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.


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


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.


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.

Safe Schools and Spying Students

Madison Pagel Articles

On Monday 1 July 2019, EuroClio convened a meeting for experts in the field of history education to discuss the role of high-quality history education in conflict prevention and resolution. During the meeting, Eyal Naveh presented the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in history education, which centered on the inclusion of the Nakba and Holocaust in the countries’ curricula. During his informative presentation, Naveh touched upon Im Tirtzu, a right-wing, non-profit organisation in Israeli that has launched a web platform where students can report their teachers for promoting ‘anti-Israel’ views. Entitled ‘Know Your Professor’, the project asks students to report teachers who “teach at publicly funded universities yet promote BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], encourage international pressure on Israel, accuse the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] of war crimes, and call to refuse service in the IDF,” with the claim that such behaviour is an inappropriate use of tax-payer dollars. 

Initially, some in attendance were surprised to hear about such tactics. However, upon further discussion, the experts were able to conjure many other examples and it became readily apparent that Im Tirtzu’s actions are not unique; rather, they are part of a broader pattern of increasing calls for student to surveil their teachers. This sparked a greater conversation about the concept of ‘safe schools’ and what the term should be understood to encompass. It became clear that the safety of teachers, both professionally and physically, is an integral consideration for history education reforms. 

Teachers are the most important link between students and content, through whom textbooks, curricula, and government initiatives are filtered. Even if teachers are provided with unbiased, inclusive content, if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe teaching it, the success of history education reform can be greatly compromised. The encouragement of students to report or otherwise publicly denounce teachers who teach controversial subjects can lead to an inability of teachers to educate in a way that highlights multiple perspectives or interpretations of the past. If teachers believe their careers or reputations are vulnerable, they may choose not to teach controversial subjects or otherwise censor themselves. It can stifle debate and critical thinking skills. In short, the unsafe teacher is a choke point that threatens the success of even the most well-thought out reforms. This makes the prevalence of the surveillance all the more concerning.

Take, for instance, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which called for students to report teachers for violations of neutrality laws. Here, a political party that denies or questions the extent of the Holocaust is asking for students to report teachers who question or speak ill of the party. Analogous tactics are being employed in the Netherlands, where the Forum voor Democratie (FvD) is similarly politicising the education system. Over 1,500 Dutch educators have signed an open letter against the education policies of the FvD, specifically claiming that the reporting hotline—touted by FvD as a way to reduce bias in the classroom—is simply an attempt to coerce educators into teaching the party’s brand of history. 

In addition to political parties, interest groups sometimes lead the charge: one notable example of this is the Professor Watchlist, in the United States. The site was created by Turning Point USA, a conservative non-profit organisation. While the website claims to only publish those teachers whose alleged offenses are corroborated by pre-existing news sources with credible reporting, the sources listed are often extremely partisan. Campus Reform, a self-described conservative watchdog publication, is often the sole publication cited. Professor Watchlist is a particularly alarming iteration of this dangerous practice as it publishes images of the educators, as well as their workplace, potentially threatening their physical security. This website also illustrates how easily the practice can backslide from the ostensible goal of preventing bias in the classroom to ensuring bias in the classroom through the censure of certain views and the restriction academic freedoms. 

Consider the following example. Patricia Williams made the watchlist for claiming that the history of the right to bear arms was based in racial and gender privileges. The website linked to Williams’ opinion piece, where she discusses her interpretation of this history. As proof of her bias, the website also links a report on gun ownership by the Pew Research Center, a legitimising move that attempts to align the think tank with the website’s view despite the irrelevance of the report to the article’s argument. Williams’ opinion piece does not explicitly renounce an ideology, but rather asserts a perspective. The website’s publishing of Williams and other teachers harms the promotion of multiperspectivity in classroom by disparaging their views and, as a result, attempting to harm the credibility of the educators. William’s claim uses concrete evidence to advance a point with which the website does not agree; she is not denounced for being a poor academic, but rather for being a ‘wrong’ one. While this particular website is not influential or salient in United States, a similar website in Brazil shows what can happen when the websites gain traction in the community or government.

Escola sem Partido, or Schools without Party, is a right-wing movement calling for the end to the politicisation of schools in Brazil. The movement gained popularity through government support, with President Bolsonaro endorsing the movement. Personally encouraging students to film teachers who criticise his rule or agenda, he went so far as to share a video of a teacher ‘indoctrinating’ students against his regime. Having received the consent of the ruling party, this movement can pose significant risks to the teachers and schools that are denounced by it. In part as a response to claims of partiality for the left, the Brazilian government proposed extensive budget cuts to three large publicly funded universities who were reported to have engaged in such anti-government behaviour, providing monetary disincentive to contradict the ruling party’s views, including those on history. The current situation has been satirised in a comedy video, which, although facetious, illustrates the pressure on educators, in particular history educators, in Brazil.

While most of the examples of politicians or interest groups encouraging students or providing platforms for students to report on their teachers are less severe than that of Brazil, the case illustrates the detrimental affect such an environment can have on the quality of education, and how it can threaten even the most well-thought out history education reforms. Teachers cannot employ the strategies integral to high-quality history education if they feel threatened by the state or fear professional retaliation. It is incredibly important that schools are safe for students to debate freely; it is of equal importance to recognise that teacher’s safety is key to effective reform, and decision makers would do well to remember and consider the aforementioned examples.

Written By Madison Pagel, IHJR Research trainee.

The Fatalism of Enmity? In conversation with Mirosław Filipowicz

Jilt Jorritsma Articles

In 2012, a group of Russian and Polish historians joined hands to come up with a transnational approach to historical issues that could help overcome mutual stereotypes. Their collaboration resulted in a Polish-Russian companion to history for teachers in Poland and Russia, which is made available online for free.

Polish professor Mirosław Filipowicz was head of the Institute of East-Central Europe (IEŚW) in Lublin, one of the main organizations behind the project. Filipowicz wanted to revive Polish-Russian dialogue, which had already been initiated a few years earlier by the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, however, the work of the Group stopped. Before, they had published a collection of parallel histories by Polish and Russian scholars who recounted each country’s version of important historical events. In addition, Filipowicz wanted historians from both countries to combine their perspectives by working and writing together.

Filipowicz was appointed as the new co-head of the Group for Difficult Matters by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2016. But unfortunately, the IEŚW was closed down by the Polish government in December 2018. It’s staff was expelled from work, and Filipowicz resigned from the position in the Group. Now there is no official scholarly channel for Russian-Polish historical dialogue.

I talked to professor Filipowicz about the importance of such dialogues, and the problems he encountered when working on these educational materials.

Jilt Jorritsma: Why was this shared Polish-Russian history necessary – why now?

Mirosław Filipowicz: History of Polish-Russian relations has never been easy, but after 1989 (collapse of communism in Poland and the whole region) and 1991 (collapse of the Soviet Union) the problem of Polish-Russian peaceful and normal coexistence became even more crucial than before. One of the best ways to overcome old stereotypes is solid and openminded education.

When thinking of initiating our project, I had two goals to achieve. One addressed to Russians: to enlarge empathy there for Polish sensitivities. The other of more domestic nature: to help Polish pupils/students to understand the other – in this case, to help us understand Russians. When we initiated the project in 2012, this was quite important. Now, after the Smolensk catastrophe (in 2010 ed.) and with right-wing ‘patriots’ at power here in Poland, this task is of greater importance: not only to produce historical knowledge, but also to have present impact.

I was quite surprised when the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs in his first expose before Polish Parliament in 2018 mentioned our project as the only positive achievement in Polish-Russian present relations.

JJ: How did you ensure that local histories, contexts and sentiments were not overlooked in a broader, transnational frame of analysis?

MF: History, as I look at it, is a combination of broader perspectives and of more human, ‘micro-historical’ details. It’s not good when one of these elements is missing. So we have tried not to overlook the particular human beings (both Russians and Poles) when writing this companion for teachers. We also tried to put the history of Polish-Russian relations in the broader context of European history.

JJ: Were there any (methodological or substantive) problems when working together with scholars from another country?

MF: Sure, there were many difficulties. First, I was under the impression that for Russian colleagues (not for Russian authors, but for their supervisors from the Academy of Science) our project had more political importance than for us. I was positively impressed by the work Polish and Russian historians and teachers have done together. But later the Russian ‘editorial team’ proposed so many changes that we felt it was not a revision, but censorship instead.

The only way to overcome such tendencies was persuasion. When they started to understand that we were not politicians, things became a little bit easier. One funny situation took place when we discussed the chapter concerning mutual stereotypes. Someone from the Russian supervisors felt indignant, so both Russian and Polish authors had to explain to him that the stereotype analysis was not the same as stereotype reinforcement – just the opposite.

JJ: Were there academics involved from countries other than Russia or Poland – what was their role in the process?

MF: Sometimes we asked some German colleagues for advice. They have a long history of both German-Russian and German-Polish historical dialogue. That was useful for us. And, to our surprise, our project, when we published the first two volumes, appeared to be interesting not only for our Belorussian colleagues, but also for Japanese and South-Korean historians and historical educators. They found useful methodological patterns for their own historical dialogue.

JJ: How do you ensure that the publications will be widely used by teachers in both countries?

MF: We have no guarantee that the companion we prepared will be introduced in Russian schools. In Poland, fortunately, the question is of less bureaucratic nature and if teachers are interested, they can use our materials. All the results, both in Russian and in Polish, are available online and free of charge. That’s the most easy way to make the results useful for teachers.

JJ: How did you take the different teaching environments in both countries into consideration during the production of these didactic aids?

MF: That was a real problem. Even though Russian history and history of Polish-Russian relations is essential for Polish history, we cannot say this is also true the other way around. That’s obvious: Russia is much bigger than Poland and has many more neighbors, not only European. But after many visits to Moscow, I can tell that Poland is very important for many Russian people and is quite interesting to them. When working on the companion we had to keep both Polish and Russian school programs in mind. If teachers would like to use our books, they can do so, even if just for some additional lessons or school activities.

JJ: How can a transnational approach help overcome stereotypes in the classroom?

MF: We had a unique experience to visit Moscow schools and to work with Russian teachers. As far as I know, that was really the first time when Polish historians could work with Russian history teachers. It was quite fantastic opportunity for both sides. Russian colleagues visited our schools here in Poland as well.

Normal contacts – that’s the first step to overcome stereotypes. And later: talks, readings, discussions.

The third and last volume of the shared Russian-Polish history (which focuses on the 20th century) will still hopefully be published later this year: www.polska-rosja.eu


Written By Jilt Jorritsma, EuroClio Former Research trainee.

Hidden in plain sight: Teaching the history of people with disabilities

Helen Snelson Articles

One of the many wonderful things about EuroClio - is the opportunity it provides to meet and learn from other people with teaching and research interests and perspectives that challenge and inspire better practice. Thus it was, during a project meeting in EURCLIO’s office in The Hague in 2017, when Dr Monika Baar came to share with us her work on the history of people with disabilities and the ‘Rethinking Disability Project’. Much of the content of her presentation was new to me. For example, I did not know about the protests triggered by the UN’s intention to make 1981 the ‘Year for disabled people’. Nor had I heard of the 1990 Capitol Crawl that helped to bring about the US 1990 Disability Act, which has influenced legislative approaches beyond the USA. Search for an image of this event and you will see the powerful expression of physically disabled people crawling up the steps of the Washington Capitol building to powerfully demonstrate how they were excluded, literally and metaphorically, from US democracy. Monika stressed to us the importance of all people being able to know about their past. Why had I not seen this before? How had I been letting down my students, by not enabling them to learn about the historical context to our attitudes towards disability today? Were they ignorant of how hard the road has been towards our relatively positive attitudes? What of students with a disability, was the past relevant to part of their identity to be absent from my classroom?

The 2010 Equality Act passed by the UK Parliament places on all teachers a duty to nurture the development of a society in which equality and human rights are deeply rooted. For history teachers this poses the question: ‘Does our history curriculum reflect the diverse pasts of all people in society?’ and ‘Do all the children sitting in front of us have the chance to learn about people like themselves?’ And yet, the school history curriculum is so full already, so how could any more content be shoe-horned into it?

With food for much thought from Monika and various vague ideas, I went straight back to my inspiring colleague and friend Ruth Lingard back in York and we put aside some time to think and do some reading.

Two useful key texts we found were ‘Disability Histories’ edited by Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, and ‘Madness: a brief history’ by Roy Porter. We also discovered that various museums and heritage organisations have made good progress with providing material online that was relevant to our work. Meanwhile, a friend who is undertaking doctoral work in the field of disability in early modern literature gave invaluable help with this period. For example, pointing out to us the many times that disability features in Shakespeare’s work and how often this aspect of his character’s identity has been over-looked in the history of performance. For example, the reference to Kate in the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ as ‘limping Kate’. Her gender, rather than her disability are usually the focus in performance. For a discussion of this see Hile, R. (2009) ‘Disability and the characterisation of Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew’ – in ‘Disability Studies Quarterly, 29, no. 4 http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/996/1180

From this reading we were able on construct ‘a very short history of disability in western Europe’. This took a particular focus on Britain because we were planning resources for use in history classrooms and we had to make the resources connect to the curriculum so that teachers would be able to use them. Our short history was not intended for students, but to help teachers build their knowledge. We assumed, I think correctly as it has turned out, that most colleagues would be as ignorant as we had been about this aspect of the past.

Using the short history we had written, we created a mini thematic activity. A thematic activity is one which enables students to learn about change and continuity across time and also to enable them to learn about how different factors work together to cause change. Students were given texts and images to arrange in chronological order. A teacher-led discussion was then held, with the purpose of making explicit for students the change and continuity, including enabling students to identify turning point moments. That is, moments of significant and lasting change. From this discussion students identified, for example, that shifting ideas about the human body and new kinds of religious beliefs resulted in new thinking about disability and changed attitudes to people with disabilities. We wrote the material in such a way that students could learn that the situation was sometimes complex. For example, although the 19th century was a time of progress in medical science, it was followed by changing, but not progressive, attitudes towards people with disability. Finally, students used post-it notes to identify on their timeline where factors were at work; for example, factors such as ‘religious beliefs’, ‘the development of scientific thought’ and ‘war’. We then discussed how the factors were working together to cause change.

As a result of our reading we discovered that people with disabilities in the past were ‘hidden in plain sight’. For example, there is a famous picture of the 16th century English king, Henry VIII. It is of Henry and his family. However, there are two other people in the picture: Will Somers and Jane the Fool. Both of them were people with learning disabilities who were part of the Royal Household able to make the king forget his worries and to ‘speak truth to power in a way that other courtiers could not. Once we started looking, we found other people present in stories already told in history lessons, for example, Benjamin Lay, the Quaker campaigner for the abolition of transatlantic slavery who was also a dwarf. As a result, we have developed a format called a ‘slot in’. A slot-in is a knowledge rich worksheet about a character, or event, or place, which adds diversity to a topic and which can easily become part of existing lessons.

We recommend these principled actions for history teachers working with disability:

  • Take time to gain knowledge and make connections.
  • Be prepared to admit to ignorance and ask for help from people who are knowledgeable about how to represent people with disabilities.
  • Make a review of existing teaching materials looking for where you can ‘slot in’ diversity.
  • Say something rather than nothing, enabling the voices of past people with disabilities to be heard.

Two years later and we have written an article about our work for the UK Historical Association’s journal ‘Teaching History’ and presented at two Historical Association conferences. We have produced resources for students in English schools including:

  • a timeline activity tracing changes in attitudes to disability in relation to changes in ideas about being human (described above),
  • a timeline activity specifically focused on attitudes to mental health over time,
  • sources as evidence activities, including using records from the archives of the pioneering Retreat asylum opened by Quakers in the 18th century,
  • slot-ins on various people and places important to the story of disability and society,
  • and, of course, teacher guides for all of these.

These are freely available in downloadable format via the blog www.yorkclio.com and we would be delighted if colleagues were to find them useful and to improve them.

Written By Helen Snelson, EuroClio Ambassador 

Teaching Democracy: Balancing between Free Speech and Offensive Expressions

Jilt Jorritsma Articles

Event: Far-Right Extremism in the classroom

13-14 June 2019, Berlin, Germany 

History education is more and more perceived as a means to strengthen democratic values among students. In order to become full and active members of society, students need to learn about mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflicts. This requires methods of teaching that allow freedom of thought and expression of opinions in the classroom.

However, one of the difficulties that teachers face when they want to engage students in open discussions, is how to deal with expressions that are offensive, discriminating, or even racist. What to do with these statements and the students expressing them? How can you, as a teacher, address the difference between ‘just expressing opinions’ and offensive statements; and how can you uphold a climate of open debate while at the same time condemning certain statements made by students?


Far-Right Extremism

These questions lay at the heart of the Far-Right Extremism in the Classroom meeting, organized by the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), which brought together teachers, policemen and academics dealing with far-right extremism (FRE). Because of its strong online presence, youngsters across Europe are likely to come across FRE ideas, and bring them to school. These are often xenophobic, racist and white supremacist messages about immigration, nationalism, history and democracy.

Efforts to prevent these ideas from spreading, or to silence them during discussions in class, are framed by FRE students as censorship and a violation of their freedom of speech.

Teachers from different countries expressed their concerns. In Greece, the renaming of North Macedonia earlier this year has fueled right-wing and nationalist expressions in schools. In Belgium a school was confronted with a group of students who shared racist comments and pictures online, threatening to kill international students. When organizing a ‘week against discrimination’, a school in France saw it’s promotion posters against antisemitism and homophobia being removed by students. And a school in Finland had to deal with parents hiding outside the schoolyard, reporting every time they saw a student with an immigration background doing something wrong.


Pitfalls: the Will to Control

One of the pitfalls when dealing with racism and discrimination in class are what Christer Mattsson (University of Gothenburg) refers to as ‘controlling pedagogies’: interventions by teachers aimed at altering the mindset of the student in question. Examples of such pedagogies are (1) walking in someone else’s shoes, a strategy by which teachers ask students to alter their perspective, and (implicitly) urge them to change their mind; (2) the hot seat, a strategy by which teachers make the student in question the center of attention, and fire questions at him/her; (3) physical separation, a strategy by which the student is sent out of the classroom and separated from the group.

Although, these teaching strategies are often applied with the best intentions, their results can be counterproductive. Teachers use them to control what is said and expressed in the classroom. Controlling what is expressed (or even forcing desired expressions) can produce distrust against authority. Students will learn that some expressions are desired by the teacher. They will avoid saying what the teacher doesn’t want to hear, and just say what they know the teacher wants to hear. This will not lead to any significant change in the students’ mindset.

Furthermore, excluding particular students from the classroom, or grouping difficult students together in a different class, will only further distance them from their classmates and might even further radicalize their ideas. Physical separation often produces mental separation.

Controlling pedagogies are therefore merely quick fixes: they might work at the time being, but they won’t establish any long-term change in the behavior of students, and won’t enable them to reflect on where their ideas and beliefs come from.


Changing Teaching Culture

A shift in focus is needed: from quick pedagogies of control towards sustainable pedagogies of emancipation. Teachers need to help students understand themselves, and this can only be done in a non-judgmental environment. Such an environment demands teachers that are non-judgmental, and this often proves to be problematic. In a lot of schools, teachers who are non-judgmental are considered to be soft, whereas acting harsh is considered to give teachers the appearance that they are firm.

In order to empower students to become more aware of their own values, we first have to empower teachers to be able to do so as well. Instead of secluding or separating offensive expressions, teachers need a to be able to convey a message that is more positive and inclusive. They need to understand where students get their ideas from, and why some students feel the need to express them. Teacher training can help them achieve this.


The RAN EDU meeting will result in a paper that shows schools and teachers how to respond to FRE.


Written By Jilt Jorritsma, EuroClio  Research trainee.



Controversy and Polarization in European Contexts: Sharing insights from a research meeting in Brussels

Lexi Oudman Articles

One of a teacher’s worst nightmares is when a classroom explodes into a heated argument that gets out of control. This is possible in all contexts and for various reasons; some instances are predicable, while others are completely unexpected. EuroClio has been exploring these issues with the ongoing Learning to Disagree project, with resources available in March 2020.

The Evens Foundation and The Flemish Peace Institute called a research meeting May 23-24 2019 to dig into the difficulties surrounding controversy and polarization. As part of my research traineeship at EuroClio, I was asked to present the Learning to Disagree project and parts of my master’s research at Erasmus University on controversial and sensitive history in a Dutch context. Here I will discuss some of the most important findings from that meeting.

Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the classroom

Initiator of the meeting and driven by his role as senior researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute, Maarten Van Alstein, wrote Omgaan met Controversie en Polarisatie in de Klas (Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the Classroom). Based on his research in the Flemish educational context, Van Alstein has developed a “scenario based approach” that may help teachers to deal with emotive and sensitive topics in the classroom. He discusses how in Belgium, and across the globe, students are being pulled to more extreme views with more strongly held positions that makes it more difficult to teach or predict when controversy may occur in the classroom. He distinguishes three different scenarios:

Scenario one: “A Classroom in Turmoil” describes a situation where a classroom explodes due to insensitive or inflammatory remarks. In this situation, depending on the teachers and students present in the classroom, a teacher must decide what to do quickly. There are pros and cons to removing a student from the class, cutting-off discussions, encouraging further discussion or probe a student for a particular response. Removing a student from the classroom may cease the undesired comments from the discussion, but it also limits that student’s ability to engage in more perspectives. There may be a fear of allowing a student to remain will only amplify the insensitive or undesired remarks, although probing a student for why they hold a particular viewpoint can allow for debasing their comments. Van Alstein states that in a polarized classroom teachers should aim for the middle, less vocal students by providing arguments based upon reason and evidence. These are the students who do not have cemented beliefs and may potentially be persuaded by the more radical classmates.

Scenario two: “Controversial Topics in the Curriculum” focusses on topics from within the curriculum that are perceived as controversial. Van Alstein highlights that, first, teachers need to estimate if the controversy is an open or a settled controversy. A “settled controversy”, for instance, is evolution, which some students may still consider to be  controversial. Van Alstein encourages teachers to use correct terminology and to avoid presenting topics in absolutist terms. Instead, it is important to allow  students to inquire and learn how to ask disciplinary questions in order to evaluate the topics like a scientist or a historian would. An “open controversy” is a topic that still has unanswered questions within the field. For example, in science classes students may evaluate evidence on effectiveness of different modern vaccines. Dealing with “open controversies” may be more effective for student to engage with once they are accustomed to using the disciplinary methods and weighing viewpoints.

Scenario three: “Controversy as Pedagogy” is where teachers use controversial issues to introduce students to different perspectives and engage students in democratic discussions in the classroom. Prior to using this pedagogy, teachers should plan their goals and preferably have a longer project based time period to work with students. This should be done in an established democratic classroom and it may be better to start with less controversial issues. This way, students would slowly become accustomed to engage with talking about such topics, allowing the classes to be built up to more recent issues or topics closer to their identity. An example from history education could be having students engage in a dialogue or debate on a particular event and look at different historical interpretations. This allows for students to weigh each position and explore why those particular theories may have been held.

In all three scenarios, Van Alstein encourages teachers to use the classroom as a means for democratic engagement by creating a safe classroom with an “open-class climate” in which students and teachers are able to participate in a democratic way. This encourages students to use critical thinking and ask inquiry questions. Such an open class climate can be established if teachers first recognize biases in their own practice and reflect on what their position will be in potential situations. Second, by setting up rules with students to create a democratic, safe classroom. As a teacher, this means some of the classroom authority will shift to students; this encourages self-direction and ownership. Finally, teachers need to help students work through and engage in dialogue around potential controversial or sensitive topics. This may include having students first research or journal their thoughts to ensure a discussion has academic foundation. This may also help students to recognize their own biases and influences of outside narratives.

Expanding into a Broader European Context

The meeting moved forward into each individual or organization sharing their experiences with controversy and polarisation. Participants came from Belgium, Croatia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden. Cross-disciplinary discussions between English, science and history teachers along with teacher trainers. It provided rich discussions and best practices to emerge from each context.

Thea, an English teacher from Croatia, described how her school worked to integrate students from Serbian and Croatian backgrounds. The school provides opportunities for students to participate in classes together, in a school system that allows for segregation based upon language. She explained that students have the choice to join in classes or go on trips with classmates from opposite regional identity. This helps in countering stereotypes that each group has about the other.

Olivier, from France, provided intriguing methods using multi-perspectivity in science classes. France has a rigid prescribed syllabi and he has found ways to engage with using the content as controversy, or in Van Alstein’s terms “controversy as pedagogy.” He provided the example of having students research the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine, which is an open controversy with no firm scientific conclusions. Each student group had to present, with evidence, on their recommendations for the vaccine. In one class, three groups, reading the same evidence provided three different answers—one said to get vaccinated, one said do not get vaccinated and the third group said they did not know what to do. The teachers do not force students to select an answer, rather, provide the evidence and allow for students to choose for themselves what they want to believe.

Representatives from Poland and Barcelona discussed the difficulties that teachers, NGOs, and educational professionals are facing in these contexts. In Poland, the discourse is quite bleak around education, with the government vilifying teachers after the month long teacher’s strike. In Barcelona, some teachers are facing the risk of prosecution for discussing the 2017 Catalan conflict after the unsanctioned independence referendum. In both scenarios there is increased fear from teachers and significant blocks for engaging in controversy or polarization in their classrooms.

Despite push back from government and communities there are teachers who encourage students to engage with difficult topics in these contexts. They have created Good Conversation Clubs, Forum Theatre’s and encouraged students to engage with social campaigns. These groups are reaching out to engage with the whole community to initiate whole community change to help restore the loss of trust between teachers and the community. There also is hope in the amount of students that are voluntary participating.

I have done integrated research for my master’s degree and EuroClio. My Master’s research centres on how international school teachers in the Netherlands deal with sensitive and controversial history. I used research and literature to help write a working document for EuroClio on what factors teachers need to consider prior to engaging with sensitive or controversial history. I will share these results via another article that will be published later. EuroClio is working to develop further resources with the Learning to Disagree Project with the March 31 to April 4 2020 annual conference centred on this topic.

Discussions raised question for how controversy and polarization appear in broader European contexts with each organization presenting individuals initiatives and plans. Each country has unique challenges. Despite all of the differences, there are similarities in the ways to go about engaging in difficult conversations or innovative methods using multiperspectivey. The most hopeful result of all is that there are organisations and individuals that are stepping up to the challenges of controversy and polarization in education.

Written By Lexi Oudman, Former Euroclio Trainee

Lamberto Zannier, HCNM: “Conflicts often have to do with the interpretation of history”

Motivated by a natural curiosity and well trained instincts, Lamberto Zannier, High Commissioner for National Minorities at the OSCE, attended the meeting organized around the project Contested Histories in Public Spaces in Oxford, which reviewed several cases of controversial monuments and statues around the world. In this meeting, Mr. Zannier explained the applicability of these cases as a reference point for developing conflict prevention tools and guidelines, where “education is key”, he stressed.

The charming streets of Oxford have some controversial corners. In the historical center of the city, right in front of the prestigious All Souls college, a statue of Cecil Rhodes stands undaunted, in spite of the campaign run by students asking to remove it and not further celebrate his legacy, polemically linked to Britain’s imperialism. Therefore, this city stands as a paradigmatic example of the global phenomenon studied by the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project, which Task Force meeting was held at the same All Souls college thus welcoming more than 20 scholars into a debate about the past and its day to day repercussions.

This project, led by the institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), in partnership with EuroClio and other organizations sharing similar missions, envisions a simple but rather ambitious goal: drawing useful guidelines and recommendations from the global phenomenon of contested statues, monuments and streets names, which are being challenged for their historical legacy, usually related to colonialism, slavery, human rights violations or fascism, among many others. From the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa to the Captain Cook in Australia, from Holocaust memorials in Berlin to statues the Paraguayan dictator in Asunción, many are the cases found around the world -91 and summing up.

Even though this project is still on a development phase, it has attracted interest amongst relevant actors, such as university authorities, parliamentarians, as well as members of the international community. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and its High Commissioner for National Minorities, Lamberto Zannier, who flew from The Hague to the UK to join the discussion.

“The issue of memory politics is an issue that I keep finding as I travel through the area covered by my mandate. There are monuments, there are names of streets and symbols that I constantly find, where the interpretation by different groups differs and the difference of interpretation results in tension”

Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities.

But how comes that an organization dealing with security issues is interested in the public memory making through statues and monuments? Mr. Lamberto Zannier, in conversation with EuroClio, explained that his interest in this topic is tightly related to his mandate, which is primarily focused on conflict-prevention. “My mandate is to avoid or try to prevent tensions within society. Sometimes, I feel I need to dig a little bit more in-depth, and try to find out what is the source of these tensions. Very often this has to do with the interpretation of history”, he said. Awareness of this phenomenon, according to Mr. Zannier, did not come out of the blue. While traveling throughout the OSCE participating states -57 from Europe, Central Asia and North America- the High Commissioner has became aware of how salient this situation is for national communities. “The issue of memory politics is an issue that I keep finding as I travel through the area covered by my mandante. There are monuments, there are names of streets and symbols that I constantly find, where the interpretation by different groups differs and the difference of interpretation results in tension”, Mr. Zannier said, stressing that these dissimilar interpretations,combined with a lack of acknowledgment of the story of the Other, “affect the relationship between groups in society”.

That is how the High Commissioner for National Minorities of the OSCE became interested in looking how issues of this kind have been addressed in different contexts, and what are the lessons that can be retrieved from other cases around the world. In this regard, the mandate of the High Commissioner is matching with the project of Contested Histories in Public Spaces, which aim is to identify and research the decision-making process behind sometimes violent controversies over statues, monuments, and street names. What can a major of a city do when a statue is painted in red? What can a dean of a university do when the name of a hall is covered with pamphlets and banners? What can an activist ask for when a street name is considered offensive? Through practical guidance, the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project is aiming at addressing these questions in order to help future decision-makers and grassroots organizations.

“My job is to advise governments, and put forward an advice that is not only my own personal opinion, but that is based on things that worked before or against processes that resulted in failure. Look! Somebody else has tried this, and it was a disaster, so think twice before you do it, because you might apparently solve the problem tomorrow but then, the day after, you start finding out that you have a larger problem within your society”, said Mr. Zannier, explaining why he has decided to join the working group of this project. “I am exploring, and I do realize that this is a very sensitive issue”.

The role of education

Since its foundation in 1992, EuroClio has been raising awareness about the uses (and misuses) of history education for paving the way to a peaceful future. Even though the study of history is usually confined to academia, the role that it plays in the issues our societies are wrestling with today is rather prominent, especially for the emancipation of minority groups and social cohesion.

This situation is also clear for Mr. Zannier, who believes that younger generations are the key for conflict prevention. “If you want to have an integrated society you need to work on the young generations to make sure that people grow inside the society, and the diversity becomes well embedded in the society”, he said. Mr. Zannier also underlined the benefits of a well achieved integration, by which diversity can be at the service of society instead of being a problem. “You can free the government of the problem of dealing with diversity if you put this diversity at the service of the country. Then you really make the society more resilient to potential instabilities”.

Together with his interest to explore issues around history education, the attention paid by Lamberto Zannier to the role of history and memory in conflicts, represents a milestone for the international community. EuroClio and the IHJR welcome and appreciate his willingness to address such as sensitive but important topic, and believe that his path should be followed by other key decision makers.