The normalization of violence in history textbooks, an interview with Dr. Angela Bermudez

EuroClio had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Angela Bermudez on the subject of her recent study on the normalization of violence in history textbooks. Dr. Bermudez is a researcher at the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Deusto (Bilbao, Spain) where she investigates how history education in different countries fosters or hinders a critical understanding of political violence. She is the author of several papers on civic and moral education, history education, and memory. Her recent working paper titled “The Normalization of Political Violence in History Textbooks: Ten Narrative Keys” is part of a series sponsored by the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory.

There lies a great paradox – most textbook content centers around violent experiences and yet very little of this violence is the subject of critical reflection.

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself, your research, and how you got interested in the topic of education and the normalization of violence, in particular? 

I grew up in Bogota, Colombia, and, in many ways, I think that marked the beginning of my interest in issues related to political violence – it is a place that can serve as a lab for all kinds of experiences and reflections on various types of violence. However, I didn’t actually begin to focus on this topic academically until later on. I was studying history education when I received a scholarship to study in Spain for a year and a half. While I was here, I had the good fortune to meet Professor Mario Carretero and some of his doctoral students. They got me hooked on studying the development of cognitive historical thinking skills. We considered questions like “How do young people learn to think in complex ways about something like the past which isn’t tangible and which they cannot experiment on in the classroom?” 

Following graduation, I returned to Colombia where I moved away from history and got more involved with projects that centered around moral development in civic education. I quickly connected this new focus with the experiences of violence in the supposedly oldest democratic state in Latin America. Compared to other Latin American countries, Colombia had a very short and unusual dictatorship. Nevertheless, the country has an extremely violent history. This raises all sorts of questions about the linkages between violence, democracy, and citizenship.

I went on to do my Ph.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where I wrote my dissertation on how young people engage in discussing controversial issues – politics, racism, police brutality, etc. I worked with Facing History in Ourselves, a non-profit that develops educational material on prejudices and injustice in an effort to empower teachers and students to think critically about history and to understand the impact of their choices. This brought me back to my previous interest in education and violence, but more from an ethical and critically thinking perspective. 

When I moved to Spain 8 years ago, I had the opportunity to rethink and redefine my research agenda. I began analyzing how different means of history education contribute to the normalization of violence, or conversely, to the promotion of a critical understanding of violence. The role of history textbooks has captured my attention to the extent that it has because – despite being used in the classroom less and less – what is stated in them is a clear depiction of the dominant historical narratives of a country. Textbooks can reflect the politically official narratives, the counter-narratives in academic debates, and/or public discourse more broadly.

Can you speak about the research you have been conducting on textbooks in Spain, Colombia, and the United States? 

Our analysis focused on how textbook narratives represented the violence intrinsic to nine different episodes of the violent past of these countries. For each topic, we looked at approximately four different textbooks and one or two alternative, non-conventional teaching resources, such as those developed by NGOs or research centers or that have different pedagogical approaches. We found that there is a striking difference between conventional textbooks and other resources and that a persistent pattern of normalizing violence exists across textbooks, topics, and countries. Despite the abundant references to violent events, violence as such is rarely discussed or made the object of explicit analysis. Quite the contrary, violence is normalized through discursive processes that define what is emphasized and what is marginalized, what is connected and disconnected, and what is silenced. We identified ten narrative features that describe interlocking mechanisms by which historical accounts manage to describe violent events and processes while precluding any reflection about its roots, causes, consequences, and alternatives. There lies a great paradox – most textbook content centers around violent experiences and yet very little of this violence is the subject of critical reflection. You talk about violence, but you don’t see its victims, causes, or consequences or the alternatives to it. 

What you encounter in textbooks are stories of violence without pain.

Can you provide an example of violence made invisible in a textbook in a rather striking manner? 

First, let me explain what I mean by ‘normalizing violence’. This is a discursive process. It is a way of turning something that is socially constructed into something that is natural or inevitable – in other words, normal. Something that is normal is something that doesn’t surprise us or deserve our attention. It is not worthy of becoming the object of our critical reflection. Normalizing is a way of talking about something, but presenting it as something that you can or should take for granted.

Now the narrative key example you asked for. Apart from a few exceptional topics, the Holocaust being the most evident example, history textbooks contain very few references to victims in episodes of violence across time. In some instances, a chapter that focuses on a war will mention consequences as human casualties or refer to a demographic loss. You might get a number and maybe a few more details, but there is very rarely a depiction of the experience or perspective of the victims. Of course, if the episode we are talking about is one in which “I am the victim” then there are more references to “we were the victims.” However, even this reference to ourselves as being the victims does not depict the experience of victimization as such. What you encounter in textbooks are stories of violence without pain.   

An artist’s depiction of the Trail of Tears.

Another narrative key that subtly normalizes violence is the concealment or obscuring of human agency. You read descriptions of historical events that involve a lot of violent action, but with little reference to who instigated it. It’s not a matter of assigning blame – which can be complicated – but rather one of understanding that violence is not a natural phenomenon. You have to distinguish between impulsive aggression and political violence. Political violence is systematic and instrumental. There are individuals, collectives, and institutions making decisions to use violence – to use other human beings as means to an end – rather than take an alternate non-violent course of action. You’ll read things like “War broke out.” This needs to be at the heart of ethical reflection. On the topic of the Trail of Tears in the US, you have accounts of how Native Americans marched from one place to another during a cold winter and many died. But who made the decision to have them march at that time of year? Why didn’t they have blankets or minimal medical resources? The same framing is applied when considering any episode of violence. What we witness is an obscuring of agency – it is sent to the back of narrative. This results in stories of violence with no blame and no responsibility.

A narrative key we most consistently see across textbooks, topics, and countries is the near-absolute silence on alternatives to violence and the individuals and movements who supported these alternatives. It is not as if there was a dearth of opposition to violence. In a large number of episodes of the violent past there was active opposition to violence and advocacy for nonviolent solutions to conflict, and yet not much, if anything, is said about them. So how does that play into the normalization of violence? Well, if no one opposed the use of violence, maybe that was the only way the episode could have played out. There were no alternatives. 

One final example of a narrative key that serves to normalize violence is the omission of the benefits derived from violence. Who gains? Of course, you’ll read “We gained independence,” but that’s a social goal. What I mean here is who, in terms of individuals or sectors of society, gains from the industry of war (or other types of violence) at a political or economic level? Omitting these massive industries and contested interests in society makes invisible the way in which violence can be a strategic means to achieve something  and not a natural and inevitable response to conflict.

The issue is not that we are stuck with textbook narratives – we are stuck with social narratives. We are stuck with a social tendency to normalize violence.

If textbooks make violence broadly invisible by trivializing and normalizing it, what can we as history educators do to counter this, especially if the countries we work in are required to follow a prescribed list of topics and textbooks?

Let’s recall two things I mentioned before. Normalizing means taking something out of the area of our reflection. It’s turning an episode of violence into something that is natural and, therefore, unproblematic, so that we don’t reflect on it. We can still follow the prescribed topics and resources, but in order to counter the normalization of violence, we must raise questions that transform what has been normalized into something that demands critical reflection. We must call attention to issues and individuals who have been silenced and call attention, precisely, to the fact that they have been silenced. 

So, okay, we’re reading this textbook account with our students. This narrative relies on ways of telling and silencing that have consequences. So, I want to call the attention of my students to this and ask – Who were the victims? What was their experience? Did anybody oppose what happened to them? Those questions can turn into projects, assignments, or debates. Additionally, the more you tie this to topics of more recent history, the more students can reference things from their own context. Of course, I’m not saying this is easy and isn’t the source of many controversies, but if you have the minimum conditions of safety, even if it’s controversial, for many students this is kind of discussion can serve as an oasis – you’ll create a space for them where these things can be talked about in careful, caring, and reflective manners, rather than in absolutes. At the end of the day, though, the issue is not that we are stuck with certain textbooks. We are not stuck with textbook narratives, we are stuck with social narratives. We are stuck with a social tendency to normalize violence.

In another article, you make a point that museums face different or less pressure than history textbooks authors or curriculum designers when curating. Could you please elaborate on what you mean? Is it a useful tool for history educators to make use of museum exhibitions?

The Tate Modern is one of my institutions that offers thematic programs to school groups, families, and other audiences.

Yes, absolutely. Museums, of course, are also sites of political discourse. Both schools and museums were, in the late nineteenth century, developed precisely to mold the minds of citizens and construct the idea of the nation. Museums do, however, have some general advantages over textbooks. One of the dynamics that restricts and impoverishes historical representations is the rise of standardized, external assessment. Textbooks and teachers can’t go into greater depth and discuss subtle, marginal, or controversial elements of history because they have to cover content for an assessment. Museums are far less regulated in terms of content. There is no mandated curriculum and no examination on your way out. You can have thematic museums and museums that make use of technologies inaccessible in the classroom that appeal more to the experience of emotions and textures of events in the past. A lot of what gets sent to the background of narratives that normalize violence is the texture of the experience of victims and the proponents of non-violence. Of course, you also have a lot of museums that celebrate war and heroic actors that represent the violent past similarly to textbooks, but you also have the emergence of memorial museums and sites of conscience whose mission is to convey a history that has been silenced and develop a critical understanding of the past.

Wouldn’t you say that given the national and international prominence of an episode like the Spanish Civil War, 80 years later it is reasonable to expect a national museum on the event to exist? There is no such thing.

The role of sites of conscience and memorial museums is very interesting. I was hoping you could speak a bit about the Valley of the Fallen and the recent memory laws that were passed. How do you see things developing in Spanish society more broadly?

If you follow the debates around memory and memory laws (passed in 2007) you’ll notice that socially, politically, and culturally there is a very profound silence about the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. Academic research, literature, and movies aside, socially – as in at the kitchen table, in public spaces – there is very little conversation and discussion about these topics. That silence – imposed during the dictatorship for obvious reasons – was maintained during the democratic transition, in part to not rock the boat at a time when political parties and social organizations were invested in figuring out how to operate together in the new democratic system. Politically, you can understand the pressure, but this “democractic silence” has now lasted even longer than the dictatorship itself. It’s been 40 something years and there’s still very little conversation about these topics. There has been a very vibrant  and very important interdisciplinary initiative involving victims’ families and scholars around the exhumation of bodies from mass graves. This has ushered in a movement to recover memory, but it is still limited in terms of granting the wide public opportunities to engage with history in alternative ways. 

People argue that these conversations are too uncomfortable, but do we ask if silence is comfortable for those who are told to keep quiet?

So do you think it was a mistake not to speak about these episodes of violence during Spain’s democratic transition? 

I do tend to think it was a mistake, but I understand the political context and the need that many felt not to reopen wounds. There are many post-conflict contexts, like Rwanda, where a moratorium has been established. At the same time, I grew up in a country (Colombia) that has experienced ongoing violence and it is not as if we can stop talking about it. We need to be able to address these experiences reflectively. You begin to see other troubling political and ideological implications of silence there. People argue that these conversations are too uncomfortable, but do we ask if silence is comfortable for those who are told to keep quiet? In the case of the Spanish transition, this sort of socio-cultural silence was partly fueled by the idea, the fear, the myth, that if we talk about what happened, it will give rise to another civil war. That fear was later manipulated. This becomes more evident when you consider the fact that there has been no judicial or political process to prosecute any of the people responsible for crimes during the dictatorship and that many of the political and economic bases of the Franco regime continue to exist in the political and economic system today. Then the idea of sustaining that silence and not rocking the boat gains a new dimension. It is no longer simply “That was emotionally difficult. Let’s heal first and then address it.”

Valley of the Fallen

Wouldn’t you say that given the national and international prominence of an episode like the Spanish Civil War, 80 years later it is reasonable to expect a national museum on the event to exist? There is no such thing. There are a small number of regional museums and memorial sites – the Museum of Exile in Catalonia, the Peace Museum of Gernika (on the bombing of Gernika), one for the Battle of Ebro – but there is nothing akin to a general, national museum on this watershed event.

I wanted to touch on one last issue. It’s your other recent research. I understand that you are collecting testimonies from people who were involved with violent organizations like ETA in Spain and the Farc in Colombia. I’m really intrigued by this. Where is this research taking you and how will you continue with it?

That is a brand new project that we’re beginning to work on with an interdisciplinary team at the Center for Applied Ethics. I think it’s a fascinating and necessary initiative. We aim to collect life histories and interviews from people who were involved with groups that espoused the use of violence for political reasons, but later on renounced it. That is, individuals who at different points in their trajectories began to think differently about violence, to question it, and ended up renouncing it. What led them to that change may be very different – the experience of being imprisoned, the implications for their families, spiritual events, or political and ethical transformations. Our question here is how these people establish a relationship with violence, both in connecting with it, justifying it, and espousing it, but also in renouncing the use of it? What are those seed points, experiences, and reflections that transform their understanding and belief in the legitimacy of violence? There are many layers to this analysis, but the ultimate purpose is to develop educational resources for peace education that encourage people to think critically about violence.

Violence can be very seductive. We think it is a good idea to hear from those who were once seduced why they don’t want to be involved with it anymore. This can be a rich resource with which we can rock the boat, shock, and provoke critical thought in young people, but we are only just beginning. 

I look forward to seeing the final results! Best of luck with funding and the study. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. 

 

Can video games improve history education?

Formal history education is mainly based on textbooks and teacher exposition; however, an increasing number of different resources are being used by educators to supplement their teaching. Among the various media employed, novels and films are certainly the most popular among teachers. The Historical Association, the main History Charity in Britain, provides a twenty pages list of historical fiction ranging from medieval sagas to modern day Afghanistan, “to help history teachers to inspire students of all ages in secondary school to read historical fiction for pleasure and also to get better at doing history”. Films too have long been utilised in history education since, according to recent research, movies were screened in classes already in the 1920s (R. Paxton and A. S. Marcus, 2018). Films are especially praised because visual information is more easily retainable than written information and, therefore, screenings can significantly improve students’ learning.

Introducing historical video games
Fiction and films remain the preferred media by history educators around the world, but another kind of resource is rapidly growing in popularity: historical video games. When we talk about historical video games, we refer to “those games that in some way represent the past or relate to discourses about it” (Chapman, 2016), games that start “at a clear point in real world history” and in which history has “a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler, 2007). A large number of video games are set at different times and places in history, making them potentially valuable teaching tools. Players have almost unlimited possibilities: they can build the Colosseum in Minecraft, thus learning about Roman architecture as well as raw materials, or they can found, organise and defend a settlement in newly-discovered North America in Banished, or they can liberate Nazi occupied Europe by seemingly stepping in the shoes of an American frontline soldier in Call of Duty.

Although not (yet) as common in history classes as other tools, video games are attracting the attention of educators, particularly among the young generations, and academics too. Teachers who have experience using historical video games in class have started recommending them to their colleagues (see for example, the blog gamingthepast.net, or the youtube channel Histoire en Jeux), while researchers discuss how game playing influences students’ learning. Despite widespread interest and the availability of a wide range of historical games, ignorance and scepticism still characterise the attitude of many history educators towards video games. In this short article, we will address some of the main concerns about historical video games and suggest how they can benefit history learning with the help of Pieter van den Heede. Pieter, once a teacher in Belgian high schools, is now a lecturer at the History Department of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and his doctoral project focuses on the representation and simulation of war history in digital games.

Practical issues
First of all, let’s consider practical issues that may discourage teachers from using video games. Games have technological requirements that make their utilisation in class more complicated than that of, for example, movies. Schools may be unable to afford computers with sufficient hardware requirements (such as graphics cards, central processing unit, and memory) necessary to play modern video games. Although a service called Google Stadia has been developed specifically to allow users to stream games to any device, regardless of their technical specifications, it has not been very successful until now. Moreover, options of games can be limited to console/system compatibility, with some games exclusive to specific consoles. Managers are often reluctant to spend part of their limited school budget on the purchase of expensive equipment for game playing. Such reluctance may not only be due to financial constraints, but also to criticism towards the use of video games from the managers themselves, from teachers and parents and, surprisingly, from students, who are generally sceptical about the ability of games to improve their learning experience. Finally yet importantly, time constraint is also an issue. Teachers, who already struggle to keep pace with the strict timeline of curriculum implementation, find it challenging to allocate enough time for their students, who may be unfamiliar with the designated game, to learn how to play.

How video games can benefit history teaching
Regardless of the practical difficulties of their utilisation and their negative reputation, research shows that video games can significantly improve students’ learning experience. It is certainly easy to appreciate how they can teach a lot about material culture. Some games, which can be described as having a realist approach to the past, rigorously represent physical objects and environments, while also being consistent with broad historical narratives. Famous examples include the Assassin’s Creed series, featuring a variety of historical periods and situations such as, for example, Ancient Greece, feudal Japan, the Spanish Inquisition and the American Revolution, and allowing players to learn the functioning of a musket or to see the view from the trenches during World War I. This series centres on a fictional core narrative (about a clash between two secret societies, the Assassin’s and the Templars) that is set in accurately portrayed historical time periods. But according to Pieter van den Heede, the real added value of video games lies in the fact that they allow players to, for example, experience a sense of historical contingency and the path-dependency deriving from it. For example, in the Civilization series, the player will manage to build an empire only if he acquires and applies knowledge about, among other things, how geographic conditions affect the foundation and development of a city in ancient times. This approach can effectively convey the necessities, connections and general conditions that influenced past outcomes by creating an authentic “practice field” for solving problems and using real-world contexts and tools, thus helping students understand why historical figures made certain choices.

The shortcomings of video games and practical advice
Despite his passion for gaming, Pieter admits that, while historical video games have a considerable educational potential, they also have relevant shortcomings. For example, games are generally inadequate to teach social and cultural history. Since most players are interested in heroic roles and adventures, they prefer to play characters whose decisional power can significantly influence the game’s outcomes. Conscious of this, most companies produce games whose protagonists are kings, explorers and generals, rather than peasants or nuns. This inevitably leaves out of the picture the majority of members of past societies, preventing students from learning about their lives and role in history. For example, while it is possible to play female combatants in recent World War II games such as Battlefield V, it is not possible to learn about women’s experience of the conflict in more ordinary and common situations, such as replacing men in factories. It is possible that, as Pieter wishes, these experiences will be included in future games.

Another problem with video games is that they generally struggle to convey values alternative to those of modern western societies, and indiscriminately apply our mind-sets to different realities. This implies that players’ choices may influence the narrative of the game in ways that may be incompatible with historical evidence, and in the end, the outcome may differ significantly from real events. It is, therefore, important that students realise that they play a fictional character in a fictional role, and that they may make choices that the real protagonists of the events represented in the game did not or could not make. Moreover, Pieter recommends that students are given the opportunity to discuss their experiences during and after playing in order to compare their outcomes, debate the games’ historical accuracy and overall representational strategies as well as the intentions of its developers. In other words, the shortcomings of historical video games can be as valuable as their qualities for instruction, especially if students are made aware of how the games they play contribute to learning outcomes.

Ultimately, whatever the advantages and disadvantages of video games may be, teachers play a central role in unlocking their potential as educational tools, and it is thus essential to empower them. After all, teachers are those ultimately in charge of delivering instruction. They should be given the freedom, the time and, when the school budget allows it, the means to incorporate games in their lesson design if they so wish. But, as Pieter stresses, video games are just one of many tools available, and teachers should also feel free not to use them.

Written by Cecilia Biaggi, postdoctoral trainee at EuroClio and a Marie Sklodowska Curie Researcher in the LEaDing Fellows COFUND program at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Cecilia is particularly interested in minorities and nation-building, political history and education.

Five tips for online history teaching

Currently hundreds of million of children are not attending school due to COVID-19 that is holding Europe and large parts of the world in its grip. More and more countries decided to close their schools and take their learning online. There are many possibilities in teaching online, if students have access to the internet and a device to use for their school activities. Unfortunately not all students have the same access to these vital resources, which is something that educators are struggling with all over the world. The presented tips in this blog post are written under the presumption that students have internet access and a device to use for their learning. This article briefly explains the different modes of online learning and provides five free resources useful for history educators in particular. 

Synchronous versus Asynchronous

There are two ways in which online education can take place: Synchronous and Asynchronous. The former means that students are engaging with a learning moment at the same time, while the latter means that students learn the same but not at different times. Thus synchronous learning takes place when the students are at the same time active and online, while an asynchronous learning activity can be done over a period of time. The International Baccalaureate (an international educational foundation with thousands of schools world wide) published a guide to support educators in teaching their courses in online environments. The following chart is taken from the guide to indicate the different activities that are possible based on the prefered learning mode. 

Some schools have their own learning management platforms. If your school does, then the following websites can offer an addition to what you already work with. If you are working at a school without an online learning platform, these apps can be helpful. 

#1 Sutori (Asynchronous learning) 

Sutori is a great way to easily share materials with students, as you can decide what framework you want to use to present your information. For history educators, the timeline option will most likely be the easiest one. Students can collaborate with each other, respond to the teacher, and retrieve information from there. Teachers can insert youtube videos, images, and other files. Students can respond to the assignments set by the teacher and also work together on assignments by inserting things into the timeline. Therefore, this tool is an excellent way to provide students with a clear overview of the topic and opportunities to collaborate. 

#2 Online forum (Asynchronous learning)

One online method that is especially beneficial for history educators is a forum on which 

students respond to a question or statement posed by the teacher. One of the characteristics of history education are of course the debates. By creating an online forum, the debate still takes place but online. Bonus: this is an excellent opportunity for students to develop their digital citizenship skills.

#3 Collaborative Writing (Synchronous and Asynchronous learning)

Another thing that history educators are teaching their students is formulating an argument and supporting that argument with a well-written essay. A way to have students practice their writing skills, while working either synchronously or asynchronously, is through a collaborative essay. There are several tools one can use, for example Google Docs, which you can easily share with the students who then collaborate on a question or thesis. As a member of the document, you can easily keep track of changes and see what work different students are producing. 

#4 Nearpod (synchronous learning)

This fabulous free platform lets you create presentations that students see on their own device. Thus students join your presentation by filling out a code on their screen and then see your presentation. This app is ideally used for live lessons, because it does not allow for voice sharing. Thus students see the information on their screen and the activities that you planned for them, as you can incorporate multiple choice questions, open questions, and collaborative assignments. However, it only works when a presentation is live, thus this only works as a synchronous learning activity; everyone has to be online and looking at the presentation at the same time. 

#5 Padlet (Synchronous and Asynchronous learning)

This is another free platform that makes it really easy to have students collaborate and show their learning progress by adding on to an online board. You can decide the design of the board, e.g. in the example shown here the design was four different columns (see image below). Students can post their response to a question in the form of text, picture, or video. Besides, students can comment on each others’ answers or give a thumbs up if they agree. 

Twitter

Another way to get online teaching ideas is by following some threads on Twitter. For example, one teacher elaborated on the idea of having students keep a diary during the period of self-isolation; for history teachers the keeping of a diary can conceptually be linked to the diary of Anne Frank. Other hashtags with tons of teaching ideas from other educators in similar situations all over the world are #teachingremotely,  #teachingonline, #elearning, or #distancelearning. Educators are sharing best-practices for online learning in the form of infographics, pictures, or Google Slides

Conclusion

Of course, there are many more possibilities and opportunities. However, these five seem to have a good connection with history education, easy access, and limited challenges regarding data protection like some apps that work with video calling. For teachers working in Europe, the GDPR rules is something to keep in mind, especially when working with minors and an account needs to be created to access a certain tool. For all the online learning facilities described in this article (except for Kialo), no accounts need to be made by students and the basic features are for free. Besides, Twitter is offering many great insights into the ways teachers globally are taking up the challenge of remotely teaching. Hopefully students will be able to attend their regular schooling soon and these digital features can be used to support face to face teaching. 

 

Written by Maayke de Vries, History teacher at International School Almere & PhD Student University College London

www.mizsdafreeze.com

How can historians contribute to conflict prevention and resolution?

Erkki Tuomioja Articles ,

2015 was the centenary of the events in the Ottoman Empire that led to the death of 1.5 million Armenians. Historians from various backgrounds generally agree on the interpretation of those events, whereas present-day Turkey and Armenia continue to clash over whether this episode of their common history constitute a genocide or not. Although this disagreement is highly unlikely to lead to any kind of armed conflict between the two countries, it does prevent their rapprochement and the normalisation of their relations. Furthermore, since other countries have taken a stand on the issue (through parliamentary resolutions, government statements and even legislation), the problem has affected international relations more broadly. This is merely one example of how different views and interpretations of history continue to play a role in creating and fostering conflicts, and in hampering efforts for conflict resolution. Even when conflicts are resolved with peace agreements, controversial historical issues can reemerge to renew disagreement and compromise a settlement reached with great difficulty.

Peace processes often entail writing the history of the recent conflict in a way that meets the approval of all parties. We can well imagine how challenging it is to, for example, write a common history for Cyprus. Although some in our profession have willingly lent their names and work to instigating and amplifying conflicts, they are a small minority, and we are more likely to encounter cases where politicians and demagogues have misused the work of historians without their consent for questionable purposes. But what should be the proper role of politics and politicians vis-a-vis history? It might be easier to begin answering this question by laying down what it should not be.

Historical truths and interpretations of history should not be made into legislative issues. This is equally true concerning the many resolutions that various parliaments have passed on the 1915 events in the Ottoman Empire, as it is concerning the legislation passed or pending on how to write history in countries like Poland, Russia or Ukraine. Politicians should provide historians with unlimited and open access to all historical archives, documents and other sources. Notwithstanding the proliferation of international agreements and regulations on various topics, there are no binding regulations on the access to archives and their use.

The concept of the Politics of History has its roots in Germany. The study of the Politics of History investigates history debates and everything that comes under the concept of vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means addressing one’s own history with an open mind and coming to terms with it. In this respect Germany provides the best model for dealing openly with the most challenging and awful periods of its own history. Few countries have achieved anything close to this frankness with their own history, whereas in some cases in which efforts were made they were rejected. A positive example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa.

While authoritarian regimes need to be critically examined, it is important to remember that not all countries regarded as liberal democracies pass scrutiny without remarks. This can be said of the United Kingdom, France and former colonial powers in general, which still have difficulties in openly addressing the dark corners of their colonial wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya and elsewhere. Even in Germany, despite the praise it has earned for its vergangenheitsbewältigung, it took much longer for the country to recognise the atrocities committed in its South-West African colony. However, this has not lead to restrictions on revisionist and critical historiography of the kind affecting states actively engaged in history denial.

In my own country, Finland, History also has had a central role in constructing our national awareness and state institutions in the 19th century. When Finnish nationalism and Russian Pan-Slavism gained ground, they inevitably came into conflict regarding the history interpretation. Following independence in 1917, the Civil War in Finland left deep wounds in our society. Like all civil wars, it was brutal and caused 40,000 casualties, only a minority which were killed in battle, while most deaths resulted from summary executions and squalor in the prison camps where the losing Reds were confined. The wounds left by the War were kept unhealed by the way the events were commemorated by the opposed parties. Neither did historians always contribute to the healing, often actually exacerbating the situation. But when commemorating the Civil War last year, we finally found a dignified and constructive way to address this past. It was now possible to view the events of the Civil War as a tragic catastrophe, without linking different interpretations and opinions in any meaningful way to issues concerning and/or dividing Finns today. What happened in Finland in 1918 was not unique in the world, neither at the time nor today. Fortunately, we have been able to gradually establish and strengthen a mind-set emphasizing shared responsibility, and to intervene to prevent human rights violations and war crimes. We established an International Criminal Court to ensure that nobody responsible for war crimes goes unpunished because of the inability or unwillingness of the courts in any country to bring them to justice.

Today, as we follow news from Rwanda, Srebrenica, Chechnya, Syria or Darfur, and take a stand on these events, as responsible members of the international community, we cannot fail to see the similarities with what took place in Finland a hundred years ago. Finland is one of the few countries in the world that has not undergone any sudden or violent regime changes during our one hundred years of independence. But when regimes change, this almost inevitably leads to purges and rewriting of history. When dictators and dictatorships fall, it is understandable and, to some extent also necessary, that the statues and monuments erected in their honour also fall. All regime changes entail a close scrutiny of the individual responsibility that supporters and officials of the previous regime had for the crimes committed. Lustration has been done in very different ways, from summary executions and show-trials to long drawn-out legal processes and truth commissions. Communist and Fascist takeovers have usually been followed by summary executions; democratic changes have tried to do better. But many still ongoing processes and recurring crisis situations in East and Central Europe or Latin America well demonstrate the many difficulties and challenges this entails.

Post regime-change situations will always entail a demand for the work of historians. While they should be ready to make their knowledge, experience and research results available to those directly engaged in these processes, they should not allow themselves to become institutional parts of them or take any role resembling that of a judge. “Let history – and historians – judge” is a good and correct slogan, but the judgments passed by history and historians should not have any direct links to or dependence on formal judicial processes. A regime change, whatever the viciousness of the former regime, should not entail the erasing of history or the eradication of all the very concrete marks and monuments the previous regime has left. A cultured approach to historical monuments should leave an environment where traces of all history, the more unpalatable and unsavoury parts of it included, can be seen and, as times passes, can be regarded as historical relicts that need not unduly bother future generations, but that will serve as focal points in understanding the past. Nobody would demand the demolition of the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome because people were tortured and killed in gladiator games there. This respect and comprehension is even more needed when relics still arouse contradictory memories, feelings and passions among different groups of the population. Memorials to those who have lost their lives in wars and conflicts should be and usually are respected regardless of the nationality of the victims.

As a historian and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have in both capacities been frustrated by the frequent misuse of history. This has lead me to ask, what can historians do to prevent the misuse of their work and actively engage in conflict prevention and resolution? Discussions with historians and diplomats engaged in mediation convinced me to found the NGO “Historians without Borders” in Finland in June 2015. Our membership today includes most of the history professors in Finnish universities and hundreds of others working in one way or another with historical issues and conflicts. Our founding meeting was addressed by the Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. We then arranged the International Conference on the Use and Abuse of History in Conflicts at the University of Helsinki in May 2016. The Conference ended with 300 participants agreeing on a declaration creating the network of Historians without Borders.

In this declaration, the signatories agreed to work together in order to:

- deepen general and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of history;

- promote open and free access to historical material and archives;

- encourage interactive dialogue between different views and interpretations of history to assist in the process of mutual understanding;

- support efforts to identify the abuse of history in fostering and sustaining conflicts;

- help defuse conflicts and contribute to conflict-resolution processes;

- promote the teaching of history in the spirit of this declaration;

- incorporate an understanding of the role of women and gender perspectives in efforts to build peace and resolve conflicts.

We invite all professional historians, as well as all those working in this field and in that of international relations, who wish to improve the understanding of history and to prevent its misuse to create and foster conflicts, to join our network. The invitation is open to all members of EuroClio. Joining Historians without Borders is easily done by accessing our website, www.historianswithoutborders.fi, and sign the Declaration. More information on our activities is also available.

In the numerous meeting with historians we have had in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, both before and after the conference, our initiative has been greeted overwhelmingly positively. This of course puts pressure on us to able to live up to the expectations that our network has aroused. We will do our best to be able to deliver. While we are confident that we have the human and professional resources of the community of historians at our disposal, we also need the financial resources to be able to make the most of them. Our work aims at bringing together historians dealing with conflicts, making their knowledge, experience and expertise available to international organisations and other bodies engaged in mediation efforts, as well as at initiating research on issues that can contribute on the fulfilment of our aims.

One concrete example of our work is the process we initiated in January 2017, when we brought together a group of Ukrainian and Russian historians to discuss common issues of 20th century historiography in the two countries. Unsurprisingly, the participants had some very different views of this time period, but they nevertheless asked us to continue facilitating their dialogue. This we did in September 2017, when a larger group of Ukrainian and Russian historians, and also Finnish and German historians, met in Helsinki. Another initiative brought together Nordic and Belarusian historians at the University of Lund to discuss how to deal with difficult issues in Belarusian history, and the country’s relations with its neighbouring countries. Finally, in March 2019, we brought together historians from Europe and Africa to discuss the writing of the history of colonialism. This is the kind of work we hope we can bring export to, for example, the Western Balkans.

We have also been in contact with many international organisations under the UN umbrella, as well as with the OSCE, the Council of Europe and others to discuss how Historians without Borders could contribute to conflict resolution with experts, commission members and/or advisers. For example, we could provide a list of expert historians who are available to take on such work.

We live in increasingly ahistorical times, when people’s awareness and understanding of how we arrived where we are today is diminishing rather than increasing. This ignorance makes it more difficult to see into the future and shape it, fostering what is sometimes described as postmodern here-and-now short-termism. An additional challenge is the proliferation of so-called “alternative facts” as part of the new wave of politics and journalism where facts, if at all acknowledged, are treated as opinions with no concern for establishing what actually has happened in history, or respect for and commitment to the methods of scientific research. The statement that “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it” may or may not be true, but ignorance will always increase the risk of becoming unconscious prisoners of history and prey to the machinations of politicians seeking to exploit this beautiful subject for their own ends. As historians, we must actively contribute to removing history from the instruments fostering conflicts and hampering efforts at conflict resolution, and we must try to use it as a means for promoting mutual understanding and conflict prevention.

 

Erkki Tuomioja, MP, PhD, is the Founder and Chairman of Historians without Borders (HWB), a Helsinki based organisation that aims to further public discussion about history and to promote the use of historical knowledge for peace-building and conflict-resolution. He is a member of the Finnish Parliament. 

“To censor is to blind” – interview with Franck Vacheron

Caroline Morel Articles

In November 2019, an exhibition on the topic of censorship took place at the Association pour le Patrimoine Industriel (API) in Geneva, Switzerland. An ecomusée, the API is a special museum in charge of industrial heritage conservation. API seized the opportunity to link their exhibit on linotype and printing machine systems with issues related to press censorship – an especially timely showcasing given current sensitive discussions surrounding speech suppression (e.g., Julian Assange).

The director of the museum, Franck Vacheron, agreed to sit down with me to discuss the thought process behind the exhibit and answer some questions.

Caroline Morel: How do you link industrial heritage with citizenship?

Franck Vacheron: In the API, as a team, we have agreed to take a different approach when exhibiting old machines. Rather than presenting them in immaculate isolation, we link each machine to a thematic exhibition that deals with the rebirth of old techniques. In this way, we assist the visitor in contextualizing the machine in greater history and space. At the moment, our entire exhibition space, a former factory, is devoted to one object.

We work with a social commitment in mind. We frequently collaborate with older workers who have experience working with these forgotten machines and ask them to conduct workshops for younger generations. In the case of our current exhibition, we involved a local school class. They created anti-censorship slogans – considering the wording and layout before printing them using our machines. They did a great job composing and printing slogans that defend freedom of expression.

CM: Do you think you are writing tomorrow’s history?

FV: We work with unique and revitalized artifacts sans nostalgia. Our aim with this exhibit was to consider the dominant printing technology of today and re-purpose old machines to match contemporary

needs. Our vision is to bring the past to life by making its artifacts functional once again. It was initially difficult to rehabilitate these machines, but we persisted because we firmly believe they have utility and social value. In our own way, we contribute to a more circular economy and fight “planned” obsolescence. We are fighting against “autodafé” and amnesia, trying to save old works and machines from forgotten places rather than conceding to obsolescence and being complicit in waste creation.

It is no coincidence that our partner, a bookshop, is named “Fahrenheit 451” after the dystopian censorship story by Ray Bradbury. With every exhibition, we create a singular work of art to gather different individuals and encourage them to talk to one another. We see ourselves as a social laboratory in a sense. We are not looking at the past, rather we are creating a present that involves the intersection of old, forgotten technology and new. We are working for the common good.

CM: Can I ask you your opinion on contemporary press censorship? How does it differ from censorship of the past? 

FV: Today’s suppression of speech more so takes the form of self-censorship. It is more insidious. We denounce collusion between the private (i.e., enterprises, corporations) and the public (i.e., the state). There is something reprehensible about this, most notably, when we see whistleblowers (e.g., lanceurs d’alerte, such as Assange and Snowden) under attack by states when they challenge established power structures and highlight security issues of great importance. In the face of this repression, society often remains indifferent. Our freedom is threatened.

CM: Why is it important for you to relay this fight against censorship and support of Julian Assange in Switzerland today? 

FV: In Geneva, we have always had a tradition of welcoming refugees and the exiled – e.g., Voltaire, Mikhail Bakunin, Elisée Reclus, and Guiseppe Mazzini. This tradition applies today, even though censorship also exists here. The current Assange event is part of a traveling, global show going to Norway, London, Milan, and New York. We think our press exhibit is a bridge of sorts, as it deals with the clandestine press. We consider our association to be a kind of Noah’s Ark – should freedom of expression deteriorate, clandestine press facilitated by old press technologies will be necessary.

CM: Does your association belong to a larger network that organizes initiatives?

FV: Yes we are involved in the AEPM network, “courage foundation” (wsws.org and www.couragefound.org)

CM: As museum director, what is your opinion on the roles education, schools, and history teachers can play?

FV: We cannot function without the consultation of history educators who assist us in curating well-documented, serious exhibitions. Additionally, in Switzerland, we have a system of direct democracy, which allows any group of a thousand or more people to oppose a new law. Our museum promotes this system of civic engagement to young attendees of our workshops in an effort to educate them on what it means to be an active, responsible citizen. Our political system values group action. It is important for us to highlight that. In fact, we have received a special title from  – “école et culture” (school and culture) –  that certifies us as a reliable organization approved by the region to conduct these kinds of workshops.

CM:  And, more generally, what kind of a role do you see an association like yours playing in history and citizenship education?

FV: Of course we have an invisible role, as do integration measures in general. We have 6 foreign students and protected persons on our team. They work on organizational culture, training, and generally help us expand our horizons and experiences by sharing theirs. We also host artists in residency. Everyone works in tandem to give a soul to the artifacts we present.

CM: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today.

 

Caroline Morel is a EuroClio ambassador and history and geography teacher from France currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. She conducted this interview for EuroClio in November of 2019 at the API, a museum committed to active and introspective citizenship.   

“A society where I should be quiet is not a society for me.” Interview with Hrvoje Klasić

Jonathan Even-Zohar Articles , , ,

This summer, historian and EuroClio Ambassador Hrvoje Klasic received various death threats in response to his public speaking on television and in newspapers, in which he sought to provide nuance and ask critical questions on Croatian history. Jonathan Even-Zohar reached out to find out more.

In the interview, Prof. Klasic talks about his involvement with EuroClio and the circumstances surrounding the recent death threats, as well as the situation of history educators in Balkan countries more generally.

Since 2003, Hrvoje Klasic works as a university professor at Zagreb University department of History where his main focus area is Cold War history of Yugoslavia between east and west. He is dealing with sensitive pasts, more specifically, World War II, the Communist period, the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland war), and the situation in the 1990s.

Jonathan Even-Zohar: What is your relation with EuroClio?

Hrvoje Klasic: In 2003, right after I started my new job at university, my colleague asked me if I wanted to go to Sarajevo where EuroClio was starting a project on designing a common textbook[1]. At that time, I had no idea what EuroClio was or what are they were doing but I agreed. Back in February 2003, we met for the first time in Sarajevo and from that moment I've been connected with the network, with EuroClio programs, and some of those colleagues have become very good friends.

For the last 15 years, I have been involved in a couple of projects as a resource person developing a common textbook about Yugoslav history of the 20th century. The other position at EuroClio is connected with my job as a university professor when I was able to help the teachers in elementary and high schools with my knowledge and skills (see list of projects). I am very proud about this connection with my career and I am very grateful for are opportunities that EuroClio gave me. I was able to travel so much from Latvia to Lampedusa, from the Black Sea coast to Cardiff. I would have never expected that I would have been able to go to so many places and meet so many colleagues if it wasn't for EuroClio.

JEZ: Over the last couple of years you have done more of public speaking and have been more present on the international level in dialogue and reconciliation projects. What happened recently and how do you see that in a context of the death threats you have received? Has the situation changed for the worse?

HK: In terms of EuroClio engagement, I thought that we were moving forward. I was in touch with colleagues from the same field who have a similar approach to history, from Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo. In the past, EuroClio was seen as a center for many history teachers and historians. We could improve our work and widen our connections with other teaches - all thanks to EuroClio. The last few years, however, this process has become more problematic and sometimes - when I listen to radio, watch TV, look at the media, internet, or social networks - I feel like we are back in the 1990s again. You can see that the nationalistic “patriotic” approach is dominant; we are again confined to our borders, our walls. The dialogue has disappeared. EuroClio educated many intellectuals and educators who are now coerced in their society. Even people like me – prominent educators in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Slovenia who are willing to deal with the past – are forced to fit into the dominant narrative. The political and economic situation is not going well, especially in the countries which are outside of the EU. Nationalism and populism are dominant approaches in these countries.

JEZ: What happened recently? What is the background of the last death threat? You have been in the public sphere for the last couple of years, so why now?

HK: Actually, nothing changed that much. I have received vulgar letters and people are approaching me on the street calling me a traitor, a fool, not a good Croatian, but this is the first time that I decided to speak openly about this and use my platform. The reason for my decision was triggered by a few incidents last summer, when Croatian nationalists beat up Serbian people in Croatia. At the same time, our Liberal Prime Minister was saying that the atmosphere was good and that there were just some small incidents.

I decided to illustrate that the atmosphere is good for those who don't ask difficult questions or give the wrong answers. People can be bystanders as long as they don't challenge the world they're living in. I wanted to show that even I – a 100-percent Croatian, a volunteer in the Croatian army since age of 18 - can receive death threats as a professor of History for talking about my own research. This shows that something is wrong. If I as a Christian and a veteran am receiving death threats, then how bad is it for minorities? This is the reason why I decided to share the experience of my life from the last few years with the public. Many people responded with surprise and shock when they found out that a university professor can receive so many death threats and can be attacked on the street. I want to make it more clear that this is not just incidental and that we have to do something.

JEZ: Are you able to continue with what you're doing?

HK: I decided not to be only a professor. I wanted to move into the public sphere as an intellectual. That is why I am on the TV and doing interviews, and writing columns on popular web portals. A few months ago, I wrote that it would be much easier for me to live with other people if I stop, but then I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Living in a society where I should be quiet is not a society for me. There are so many people who are supporting me and are approaching me in the street. I know that the radicals and extremists are a small, loud minority. I want to deal with the majority who is silent, to make them more sensitive – and not necessarily active as it's not for everybody to be active and brave, but at least for everyone to recognise that this is not normal. They don't have to write columns or go to the streets, but they can vote for “normal” politicians and parties and not rightists, not populist, and not extremists.

JEZ: You are still lecturing at university, so how does this topic of history being used for nationalistic and/or extremist purposes get discussed with your students? I can imagine there are still those who want to go to study history in order to celebrate their nationalism?

HK: You are right. The majority of the schoolchildren are learning through history to be patriotic and to be good Croatians. Certainly not all, but I think it's a majority. The faculty where I work can be seen as somewhat left-leaning with a majority of liberal professors. The students who choose to study at my faculty are therefore often close to my approach.

Sometimes students like to engage with me and I can see how they often get their information from fake news and false interpretations. On the other hand, when you start to talk with them and you present your case supported with arguments, then you can see that they only have opinions rather than arguments; they are always answering with, “I think…”. This is a challenge for me, because I don't want them to think like I do, I just want them to think. When everybody is wrong and we are good this is a very problematic position and with nationalists this is always the case.

JEZ: Many organizations tried to work with teachers to change the situation, so what do you think is the more difficult job: to be a historian or to be a teacher?

 HK: History teachers! Unlike professors, they have to follow the curriculum made by the government which means that they must present a certain narrative. Right now, we are looking into reforms of the school system but we do not have any political space to tackle complex questions. Why teach history? How to teach history? What should be the impact of history? Is it about making a loyal patriot and a good Croatian? For me, the aim of history teaching is to help young people to become critical thinkers and open-minded learners who could think and read and find themselves in such a complex world, but in the wider Balkan region nationalism and patriotism still dominates the curriculum.

For example, I recently met a teacher who works in a small community school. She was using new perspectives on the Wars of the 90s until one day a father of a student came with his uniform. He was a veteran of the war and he threatened the teacher to be careful with what she was saying.. It's easier for me to be brave than it is for teachers in local communities, because there is a direct connection with the families who may have lost people in those Wars.

JEZ: EuroClio has in the last 15-20 years worked with teachers to build connections, trust, and a larger network. On the other hand, there are groups, as you said, which are maybe more stuck in a “border mentality”. What would you recommend EuroClio and other international organizations to do?

HK: I do think the network building was very important, but unfortunately nothing in this region will go on if there is no top down approach as well. It would be great if some more powerful individuals and organizations are challenged and that not only schools but also universities apply more public pressure on the issue. Personally, I have started to speak more out but I was not trained on how to do this and certainly there are better and more professional ways to do it. What would I recommend? Well, to help teachers as well as academics become more visible in society, not only inside their field, encourage them to make new textbooks and materials, but also how to make public blogs, columns in portals, special posts and videos on social media, how to propose TV documentaries and raise funds or even, for example, to create a regional podcast. There is a gap! I listen to podcasts when I drive and when I run. The problem is that there is no podcast in our language! We must use these new possibilities to engage the public. We should use more historians and teachers in this region who can benefit immensely from this exposure, which is also something I would volunteer for!

 

List of projects

History in Action - Planning for the Future  https://www.euroclio.eu/project/history-action-planning-future/

Enhancing History Education and Civic Society https://www.euroclio.eu/project/enhancing-history-education-civic-society/

Football. A People’s History of Europe https://www.euroclio.eu/project/football-a-peoples-history-of-europe/

History that Connects https://www.euroclio.eu/project/history-that-connects/

Once Upon a Time…We Lived Together (Advisor and Trainer) https://www.euroclio.eu/resource/29666/

[1] Ordinary People in Extraordinary Country; Cooperation between historians from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia was established through joint project “Improvement of teaching history and civil society in the region” in 2004 and continued through 2007 in the project “History at work - preparation for the future of BiH, Croatia and Serbia”. The idea for the joint project originated from European Association of History Teachers - EuroClio, which initiated establishment of history teachers associations in Croatia and BiH and connected them to the Association in Serbia. The goal of the project is to support the development of teaching history and civil society in the said countries, as well as to promote the cooperation, development of critical thinking and mutual understanding, promotion of peace, stability and democracy in the region.

History and Courage: The Position of Teachers in Hungary

Zsolt Istvan Vodli Articles

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the TTE (Association of the Hungarian History Teachers), Zsolt István Vódli conducted (and translated) an interview with Mr. László Miklósi, the President of the TTE regarding the growing tensions vis a vis history teaching in Hungary. In a context of growing nationalism and xenophobia, László Miklósi reflects on the policies adopted in Hungary, and the role of the TTE to reverse this development.

What are the main challenges for the teaching of history in Hungary today?

History teachers, on the one hand, must deal with the difficulties that characterize the situation of Hungarian schools, which means that they work in a centralized, top-down, controlled system. On the other hand, due to the specific situation of history, they are also affected by the politics of remembrance and ideological issues.

From the next school year (2019) - with some temporary exceptions - there will be a state controlled textbook monopoly in Hungary. (For the 6th graders of primary schools, a quite usable textbook from a private publisher can still be ordered, but the textbooks for 5th, 7th and 8th grades of the same series are no longer possible to use). Therefore, the students will not be able to learn from a good, usable textbook series. At the same time, the quality of the state-published textbooks is, in many cases, highly controversial. The Association of Hungarian History Teachers (hereinafter as TTE) regularly draws the public and the professionals’ attention to these problems by analysing and making critical statements about these textbooks.

It is questionable whether teachers can teach to the best of their belief and use the most appropriate teaching aids. This may be due to the Ministry, the manager of the local educational authority, directions coming from the principle, or presumed or real pressure. In April 2019, the Ministry of Education drew the teachers' attention to the fact that only the state-published textbooks could be ordered for the next school year (without parental allowance). And also, that the teacher cannot ask the parents to buy another book. At the same time, the statement failed to mention that parents have the right to buy a different textbook, and if it is accessible for all the students in the class, it can even be used by the teacher during the lessons. Because of the pressure, most teachers (not only history teachers) - while they know that other books would be better professionally - will eventually use the state-published textbook "to be on the safe side”.

In other cases, the teacher may be afraid of the reaction coming from the parents. Parents can bring charges against you or can even have you dismissed if you are not in the queue to join or they don’t not approve your attitude.

Meanwhile, politics of remembrance can also affect school work. (Typical examples, connected to statues in Budapest are: the erection of the monument for the German occupation on Szabadság Square; the restoration of the Kossuth Square to the state of 1944; the removal of the statue of Imre Nagy from the Parliament, etc.).

Since the democratic changes, there has been no ideological expectation for history and history teaching for two decades. At present, historical institutes created and supervised by the government after 2010 may serve to reinterpret history. At the same time, the independence of the scientific institutes of the previously autonomous Hungarian Academy of Sciences is expected to change. Altogether, the mandatory value system has also appeared in the curriculum regulating history teaching.

Of course, the content of history teaching, the nature and quantity of the material to be taught, the modernity of the material and its usability for students are all very important. According to TTE, the compulsory knowledge should be reduced radically (by at least one third, but preferably by half): less content but deeper knowledge, in a more versatile way. This requires curriculum regulation. It is important that this is not regarded as a matter of principle but rather of a political nature.

Could you describe, in particular, the mechanism through which the government is intervening history teaching? Is there something more beyond state sanctioned textbooks?

The teaching (of history) is basically regulated by curricula and the rules for the graduation examination. In the curricula currently in force - two decades after the democratic changes- the mandatory value system has appeared. Thus, the traditional concept of peace-making with Hungary closing World War I was the Trianon Treaty. Based on a previous change, today it is the Trianon Peace Agreement. The rating is therefore specific and mandatory. There is no need for the student to conclude and qualify based on his / her assessment.

At the request of the Ministry, a professional team prepared a draft for the future of national core curriculum. (The experts working on the material repeatedly requested advice from civil organisations, which has been unique since 2010.) When the draft was made public and was open for discussion, the Ministry notified that the group of experts who were requested by the government to overview the material had stated that they could not accept the proposed material as the National Core Curriculum in History and Hungarian Language and Literature in the present form. At the moment it is not yet clear what the material approved by the Ministry will contain.

Earlier, textbooks were recommended for approval by a group of experts appointed by the government, based on a very specific list of aspects. As an important element of the new system -with the support of the European Union- so-called experimental (now called New Generation) textbooks have been developed. Students started to use these books before they had even gone through the necessary textbook accreditation process. TTE's analysis drew the attention of the professionals and the general public to the fact that these new textbooks were overwhelmed by errors. A special working method was applied: the textbooks were not written by authors but by so-called curriculum developers. There were significant changes during the production process, and it could happen that a well-known expert didn’t even recognise his own material in the finalised textbook.

The analysis of TTE is available: https://tte.hu/tankoenyvbiralat

According to the current regulations, only two textbooks can be used in one grade per subject. Private publishers have not been allowed to have their textbooks approved or have their license extended. The Ministry claimed that if the same textbook is used in all schools it helps to provide equal opportunity and is available free of charge. In fact, however, the state, as a publisher, can have a direct impact on the content, too, while this way they can cut out the private publishers from the market.

How does the state-run Education Research and Development Centre (OFI) work? Do you, as the Hungary's Association of History Teachers, have any kind of influence in this governmental body?

The Education Research and Development Centre (hereinafter as OFI) used to be a back office of the Ministry. At present organizationally, formally it operates within the framework of the Esterházy Károly University.

Nowadays, independent civil organisations have very little influence on state organizations in Hungary. TTE is one of the most well-known teacher’s organizations in Hungary. Apart from the professionals and governmental control, thanks to the media the general public can also monitor our work.

A typical example, the experts of the OFI was very much looking forward to the one- hundred-page analysis of TTE about the Experimental History Textbook for 9th grade, which is full of errors, as they wanted to take it into account in order to improve the textbook. However, the Head Director of OFI was not able to reveal the truth, and claimed in a prime-time news program that there was no professional error in the textbooks.

Viktor Orbán (and the Fidesz Party with him) has been the Prime Minister since 2010. Did the changes to history teaching started back then or only now and why?

The changes are gradual. The Constitution and the National Public Education Act were passed in 2011. This was followed by the centralization of schools, the restriction of the rights of teachers, students, parents; the suspension and reform of   professional reconciliation bodies. The delusion of the textbook market has not just begun either. Over the years, textbook publishers have been made ‘starving’, and this year came the final crush. Changes are ongoing.

In your view, what will be the future outcome of this process of changing history education in Hungary? How does the future generations will think about issues such as migration or nationalism under this new setup?

The topic of the TTE annual conference is usually a current, important issue. Naturally, in 2015, when there were thousands of refugees around the Budapest railway stations, the topic of our historical discussion was the refugee issue. I was surprised to find out that the Hungarian Times (Magyar Idők in original translation) government newspaper attacked the TTE due to the choice of the topic for the professional conference. Many people are open to nationalism and are anti-refugees. If the current trend continues, intolerance and exclusion can be intensified. This can have very serious consequences and not just in Hungary.

If the state dictated current system of values and direction remain persists, moving away from the values of the past two decades after the democratic changes, the history teachers will be in a more difficult position. One of the merits of the democratic changes was the elimination of the mandatory value system required by the state and the dominance of state textbooks. Thirty years ago, in 1989, we could not even imagine that these could become part of our everyday lives again. I do hope that we will not get back to the situation when a history teacher needs personal courage to teach history according to his or her best professional beliefs.

Is the Hungary's Association of History Teachers involved in measures taken by civil society to reverse this development? So far, what have you done to tackle this issue?

1) Civil cooperation

The Association of Hungarian History Teachers initiates, encourages and sometimes co-ordinates the cooperation of civil organizations from the very beginning of its foundation. It is the founder, active member, and a driver of many civil cooperation. The aim of the Civil Education Platform (the collaboration of fifty educational professional organizations, trade unions and protest movements) is to work together on these changes. In its most active period, in 2016, László Miklósi, president of TTE, was one of the spokespersons of the Civil Education Platform during the national protest movement of teachers.

Recent Cooperation: in December 2018, the TTE launched a movement on the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights to address human rights in school according to its importance. This initiative was signed by 22 civil organisations.

2) Analysis of textbooks

TTE's textbook and map analyses have highlighted the fact that there are countless errors in the experimental textbooks. Our analyses were followed by others (eg. highlighting errors in the Hungarian-, ethics-, geography etc. textbooks), thanks to the media coverage we have made the textbook question into a public matter.

3) Free choice of history atlas at the graduation examination!

With the help of a wide range of civilian co-operation – against the intention of the government – we achieved that it was possible to use not only the government supported OFI atlas but also other history atlases, at the graduation examination in the school years of 2016/17 and 2017/18. It helped the graduation examination of about 150,000 students in history.

4) Civil Prize Award

For the above-mentioned achievements, in 2018, in the category of the Most Successful Advocacy Project, TTE was voted into the final round of the Civil Prize Award making it into one of the most successful civil organisations in Hungary.

5) National Core Curriculum analysis

TTE regularly takes a position on current educational policy issues. Of course, we published our detailed professional opinion on the National Core Curriculum. At the Annual Conference of TTE, in 2018, we organised a discussion about the National Core Curriculum, which was also attended by one of the authors of the History section. (TTE analysis and discussion is also available on TTE's website.)

6) Conciliation

The TTE was always ready to negotiate with the Ministry. Since 2010, there has been hardly any possibility for that. As a rare exception, in April 2018, the Association of Hungarian History Teachers was invited to a meeting into the Ministry for a discussion about the History Atlas by the OFI. They tried to exert pressure on our organization to adopt the professionally debatable atlas.

7) Publicity

The media presence of TTE is very significant: in 2018, we had 115 first releases in 48 Hungarian and foreign media. See: http://tte.hu/tte-a-mediaban

Learning to disagree: How?

Maayke De Vries Articles

Student populations are no longer homogenous in our globalized classrooms, therefore there is an increased likelihood of spontaneous disagreements in the classroom. In light of the project “Learning to Disagree”, EuroClio aims to support educators in discussing controversial topics by developing teaching materials and guidelines. This blog post focuses on preparatory work for educators before bringing controversial topics into the classroom. The emphasis is on the importance of awareness about the role of teachers’ beliefs and values, creating a classroom community, and explicit teaching of civic competences.

Why teaching to disagree?

The Council of Europe reaffirmed its worries about big topics as exclusion, discrimination and polarization in European societies during their conference in 2017. The teaching of civic competences is seen as a way to counteract those serious problems (Council of Europe Report 2017, 13). One of those competences is a willingness to accept other viewpoints as equally valid as one’s own (Stradling 2003, 14). The subject of history is characterised as the field in which students should acquire civic competences to develop a more democratic, inclusive, and harmonious society (Navarro and Howard 2017,  227).  The question rises how history educators can cater for a classroom atmosphere that recognizes and appreciates multiple perspectives, especially regarding controversial topics? The first important factor to consider is the teachers' beliefs and values.

Teacher Identity

Example of a classroom contract

Teachers should be aware of their sense of purpose, which is determined by their beliefs, values, and experiences. Important decisions related to pedagogy and academics are affected by teachers’ understanding of their role as educators and their understanding of the purpose of their subject (Ho 2017, 326). Therefore, it would be advisable for teachers to reflect on their teaching philosophy and consider how this is influenced by factors such as race, gender, and social class. This is called a sociocultural consciousness in North-American literature related to multicultural education (Villegas and Lucas 2002, 21). Teachers with a sociocultural consciousness also realize that there is not something like “neutral” or “a-political” (Villegas and Lucas 2002, 23).

Like the US, European societies are characterized by social stratification due to factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, social states, ability and sexual orientation. Teachers should reflect on this reality before discussing sensitive topics, like ethnic diversity, dealing with the totalitarian past, racism, or colonialism, with students in order to distinguish informed opinions from opinionated information. This reflection can be stimulated by readings that engage teachers with different ideological perspectives or structured reflective writings based onwriting prompts (Sleeter and Flores Carmona 2017, 39). Before discussing sensitive matters, it is desired that teachers reflect on their sociocultural consciousness and realize that their sense of purpose determines their approach in teaching sensitive issues (Ho 2017, 326).

Classroom Community

Example of a brainstorm about the concept Identity

Another important step is the creation of a safe space, in order to allow students to express their thinking while examining the topic (Ho 2017, 330). A safe space, however, is not the same as a comfortable one. A classroom can be a dignity safe classroom, while being intellectually unsafe by challenging students’ opinion (Flensner and Von der Lippe 2019, 278). Therefore, there should be something like ‘classroom civility’; expectations regarding values and basic norms to treat others with dignity (Flensner and Von der Lippe 2019, 279). To establish such dignity safe classroom, the examination of the concept of identity is a starting point. This allows for an understanding of the existence of multiple perspectives, due to unique identities that experience and view the world differently.

These are a few suggested activities that help to explore the concept of identity with students. An exercise about names and the meaning behind names set students on a path to explore their cultural background (Christensen 2017, 9). Another way is working with an identity chart, which helps students to think about the factors that make up their identity. The Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appropriately titled” The Danger of a Single Story”  is another way that allows a conversation to take place talk about identities and stereotypes (Christensen 2017, 71).

Eventually, it would be encouraged to create some kind of classroom contract. This can be done by an initial brainstorm on treating others with dignity, which can be translated into expectations or norms. For lower levels, the home advantage for sports team is a suitable idea to use for designing classroom expectations (Daniels and Ahmed 2015, 94). The document/chart created after such a session should have a prominent place in the classroom, so it can be consulted regularly, especially when engaging in activities that allow for multiperspectivity. Needless to say, these activities require a positive relationship between teacher and student, which is essential throughout the year.

Explicit Teaching of Civic Competences

Six-words memoirs created by students based on their identity chart

There are different methods that a teacher can use to employ multiperspectivity while teaching a sensitive topic. Discussion-based approaches are effective in developing civic skills, like developing an informed opinion, discussing with others, and respecting opposite viewpoints (Ho 2017, 328). However, this should go along with explicit teaching of discussion, self-reflection, and inquiry skills (Kello 2016, 37). It is important to distinguish a discussion from a debate, as the latter has the opposite effect (Ho 2017, 329). Thus, a teacher can utilize several teaching methods to conduct a discussion, e.g: world cafe, socratic seminar, or fishbowl. Suggestion

s for teaching methods focused on debate, dialogue or discussion and practical examples can be found in the Teacher's Guide produced in the framework of the Learning to Disagree project, that will be publicly available early 2020.There should be explicit teaching of necessary skills when conducting such discussions. A teacher could refer to the classroom contract and establish together with the students some behavioural expectations for the discussion. The focus can be on active listening or respectfully disagreeing. Students can first think for themselves what this means and how one can show this, whereafter their suggestions can be compiled on the board. After the activity, students reflect on their behaviours and set goals for themselves for the next time.

Conclusion

There is some preparatory work required before teachers can utilize content that addresses multiperspectivity in controversial issues. It is important that teachers first become aware of their own biases, which affect their pedagogical strategies. Secondly, students should have a feeling of civility safety in the classroom before engaging in a discussion about something sensitive. This can be done by focusing on the existence of different identities and thus different world views. In order to ensure everyone’s dignity, certain expectations can be written down on a classroom contract. Finally, there is a need to explicitly teach civic competences when it concerns a sensitive topic. The described steps allow educators to anticipate different viewpoints in our hyper-diverse classrooms nowadays.

 

This blogpost is written by Maayke de Vries (History teacher at International School Almere and Prospective PhD Student at the University College London), who joined the project meeting of the Learning to Disagree project in Utrecht in August 2019. In the project we are developing educational materials that you can implement in your classroom dealing with controversial and sensitive issues such as migration, living under totalitarian regimes and dealing with the history of this, and disputed cultural heritage. We also provide teachers guides on how you can use the techniques of debate, dialogue and discussion in the classroom with concrete examples, and on how to assess social and civic competences in that process. This blogpost was written as a supplemental resource looking at preparations before you can apply these resources in your classroom practice.

More from Maayke on www.mizsdafreeze.com

Sources:

Christenesen, Linda. 2017. Reading, Writing, and Rising up. Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd.

Daniels, Harvey “Smokey” and Sara K. Ahmed. 2015. Upstanders. How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Flensner, Karin K. and Marie Von der Lippe. 2019. “‘Being safe from what and safe for whom? A critical discussion of the conceptual metaphor of ‘safe space’.” Intercultural Education 30 (3):275-288. DOI: 10.1080/14675986.2019.1540102

Ho, Li‐Ching, Paula McAvoy, Diana Hess, and Brian Gibbs. 2017. “Teaching and Learning

about Controversial Issues and Topics in the Social Studies: A Review of the Research.” In The Wiley Handbook of Social Studies Research, edited by Manfra, Meghan McGlinn, and Cheryl Mason Blick, 321-335. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Kello, Katrin. 2016. “Sensitive and Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Teaching History in a Divided Society.” Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 22 (1): 35–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2015.1023027.

Navarro, Oscar and Tyrone C. Howard. 2017. “A Critical Race Theory Analysis of Social

Studies Research, Theory and Practice.” In The Wiley Handbook of Social Studies Research, edited by Manfra, Meghan McGlinn, and Cheryl Mason Blick, 209-226. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Sleeter, Christine and Judith Flores Carmona. 2017. UnStandardizing Curriculum. Multicultural Teaching in Standardized Classrooms. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Villegas, Ana Maria and Tamara Lucas. 2002. “Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers:

Bosnian War Moratorium Lifted in Sarajevo Schools

Catherine Savitsky Articles

For over two decades, Bosnian history curricula have been silent about the recent war. In 2018, however, Canton Sarajevo’s education ministry introduced the subject into classrooms for the first time, and now other cantons are following suit. The author visited Sarajevo in April 2019 to speak with various experts in the city about what this means for Bosnian history education and the memory of the war.

Introduction

The Bosnian War ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) in 1995, which divided the country between its warring parties. Two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS), were created; FBiH was divided into 10 autonomous cantons. Since the DPA made no specific arrangements for education, there are 13 education ministries in the country today. No effective mechanism has since been created to coordinate educational policy between them.

In 2000, the Council of Europe issued a recommendation that Bosnian schools refrain from teaching about the Bosnian War “to enable historians from all communities […] to develop a common approach.” The topic has thus not been addressed in the schools of any of the cantons since 2000.

New History Units

In 2017, in response to a petition submitted by the Academy of Sciences and Arts of FBiH, a committee of experts was drawn up by the Canton Sarajevo education ministry to form a writing team. This team of local history teachers, professors, and experts on genocide and modern history worked from July 2017 – January 2018, to create 5 new history curriculum units about the war:

  1. Military-political developments of the 1992-1995 war
  2. Military-political developments of the Siege of Sarajevo
  3. Everyday life in the Siege of Sarajevo
  4. War crimes and ethnic cleansing
  5. The Srebrenica genocide

The materials were circulated to teachers in April 2018, and implemented in May of the same year. The Bosnian War is now the final topic of 20th century history to be taught in the 9th grade of primary school (osnovna škola) in Sarajevo. Local education experts, in conversation with the author, identified the following three problems they see in the new units:

  1. Lack of multi-perspectivity

The narrative the units present is largely told from the perspective of Bosniaks as victims. One expert from the OSCE Mission to BiH mentioned that the units, though aimed to address the entire war, choose mainly to focus on the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Genocide. She argued that this perpetuates an established tendency of one-sided history teaching, which divides the actors of the war cleanly into victims on “our side” and perpetrators on “the other side.” The 4th unit, for example, teaches a list of ICTY indictments, most of which are against Serbs, to emphasize this victim-perpetrator binary.

According to a history didactics professor from the University of Sarajevo, the units retell the same old story that has always been told of the siege without adding any nuance. She argued that multi-perspectivity would be achieved if the units had, for example, discussed the Kazani crimes (murders of Bosnian Serbs committed by the Bosnian army). In the 3rd unit, the text does state that the Bosnian army also committed crimes, but stipulates that they are not to be compared to those committed by Serbs. It is important for the units, however, to avoid mitigating the crimes of either side and to recognize that suffering was experienced by all civilians, regardless of which side of the frontline they were on.

  1. Lack of teacher training

A weak curriculum can be saved by a strong teacher, but a strong curriculum is useless in the hands of a weak teacher. Local experts have thus argued that teacher training sessions and support services would be a much better use of resources than developing new curricula. Teachers are overloaded with sources to use with the new units, but most have not even been taught how to use them properly.

Furthermore, the material that the new units cover is highly personal. The teachers all experienced the war in some way, either in the siege, in exile, or otherwise, and have vivid memories that will resurface in the classroom. How are they meant to handle these emotions while teaching? How can they manage the family stories that students will share during discussions? There has been no attempt to host psychological sessions for teachers to deal with this issue. Ultimately, without more support, the teachers cannot implement the new units effectively.

  1. Politicization of the initiative

As the new units were being implemented, Canton Sarajevo entered election season. The focus of the initiative thus became to complete it in time for the election, rather than ensuring it was done well. The process was concluded, according to an expert from the OSCE, without any thought about its application in the classrooms or its effect on other parts of the country, such as reciprocal responses from Republika Srpska education officials. In addition, the history didactics professor lamented that no follow-up feedback session was organized for the teachers after implementation, so teachers had no chance to voice their concerns or suggestions for improvement.

The region generally suffers from a lack of long-term planning and commitment in education policies. Politicians have little incentive to implement policies that take time to bring results, since they will not necessarily be there to reap the rewards and receive due credit. Instead of investing in long-term goals, they prefer to apply short-term solutions to look good for the next election.

What’s next?

Following Sarajevo’s initiative, more and more cantons are introducing the war into their curriculum, but without coordination, their approach and content are bound to vary. So far, new units have been introduced in cantons Zenica-Doboj, Tuzla, and Una-Sana, and the entity of Republika Srpska. In RS, for example, it has recently been announced that new history textbooks and curricula will be developed to be more in line with Serbian programs. It will be interesting to see how the new units of other FBiH cantons will reflect varying interpretations of the war depending on their place of origin.

Meanwhile, local experts had been optimistic that a new, more progressive government had come to power in Sarajevo. However, the new Minister Zineta Bogunić resigned this July after only 7 months in office. The reason put forth by the media was that she was under pressure by the Prime Minister to pass a new law on higher education, which would introduce more governmental control over the University of Sarajevo. In any case, the new education ministry advised education experts at a recent meeting not to expect too much, since a strong shift in policy would likely be “too radical” to survive.

 

Catherine Savitsky is a Master’s student at the University of Toronto, studying European Studies. She visited Sarajevo in late April 2019 and conducted interviews with stakeholders as part of research for her Master’s thesis about the politicization of the siege’s collective memory in Sarajevo’s education system.  

Which kinds of educational media triggers conflict, and which contribute to overcoming it?

Barbara Christophe Articles

Before delving into this topic, two remarks on the limitations of my reflections must be noted. First of all, the focus will lie mainly on narrative strategies as conveyed in textbooks. Although this does not really tell us what is happening on the ground in history classrooms, textbooks offer us a window into official national discourses. Furthermore, questions of feasibility will largely be ignored when pondering the type of textbooks that may be able to break vicious cycles of fear and suspicion so typical of conflict. From observing processes of negotiating new textbook-content, we know that you usually can choose between two evils: either you include government officials into the process early on and then risk that they impose thousands of little compromises on your project, something that has happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or you exclude them in order to protect the process but run the risk that the product will be banned from classroom use. This is exactly what has happened with the PRIME project in Israel and Palestine. As frustrating as these insights may be, they will be put aside and textbooks as a source of conflict resolution will be discussed without taking into account likely political restrictions. 

Which textbooks trigger conflict? 

Antagonistic narratives 

Starting with the question of which textbooks trigger conflict, two points need to be made, one of which is well founded and probably not surprising at all while the second is more tentative and may pose a somewhat tough challenge to deep-rooted modes of thinking. Antagonistic narratives based on rigid binaries provide the necessary ingredients of conflict. The tricky thing about binaries is that they presuppose ‘the other’ even if (s)he is not mentioned. There is no hero without a villain and there is no victim without a perpetrator. Thus, there are at least two different types of binaries based on either heroisation or victimisation of the self. According to Bramsen & Poder (2018), there is reason to believe that self-victimisation has greater potential in triggering conflict than heroisation because fear and suspicions are much more powerful emotional weapons than pride. The one who is afraid of becoming a victim again is much more likely to be mobilised in what appears to be a defensive move than the one who is sure that she will be able to master all challenges ahead of her. In short, insecurity and the feeling of being exposed to threats creates a greater risk in terms of triggering conflict than an overemphasis on pride and superiority. 

As convincing as the insight into the psychologically devastating effects of binaries are, they do not have much relevance in a world in which global textbook standards of paying superficial tribute to the idea of human rights have proliferated around the world. Blatant examples of vilifying ‘the other’ are few and far between. There are, however, watered-down versions of stereotyping ‘the other’, which may include silencing everything that does not fit into the picture one wants to draw. To name just a few examples: research shows that many people in Israel do not know very much about the harsh living conditions Palestinians face in the occupied territories; and the predominantly celebratory memory in the US causes the Smithsonian Institution, as the leading mnemonic institution, to place significant emphasis on Americans as liberators from evil while keeping almost silent about slavery and the extinction of Native Americans. 

Furthermore, in many discussions a somewhat misplaced focus on stereotyping on the basis of ethnicity or religion can be observed. At the same time, social stereotyping is no less dangerous: Lebanese civic textbooks published after 1997 - praised for their orientation towards human rights education - would, for example, depict middle class families as being able to conduct a calm and reasoned dialogue whereas working class people are shown predominantly as being violent. 

Cosmopolitan narratives

Based on recent insights from memory studies, it can be argued that even inclusive, cosmopolitan narratives can at times contribute to conflict. While this may sound completely unlikely at first, it is nonetheless accurate. Narratives which are too good to be true first fail to take root in the minds and hearts of people and then fail to prevent die-hard populists and nationalists from taking over. An almost forgotten example, besides former Yugoslavia, would be the Soviet Union. Hegemonic version of peace, love and harmony among the family of Soviet people neither hindered the beak-UP of the federation nor the break-OUT of deadly war and conflict. 

Furthermore, at times, cosmopolitan narratives are so abstract that they appear to be disconnected from everyday life. A good case in point would be post-conflict textbooks in Guatemala where the rather vague concept of culture of violence" is ascribed responsibility for mass atrocities and crimes. Very much in line with cosmopolitan approaches in citizenship education, the same textbooks emphasise individual agency and responsibility, apparently very much at the expense of talking about structural causes of violence. 

Another “cosmopolitan” strategy of talking seemingly open-minded about violence while keeping silent about structures of inequality enabling such violence, is treating conflict as exceptional. As a rule, this goes hand in hand with an overreliance on ideals with little reference to realities on the ground. A rather typical example, for which the Georg Eckert Institute has empirical data on their effects, are Lebanese textbooks published after the curricular reforms of 1997 which strongly propagate a civic Lebanese identity, treat the civil war as an exceptional and somewhat abnormal event in the usually peaceful Lebanese history and put significant emphasis on individual human rights. Various studies prove that students showed low levels of motivation to learn from these books as content was perceived to conflict too heavily with the reality they know. Accordingly, the books did not affect any change in terms of the types of belonging expressed by students. Students continued to identify strongly with their religious communities. According to a study conducted by UNDP in 2008, i.e. 10 years after the implementation of the reforms, more than a third of the students believed they should vote only for parties recommended their own religious leaders. 

In order to point out that this problem is not restricted to so-called fragile democracies, a similar kind of drawing of rigid boundaries between violence and injustices of the past and a present constructed as having overcome all these problems, can be found in US textbooks on African American history. Phenomena like racism are mentioned, but at the same time they are incorporated into a narrative of successfully eradicating all evils of the past. 

In a preliminary attempt to sum up, two versions of presenting history at school can trigger conflict: history that bites and stirs up emotions; and history that bores and thus fails to encourage students to seriously deal with the wounds of the past. 

Which books could contribute to overcoming conflict? 

The second, and arguably more important question, is the question of which kinds of educational media is best equipped to challenge the sectarian and partisan views that have either triggered conflict or emerged as an outcome of it. 

The one and only statement that can be made with the utmost certainty in a field which still suffers from a lack of empirically grounded studies, is rather simple and perhaps slightly frustrating: there will likely be no one-size-fits-all approach. Different societal situations and different types of students require different treatments. 

It is of particular importance to map the levels at which significant differences may occur. The most important difference pertains to the role identities play in conflict. There are numerous conflicts rooted in powerful interests of looting, which are easily pursued in times of war-driven chaos. However, identities can be either the cause or the consequence of a conflict. Another crucial difference has to do with power differentials between groups. A prominent study on Israel has shown that Jewish students profit from a rational, enquiry-based approach to history teaching, which would generally aim at equipping students with the disciplinary tools of the historian and thus enable them to deal critically with sources and other kinds of historical evidence. However, the same study also indicated that Palestinians would first need emotional recognition of their own, usually marginalised, position before they could attempt casting a critical look on their own group. 

Broad strategies for textbook content

All approaches to presenting textbook content to-date come with certain advantages and certain disadvantages. This has often been described, but it is hardly ever spelled out explicitly. 

Textbooks based on a critical, enquiry-based approach at times suffer from a lack of emotional appeal and thus may not succeed in asserting themselves in competition with the more passionate voices of partisan groups. This has been observed, for example, in Northern Ireland. Giving voice to multiple perspectives may have a destabilising effect as it may be misunderstood as an invitation to moral nihilism. The same holds true for approaches which try to cater for emotional needs they may then not be able to control. 

What can be learned from this is that the pro’s and con’s involved in any strategy have to be carefully weighed. In clear contrast to earlier debates, there is one crucial exception to the general rule of being context sensitive. Whereas there was a time when imposing a moratorium on any dealings with recent pasts was discussed as a serious option in post-conflict settings, today it is understood that silence in school and in the history classroom mainly contributes to reproducing the divides that initially triggered the conflict. 

Agonistic memory as a potential solution

Having presented all these rather disturbing thoughts without really to a promising solution, the concept of agonistic memory is worth discussing. This concept recently emerged in the field of memory studies but can be easily adapted to history education.

Frustrated by the ease with which the antagonistic memories of populists, which have dominated discourses in the global North for some time, push cosmopolitan memories into the corner, Bell & Hansen (2016) have introduced the notion of agonistic memory. According to them, this type of memory should present us with a better, more effective antidote to the seductive power of neo-nationalism. 

In their understanding, agonistic memory is based mainly on the juxtaposition of competing narratives on one and the same events. At first glance, that seems to be nothing more than the familiar concept of multiperspectivity that has long since informed debates in history education. However, upon closer inspection, the new concept of agonistic memory involves something more, something innovative. 

The aim of giving voice to competing perspectives is not only to render history more complex and more nuanced, but to point to inescapable dilemmas. Students should thus not only learn to check the plausibility of competing narratives with reference to evidence, first and foremost, they should develop an understanding for the tough choices historical actors had to take during times of more adverse circumstances. Such an approach ties in perfectly with concerns that have been raised again and again by history educators;  that students are frequently encouraged to make judgements too easily about people in the past without taking into due consideration the difficulties and challenges they might have faced. 

To add a little more flesh and bones to this rather abstract argument, a promising example comes not from a textbook but from an exhibition at the Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany. The museum was re-opened in 2011 in a city that, at the time, experienced considerable right-wing violence. In the midst of such a disturbing social climate, the exhibition found a very innovative way of dealing with the aerial bombing of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War, a topic that was traditionally manipulated by the Far Right. 

What is so interesting about the exhibition is that it moved beyond the classical comparison to aerial bombings of Coventry, Rotterdam and Wielun and instead presents opposing voices of witnesses for every city. Visitors can listen to a Jew who only survived the Holocaust because the bombing of Dresden saved him from being deported to a death camp; and get to know an American journalist who is full of regret that his fellow countrymen sunk to the moral level of the Germans. Visitors can learn about a young Pole who was severely traumatised by German occupation, but is nowadays nevertheless very committed to the cause of German-Polish reconciliation; and are faced with a Dutch man who, against the backdrop of similar experiences, claims that he still hates all Germans. 

Again, it can clearly be seen how agonistic memory moves beyond traditional multiperspectivity. Where multiperspectivity often restricts itself to juxtaposing nationalistic and antagonistic narratives that are easily discarded, especially when it comes to conflict, agonistic memory introduces mutually exclusive voices, all of which appear to be convincing and legitimate. It thus contributes not only to a broadening of narrow stories, but also underlines the legitimacy of competing perspectives. 

Last not least, by constructing dilemmas agonistic memory creates a sharpened awareness for the illusionary character of all claims to historical truth; supporting the understanding that no account could ever hope to be complete or definitive. All narratives are selective. All stories are the result of taking a certain perspective from which some things can be seen and others not. 

As simple and convincing as this may sound, to transplant such an approach from the museum to the textbook creates several tough consequences: first, the difference between history and memory must be relinquished, so to the illusion that teachers can be neutral and objective; and second, it must be acknowledged that an enquiry-based approach creates not only a solution, but also problems, by implying that following a rational, disciplined approach we may arrive at superior conclusions. 

 

Written by Dr. Barbara Christophe, Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research

 

Further reading:

Bellino, Michelle J. 2014. Whose past, whose present? Historical memory among the postwar generation in Guatemala. In: James H. Williams, ed.: (Re) Constructing memory: School textbooks and the imagination of the nation, Rotterdam, 131-151.

Bull, A. C. & Hansen, H. L. 2016. On agonistic memory. In: memory Studies 9:4, 390-404.

Bull, A. C. & Hansen, H. L. 2019. A reply to Nathan Sznaider. http://www.unrest.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Final-Conference-Rome_Reply-to-Sznaider_Bull_Hansen.pdf

Hourani, Rida Blaik. 2017. A call for unitary history textbook design in a post-conflict era: The case of Lebanon. In: The History teacher 50:2, 255-284.

Loewen, James W. 2007. Gone with the wind. The invisibility of racism in American history textbooks. In: Idem: Lies my teacher told me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: 137-170.

McCully, A. & J. Reilly (2017): History teaching to promote positive community relations in Northern Ireland: tensions between pedagogy, social psychology theory and professional practice in two recent projects. In: C. Psaltis, M. Carretero & S. Cehajic-Clancy (Eds.): History Education and Conflict Transformation. Social Psychological Theories, History Teaching and Reconciliation. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 301-320.

McCully, A. (2012): History teaching, conflict and legacy of the past. In: Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 7 (2), pp. 145-159.

Meyer, John; Bromley, Patricia; Ramirez, Francisco. 2010. Human rights in social science textbooks: cross national analyses, 1970-2008. In: Sociology of education 83:2, 111-134.

Paulson, Julia. 2015. Whether and how? History education about recent and ongoing conflict: A review of research. In: Journal of Education in Emergencies 1:1, 7-37.

Rohde, Achim: "Learning each other's historical narrative: a road map to peace in Israel/Palestine?" In: Korostelina, K.V. & Lässig, s. (eds.): History education and Post-Conflict Reconciliation: Reconsidering joint textbook projects. London-New York: Routledge 2013, 177-191.

Shuayb, Maha. 2015. Human rights and peace education in the Lebanese civic textbooks. In: Research in Comparative International Education 10:1, 135-150.

Wills J. S. 2005. Some People Even Died: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement and the Politics of Remembrance in Elementary Classrooms, in: International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 18:1, 2005, 109-131.

Wineburg, Sam. 2001. Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Zembylas, Michalinos; Bekerman, Zvi. 2011. Teaching contested narratives. Identity, memory and reconciliation in peace education and beyond, Cambridge.