‘Statue to stay but signs will be put near it and wording may change’, The Express and Echo¸ February 11th, 2021.

[13] Clark, Daniel. ‘Statue will stay as council would be unlikely to get permission to move it’, The Express and Echo, February 4th, 2021.

[14] Clark, Daniel. ‘Statue to stay but signs will be put near it and wording may change’, The Express and Echo¸ February 11th, 2021.

[15] Ibid.