Historical controversy in disputed regions. The case of South Tyrol

Cecilia Biaggi Articles ,

The beautiful mountains of South Tyrol, an autonomous northern Italian province bordering Austria, are inhabited by three different ethno-linguistic communities: the most numerous German-speaking, the Italians and the Ladins, a tiny minority speaking a Rhaeto-Romance language. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, South Tyrol was transferred to the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War 1 and since then, like in many other multinational regions in Europe, the relation between the two main communities has been tense, at times even violent. Consequently, one would expect the teaching of history and especially local history, often intertwined with family history, to be challenging and controversial. However, as Giorgio Mezzalira explains, the situation has greatly improved in the last decades, and South Tyrol can now be considered an example for other regions divided by rising nationalisms and ethnic tensions.

Until his retirement last July, Giorgio Mezzalira taught Italian language, literature and history in a German-language secondary school in Bozen / Bolzano, the capital city of South Tyrol. Traditionally, pupils who spoke German as a first language attended German-language schools and vice versa, with the result that young people had few opportunities to meet their peers from the other community. The history curricula reflected the segregation of the education system: German-language schools taught the history of the German people and local history, while Italian-language schools focused on Italian history. The stress on the local dimension in the German history curriculum, which persists today, was due to the community’s attachment to their Heimat (a term that has no exact equivalent in English, and in this case would be a sort of rural provincial homeland). But history was important for everybody in South Tyrol and thus it was often exploited and manipulated for political aims. For example, those in the German community who wished to have South Tyrol reunited with Austria promoted a historical narrative according to which the cultural persecution of the non-Italians, started with Fascism, continued for decades after the end of the regime, thus implying that Germans could expect no fair treatment from the Italian authorities.

In the last decades, things began to change gradually but steadily thanks to the concerted effort of state and local authorities who worked to leave behind old divisions and create an inclusive society. Today, the school system in the province still envisages monolingual instruction delivered in German- and Italian-language schools, while in Ladin schools all the three languages are taught, but both German and Italian pupils are expected to acquire some competence in the respective second language. The public debate on the history of South Tyrol is finally depoliticised and left in the hands of professional historians from both communities who work together to create new narratives of the past free from partisan interpretations. Public investment in projects of dialogue and co-operation between the two communities has increased significantly, especially in the field of education. For example, a recently implemented scheme offers secondary school students the opportunity to attend one year in a school of the other community. The scheme has been very successful so far because, as Mezzalira says, “young people today are not only more curious about the other community, but also less keen to remain within the boundaries of their own”. According to him, segregation in education is slowly decreasing: in the last years, although most of his students spoke German as a first language, some of them were from multilingual families, and even from Italian families.

The political and socio-cultural evolution of South Tyrol have posed, and is still posing, various challenges to educators. For example, students spending one year in the other community’ schools must be adequately guided and supported to ensure their cultural and linguistic inclusion. In terms of curriculum, it is probably history the subject that has undergone the most radical transformation. All three kinds of school have seen a shift in history instruction from the national to the international dimension, with European and World history featuring prominently in textbooks. Local history too has gained more space in the curriculum, creating opportunities to increase students’ involvement and participation by including family memories into prescribed narratives. In fact, although students’ interest in the subject is not very high generally, they are keen to listen to the stories of their parents and grandparents at home, thus coming in contact with personal narratives of controversial events and periods before they learn about them in school. “Then when they are in the classroom, they either defend the version of the past they learnt at home, or they want to verify it”, says Mezzalira. Thus, it is up to teachers not only to present multiple narratives, but also to contextualise them and explain what purpose they may serve. In other words, teachers should encourage a critical approach to history in order to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to ask questions and to find answers independently. Although this can be challenging, history educators in South Tyrol are lucky enough to enjoy the support of local authorities and of the three offices (German, Italian and Ladin) in charge of the administration of education.

Since the province of South Tyrol is one of the richest in Italy, local administrators have taken advantage of their devolved powers to fund education generously. In particular, history education is seen as fundamental to the creation of future citizens thanks to its potential to foster dialogue. In order to equip history teachers with the necessary skills and knowledge to encourage debate and critical thinking in the classroom, the Faculty of Education of the local Free University of Bozen-Bolzano pays particular attention to multiperspectivity and to local history. The latter is generally given more space in German and Ladin schools where history instruction focuses on the relationship between centre and periphery, allowing educators to develop their teaching on the idea that the local dimension is functional to the understanding of national history. In support of this approach to teaching, Mezzalira and a few colleagues, in conjunction with the three offices supervising education in South Tyrol, compiled a multiperspective history textbook: Paesaggi e prospettive: lineamenti di storia locale: L'età contemporanea in Alto Adige/Übergänge und Perspektiven - Grundzüge der Landesgeschichte: Südtirol seit 1919. The textbook narrates the main events of the last 100 years of history of South Tyrol from the points of view of the two communities. Although not many didactic activities have been developed so far to help teachers use the textbook, it remains a major achievement and it has been chosen by several schools.

In conclusion, South Tyrol can be considered an example of good practice in dealing with an ethnically and linguistically divided society. As social scientists highlight in their studies of the devolution of power to South Tyrol, local authorities have made the most of their autonomy from the central government by investing substantial resources not only in the economic but also in the social development of the province. This has gradually limited political interference into the public debate about history and given more space to historians from different backgrounds to collaborate and create the above mentioned textbook. However, as Mezzalira warns, this tool is not an antidote to social divisions: “There are not shortcuts. South Tyrol became ready for such a textbook thanks to the many years in which the two communities slowly started to come together. Then the authorities stepped in to identify and use those experiences of dialogue that were already growing. Feeding such projects created the basis on which new opportunities of encounter and collaboration between the communities could be built, eventually spreading the change”.

A reflection on teaching and learning at the EU level by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Articles ,

Common Values and Inclusion with EU Member States

History, heritage and citizenship were regularly breaking news in this year’s summer months. We saw media images of removing historical sensitive statues, demonstrations related to the Black Lives Matter Movement and big outcries due to the murder of history and geography teacher Samuel Paty in France. In the Netherlands, an educator teaching about the freedom of expression had to go into hiding because he was threatened over a cartoon that had been on display in the classroom for five years already. The deep emotions present during these events illustrated the fact that history is not only the past, it permeates the present and even the future. These emotions made us again aware of how pride and pain are strong elements when addressing the past. They also gave evidence that we need inspiring answers on the question of how to address sensitive, inclusive and multiperspective history in classrooms. Finally, these emotional events also demonstrated the need for intercultural dialogue when we experience colliding value systems and extremism. 

On 12 February 2015 the members of the European Council requested action after the wave of violence in France and Denmark. With a Declaration on Promoting Citizenship and the Common Values of Freedom, Tolerance and Non-discrimination through Education the Members of the Council stressed their special duty to ensure that the humanist and civic values we share are safeguarded and passed on to future generations. They stated that they remained united in our efforts to promote freedom of thought and expression, social inclusion and respect for others, as well as to prevent and tackle discrimination in all its forms.  In order to achieve these goals, they called for renewed efforts to reinforce the teaching and acceptance of these common fundamental values and laying the foundations for more inclusive societies through education

The Commissioner for Education created a Working Group within the European Training 2020 framework as a follow up of this declaration. The Working Group Promoting Common Values and Inclusive Education was asked to assess how social, civic and intercultural competences, critical thinking and media literacy, and social inclusion, non-discrimination and active citizenship are or can be applied in topics such as uses and abuses of (modern) media, inclusion of young refugees and migrants through education and also history education. The Lifelong Learning Platform in Brussels asked me to join the group on their behalf.

One of the outcomes of the working group are three thematic orientation documents produced by the members of the ET 2020 Working Group on the above mentioned topics. A fourth text about LGBTI inclusion in education can be expected by the end of the year.

I was made responsible for the theme Building Bridges through Inclusive and Cross-border History Education. It contains an overall sketch on current issues related to the subject required for a sound and innovative approach to history (and citizenship and heritage) education. It further contains recommendations from the Working Group Members and a series of inspiring practices, predominately by Intergovernmental Organisations and Civil Society Associations and organisations. The publication contains a collection of appropriate references and links. More inspirational practice related to this topic will be available through an online Compendium, which will be available by the end of the year. Needless to say is that a good variety of EuroClio projects are included.

The outcomes of the Working Group demonstrate the relevance of the issues discussed, particularly in the light of the emotional events mentioned, so evidently related to history, heritage and citizenship education. In my introductory text (p.6) of the so called fiche, I argue that historical narratives are always hotly debated in societies, and find their reflection in history education. These recent experiences were therefore not unique, they just topically exemplified this reality. The reflections and observations of the participants of the Working Group demonstrate that the members during the working sessions realized which challenges could play in the background of such emotions and hot debates.

In the reflections of the Members we read that it is indeed vital explaining why it is important to be inclusive in history education, as minority communities and migrants are often not included in a country’s history.  They recognize that one could fear for radicalization or extremism if such perspectives are not included. Minority and migrant communities could feel left out if history only focuses on the dominant national community. And finally that it was vital to create a dialogue among and with students

Among the Working Group recommendations for history curricula, we can read that it is essential to ensure a multi-perspective and inclusive approach to history education, including various ethnic, linguistic and religious communities in new history curricula, in order to avoid any undue bias or discrimination, that it is important while teaching national history to recognize its impact on other countries and therefore to widen the perspective beyond the national viewpoint and that history teaching must allow time for discussion, and such debates should allow both positive and negative considerations.    

The recommendations with focus on teachers, state that teachers should be aware of the diversity in their classrooms and recognise that young people from diverse origins bring different memories, values and cultures and that there is a need for high-quality initial teacher education and continuous professional development, supporting teachers’ capacities to address controversial and sensitive issues in the classroom. 

The educational authorities are required in the recommendations that existing teaching aids, providing guidance on addressing controversial issues in the classroom, should be made widely available and that they should find pathways to involve families to make them aware of the different perspectives to key historical events and support a process of developing history culture in the family.

The members of the Working Group also warned of conflicts between different subjects such as history, social studies and civics teachers, all claiming to be the prime actor in value-based education as in fact all such subjects integrate human rights and democracy in their curricula

On 18 November the Working Group had its final-online-session, where I could present the concluding results of its work on history education. It was clear that the challenges, which were identified by the members, were indeed the issues at stake in our societies. I also concluded, however, that identifying these issues would not be enough and that prolonged attention and concerted action is required. 

I therefore added two personal recommendations. I asked the Commission for keeping the topic of value-based inclusive and cross-border history, citizenship and heritage education also as a prominent feature within the next circle of Working Groups. This is, unfortunately, not at all clear. In the Communication on Achieving the European Education Area by 2025, we can find good wordings about fundamental freedoms, tolerance and non-discrimination through education, inclusive education, and active and responsible citizenship. However, in the two out of six focus areas relevant for the history, heritage and citizenship community (inclusion and gender and teachers and trainers), there is a strong emphasis on capacity building addressing deficiencies in skills. The need for bringing a European perspective in education mirrors some of the reflections in the Working Group when it specifies that this topic shall provide learners with an insight in what Europe at large and the Union in particular means in their daily life. This European perspective should be addressed in a dynamic and plural way, encouraging the development of critical thinking (p. 7). But unfortunately these wordings hardly reflect the real challenges in the learning and teaching of history as they were identified by the Working Group.

My second recommendation was for the Members of the meeting of 18 November, representing different national Ministries of Education. I asked them to keep implementing value-based inclusive and cross-border history, citizenship and heritage education in their schools through curricula, teaching resources and adequate professional development of aspiring and practicing teachers. In fact, the inspiring practices on history, heritage and citizenship education, presented during events of the Working Group sessions rarely came from the national ministries of education. Most representatives of these Ministries were nevertheless positively interested, leading to a good working atmosphere. The extent to which the common ideas will be implemented remains an open question, however. Unfortunately, there is no clear tool developed to measure the impact of the Working Groups common work on the policies related to common values and inclusion in individual countries. We can only hope that working together for more than four years increased the awareness of the national educational authorities across Europe.

This final Working Group meeting ended my active involvement in education policies of the European Union. This is a complex system as the Member States keep their individual responsibilities towards education, with common policies only possible via open methods for coordination, such as the kind of policy learning done through Working Groups. I became involved in the early 1990s, when the European Dimension was a key element in policy making. It was easy to make contact with European bureaucrats and discuss possible ideas. Slowly the European Dimension disappeared and project funding became dominant. I was happy to have good EuroClio Secretariat Staff Members, able to obtain projects and later, when it became possible, to obtain operating grants. In my last active EuroClio years I became more and more involved in EU Working Groups and became a member of the Steering Group, later Secretary General, of the Lifelong Learning Platform in Brussels. This last position allowed me to become a real insider in the benefits and downsides of EU policy making. 

I now look back at almost thirty years of European education programmes, always deeply influenced by events or currents in society. I have often participated with some level of frustration, due to its slowness and lack of understanding of what were the real issues at stake. Despite everything, they were nonetheless rewarding years giving many opportunities to the history, heritage and citizenship community. I will miss it, but it is time for me to go.

 

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord in 2015 at the Europeana Network Association Annual General Meeting in Amsterdam.

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord founded EuroClio in 1992, and since then she has acquired recognition as an international expert on innovative and trans-national history, heritage and citizenship education. Currently, Joke van der Leeuw-Roord is special advisor for EuroClio. She has initiated and coordinated a multitude of national, trans-national capacity building projects for history and citizenship educators and historians in Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Bosnia-in-Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia Turkey and Ukraine.

Quality education for all: Interview with Triantafillia Tatsiopoulou on teaching children with special needs

According to UNICEF, about 50 percent of children with special needs do not participate in education, compared to only 13 percent of their peers without disabilities. At EuroClio, we believe that all children are entitled to quality education, irrespective of their needs or backgrounds. Anna Ivanova, EuroClio trainee and student at The Hague University of Applied Schiences, reached out to Triantafillia Tatsiopoulou, a teacher at the Special High School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Thessaloniki, Greece, to learn about her experience of working in a school for children with special needs. 

Anna: Tell us about yourself and the school you teach in.

Triantafillia: I teach Ancient and Modern Greek, History and Latin at the Special High School for the Deaf of Thessaloniki. Our school is one of the three schools in Greece for students with hearing impairments, and the only one in the north of the country. It is very small: we only have about 30 students, aged between 13 and 20 years old. All of the students have some form of hearing loss, some are profoundly deaf. One or two students have a low form of autism. Apart from that, our students are happy and clever, like all children in all other schools.

Anna: Is your school so small in size because you cannot admit more students or because there are no students that want to join?

Triantafillia: Unfortunately, not that many students want to join our school. There are approximately 200 children with hearing loss in Thessaloniki, ranging from average to profound. Yet, our school only has about 30 pupils.

There are multiple reasons for that. In Greece, when a child has some kind of disability, they are required to undergo a medical examination, where a doctor advises the parents on how to approach the child’s condition. Usually, they are advised to start with speech therapy as soon as possible, which is very basic for everyone with hearing loss. Some doctors recommend them to choose a general school instead of a special one, so the child can stay in a familiar environment. Most parents follow this advice and send their children to a general school, where they are surrounded by other children from the neighbourhood and are not excluded from living a ‘normal’ life. In some general schools, pupils get assistance from school integration departments or special needs support teachers, who help them understand the material better. However, this kind of support is not offered everywhere, so hearing impaired students without it tend to be left behind and struggle with learning. 

Another reason is the stigma surrounding special schools. Some parents find it challenging to accept that their child has a disability, hence they prefer their children to attend a general school. A disability like hearing loss is invisible, so it can be hidden. That is why some parents choose to hide it instead of having to deal with the shame and stigma of a special school. Moreover, many parents are prejudiced against sign language. They forbid their children to use it and meet other deaf pupils who do so, hence they tend to prevent their children from attending a school that supports sign language. 

Furthermore, our school is located in a small village near Thessaloniki, and it is the only one in the north of Greece. For some students, it may be inconvenient to commute far to school, so they choose a general one that is closer to their home. 

Lastly, sometimes, parents of hearing-impaired children simply don’t even know that our school exists. Since doctors generally advise them to attend a general school, there is no way for parents to find out about us, unless they do the research themselves. We try to inform the parents through Deaf Communities, but we find it difficult to reach the parents of such children because we cannot know who they are.

Anna: What is it like to work with these pupils, do you generally have a good relationship with them?

Triantafillia: If you were able to visit us, you would see that our school is not different from the rest. We follow the general curriculum, meaning that the material is the same. Our school has strict rules that all students must follow. This is due to the fact that some of the pupils, despite being very clever, have not developed the language well enough. Because of that, they struggle to express their thoughts or feelings, so in a way, the teacher has to guess what the student actually means. At the same time, some students are less proficient in sign language than others: they lack the full development of a first language, so developing a second language, the Greek language, poses some complications. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to communicate with others. 

Generally, we have a great relationship with the students, and they enjoy coming to classes and participating in other activities. Our school is very ‘hugging’ - deaf people enjoy physical contact, like hugging and touching. As well as jokes that they have in sign language, it is part of their culture. Our pupils love coming to school. We also have a boarding school which operates with many problems. Normally, we barely have absences. Although it is very different, I really like working with our students. It is a different, more sensitive form of communication, and it brings me joy.

Anna: Are there particular teaching techniques employed at your school?

Triantafillia: Teaching in sign language is part of the school’s tradition, as it is part of the deaf culture. Deaf and hard of hearing pupils have very different backgrounds and are very diverse in their ways of communication and learning. For this reason, our school supports both Greek sign language and Greek oral and written language. We always try to do the best for every child, hence we never force students to use Greek sign language if they are not comfortable with it or don’t know it well enough. If a child wants to learn Greek sign  language, other students help to teach them in everyday life, through informal conversations. 

We always talk to our students when teaching. Some of them are hard of hearing, which means that they are still able to use the language and partly hear. Moreover, all students, including those that are profoundly deaf, automatically read the lips of the teachers. That is why with the current Covid-19 measures in place, teachers use a face shield instead of a mouth mask: students have to see the mouth and the lips. 

As for history teaching, I prefer to take the pupils to the library. Students learn much better when they are able to see the material, so we strive to make the education highly visual. We make great use of smart boards to show visual aid content and videos. When working in class, students are divided into groups, where they can interact and work together on worksheets. The challenge for the teacher is to keep the students’ attention and keep them engaged, either through asking questions or writing something on the board. It is important to motivate them to get them involved in learning about the past.

Anna: What teachers work in your school? What kind of teacher training is required?

Triantafillia: In Greece, all teachers start from a general class in a general school. I had been teaching for about 7 years before I was transferred to work in this school. I liked it a lot, so I decided to stay.

In order to work in a special school, educators are required to have a postgraduate degree in special education. Other than that, knowledge of sign language is obligatory in our school, and most of us know Braille. A lot of people want to work in special education, so all of our teachers have chosen to work here. 

Anna: Do you think that you get more work than teachers in general schools?

Triantafillia: Teachers in general education get more pressure from the Ministry of Education, as they have to stick to the curriculum and follow certain rules. Even though our school follows the general curriculum, we have flexibility due to their special needs. Therefore, our teachers have to be creative, come up with their own lesson plans or develop worksheets. We have to work hard to come up with ideas that will help students understand the material and expand their knowledge. So, I would not say that we have more work, but we definitely have a different kind of work.

Anna: What kind of extracurricular activities does take place in your school?

Triantafillia: Every year, we run multiple programs and projects in our school. One of our best projects is the Sign Choir, which made its first appearance in 2014, introducing a new kind of singing through signs. Collaborating with other choirs or music bands, the Sign Choir is interpreting the lyrics in signs, offering a new perspective and showing that music is a global way of communication. Students really like this project and always enjoy being involved in it.

The year 2013 was dedicated to the 150-year anniversary of Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis. Two of our students composed poems in sign language, inspired by his poems “An old man” and “Candles”. The students transferred all these ideas in sign language, making the poems visible.

One of the most innovative school activities was the making of a short film, inspired by the silent movies. “The Mess” was the result of collaboration between our school and the local Lyceum of Panorama Thessaloniki, with the help of students of the School of film of the University of Thessaloniki. A reunion of a class gives the chance to one of the classmates to make amends in life, yet an unexpected incident takes place that leads to a big mess.

Lastly, the school has had the chance to work with Signdance Collective, a touring performance company with a culturally diverse team of experienced deaf and disabled artists at the helm. The company directors pioneered the “sign dance theatre”, a fusion of sign theatre, dance, and live original music. In 2009, the Signdance Collective designed a third performance, with the children dancing and singing at the same time, accompanied by live music. Called “Dancing with ….sign”, the theme was a neighborhood, groups of children getting together and the relationships between them. 

The school also has a dance team, The Dream Dancers. Our students have done multiple dance performances, like hip-hop or traditional Greek dances. Last year, they appeared in Reflection of Disability on Art, a festival about people with special needs and their abilities in art.

Students love being involved in these kinds of projects and initiatives. For us, it is important to show that they are in no way different from other children: they are able to do the same things as others. It is important for them to feel that they have the same advantages and even disadvantages as everyone else. We try to achieve that through these programs and activities. Even though there are many obstacles, we try our best.

Annual Conference: Marketplace on Contested Cultural Heritage

Alicia Rijlaarsdam Articles ,

“If you’re going to teach history, teach it all” (Paolo Ceccoli, EuroClio Ambassador)

During the final workshop of our Annual Conference, EuroClio ambassador Paolo Ceccoli shared this powerful quote. The goal of the Marketplace on Contested Cultural Heritage was twofold. On the one hand, participants learned about the research that EuroClio and the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR) have been doing to study contested histories in public spaces. On the other hand, the marketplace was an opportunity for participants to reflect and share lessons learned during the Annual Conference.

Drawing on more than 230 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names and other physical markers of historical legacies in public spaces. The objective is to provide decision-makers, policy planners and educators with a set of case studies, best practices and guidelines for addressing historical contestation in an effective and responsible manner. As director Marie-Louise Jansen mentioned during her presentation: “Understanding root causes [of controversies] necessitates a multi-perspective approach”.

The conference focused on controversy and disagreement in the classroom. At the Marketplace, the different teaching strategies presented throughout the month of November were applied to examples of controversial cultural heritage within the local context of the participants. Cases from across Europe were discussed and compared; the difficulty of addressing colonialism in Spain, the centralised curricular system in Ukraine preventing multi-perspectivity, the tensions and polarisation in Croatian classrooms over identity and narratives of the recent past and the legal difficulties of contextualizing or removing  statues in Slovakia due to property rights are just a handful of examples mentioned by participants during the session. All participants could name an example of a contestation, either directly in their classrooms or in their countries’ public spaces.

While the issues educators face are distinct, the themes are similar. Paolo Ceccoli mentioned: “the more our societies are divided, the more history teaching should teach controversial issues, it’s not easy, ... can even be dangerous, morally or even physically, but it’s absolutely needed”. The importance of contextualization was often emphasised as was the power of comparative studies. Another suggestion was the initial depersonalization of history – shifting personal feelings of guilt or blame that inflame emotions and prevent self-reflection – allowing for multiperspectivity. Another EuroClio expert Benny Christensen put a recommendation very simply: “[When dealing with controversial histories], apply the three D’s: Discuss, Debate, Dialogue”.

Interested in a concrete example of how to teach about controversial cultural heritage? The Rhodes Must Fall Oxford content on Historiana offers a great introduction.

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

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

An Interpretation of Powerful Knowledge for History Education

Maayke De Vries Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powerful Knowledge in history education

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Sources:

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

Information about Women Suffrage in the Netherlands: 

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

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

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

Djoera Otter Articles, Report

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

Picture: Participants discuss the Lesson Plan in small groups.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaira: What inspired the creation of your Foundation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contested Histories: Robert Towns’ Statue and his Blackbirding Legacy

Grace Sahota Articles ,

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

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

 

What is ‘blackbirding’?

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

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

 

Still standing

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

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

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

 

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

 

Further readings

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Backgound: what makes Centropa different

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

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

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

Using personal stories to bring history to life

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

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

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

Teachers — and students — love this film because

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

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

Watch the film here:

 

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

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

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

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

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