Discussing Terrorism in the Classroom: The Day After

Jilt Jorritsma Articles, Featured

When a sudden outburst of violence or a terrorist attack occurs in your country, how do you as a teacher address this as responsibly as possible in the classroom? After a shooting in Utrecht on March 18th, the Dutch educational platform TerInfo, which is an interdisciplinary group of scholars from the Utrecht University, sent out a lesson plan to every school in Utrecht. It contained do’s & don’ts to help teachers discuss the incident with their students. Perhaps most remarkable, was the speed with which TerInfo acted: within a day their lesson plan guided discussions in classrooms in Utrecht.

We talked with Bjorn Wansink, one of the people behind the lesson plan, in order to find out how TerInfo drew up their guidelines so quickly and why they believe time is of great importance in these situations.

Terrorist act?

At 11AM Wansink received a text message saying that something was going on at the 24 Oktoberplein in Utrecht. Once word got out that shots had been fired, he immediately contacted his colleagues at TerInfo. Even though nothing was yet known about the shooter and his motives, many news websites and people on social media had already begun framing the incident as an act of terrorism.

Wansink was hesitant at first. “You have to be very careful not to stigmatize when discussing a shooting incident,” Wansink says, “but the event was already being framed as a terrorist act in public discourse. So we decided we had to do something, schools and teachers started to ask questions, what to tell their pupils?”      

Classroom emotions

In the wake of 9/11, Charlie Hebdo, IS and the refugee crisis, teachers are confronted with emotions and statements that can divide entire classrooms. TerInfo was launched in 2017 to help teachers deal with these delicate topics. The platform is initiated and created by professor Beatrice de Graaf an expert in terrorism, and supported with help from Utrecht City Council and her Stevin Prize Fund. By combining expertise and insights from Conflict Studies, Pedagogical Studies and History at Utrecht University, the platform aims to develop concise and balanced information packages and pedagogical materials for teachers so that they can address and discuss terrorism in a way that is embedded in a historical context, clearly formulated, fact-based and builds understanding, clearly formulated, fact-based and builds understanding.

These incidents stir a longing for over-simplified, one-sided stories that provide clarity.  “People tend to get very emotional and only see things from one perspective, but we want to emphasize the complexity of these situations.” The lesson plan helps teachers to deal with these emotions, by offering tips on how to implement them in a rational and constructive conversation, starting not with immediate normative responses, but with factual, historicizing and engaging materials. “That’s why we felt the need to act quickly: in the immediate aftermath, when there are not yet many facts available, emotions, bias and a simple lack of (factual) context tend to obscure students’ understanding of the issue.”

Historicizing Perspective

The “ historicizing perspective” TerInfo offers, backs teachers up with statistics and factual information about terrorist attacks in The Netherlands, connecting the present-day conflict with historical precedents. In this way, students are triggered to expand their viewpoint and look into the past in order to learn where these sentiments come from and how their reaction to these incidents can be understood historically or psychologically. “By doing this, we help students overcome the tunnel vision and anxiety that often comes hand in glove with the push of urgency, immediacy and panic that is frequently triggered by large incidents and crises. We help them, by giving them a sense of ‘historical significance’, to come to terms with the relevance of the incident for their lives. The reason we were able to do this so fast is because we already had the expertise available from different fields of research,” Wansink explains, “we used existing documents and made them up-to-date with information about the current shooting.”

The day after sending the lesson plan Wansink has received a lot of positive reactions from teachers who used TerInfo’s lesson planin their class. “In the future we want to have scenarios ready for these incidents so that we can keep supporting educators. Our goal is to respond right away, even though this may prove to be difficult.”

TerInfo’s lesson plan is available in Dutch (original) and in English (translation).

If you have questions about TerInfo, please contact ter-info@uu.nl

Written by Jilt Jorritsma, trainee at EuroClio.

Two Decades of Mapping History Under Threat

The Network for Concerned Historians celebrated its twenty-third anniversary on October 13, 2018. With more than two decades of monitoring cases of prosecuted and censored historians around the world, this network has put a neglected issue on the agenda, raising awareness about the multiple threats that history producers are receiving on a daily basis. Here you can find the story of the origins of the NCH, in the voice of its founder, Antoon De Baets, Honorary Board Member of EuroClio and holder of the EuroClio Chair for History, Ethics, and Human Rights at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.  

Maina wa Kinyatti, a Kenyan writer and historian, joined the history department of Kenyatta University in Nairobi in 1975. His research was mainly focused on the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, and he wrote several papers and books addressing Kenyan history. In June 1982, five police officers came to search his house, without a warrant, confiscating 23 books, 29 personal files, and Maina’s typewriter. On the basis of this “evidence”, Maina was arrested for allegedly possessing seditious literature. His Marxist approach to history and his critical stance towards the authoritarian regime of then President Daniel Arap Moi brought Maina 6 years of imprisonment, after which he fled to Tanzania to then apply for asylum in the U.S.

Sadly, the story of Maina’s prosecution and imprisonment is not an isolated case. The censorship and prosecution of historians is a global phenomenon: historical research and education are targeted by both state and non-state agents in scores of countries around the world. To a certain extent, it resembles the worrying trend of prosecuting and murdering journalists. Antoon De Baets, a historian at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, first observed this disturbing phenomenon in the early 1980s. “While working at Amnesty International’s former publication office in San José, Costa Rica, from 1980 to 1982 (...), I noticed that in every corner of the globe historians were among those who suffered from political persecution”.

But not only that. De Baets also noticed that most of these cases were probably overlooked by other historians and that this could be the principal reason why many preventive or remedial measures were not contemplated by the victims’ colleagues. With this bleak scenario in my mind, “I began collecting material that caught my eye”, De Baets said. A few years later, the data of these cases gave shape to comparative research into the relationships between history, freedom, and power, thus enabling academic analysis and scholarly inquiry. “I began lecturing on the topic before an audience of history students at the University of Groningen. In 1991, this resulted in the first publication in Dutch, entitled Palimpsest”.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this attempt for raising awareness into a widely overlooked issue resulted in a network that could be called a “Historians without Borders”. In its turn, this led to more systematic attention for persecuted historians in several academic circles. In 1995, the 18th edition of the International Congress of Historical Sciences in Montréal organized a special roundtable on “Power, Liberty, and the Work of the Historian”. “This provided a new and lasting impetus to the idea. At the roundtable, I presented a paper, The Organization of Oblivion: Censorship and Persecution of Historians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America”, De Baets said.

Facts-based advocacy

So, for over a decade, De Baets had gathered information about ongoing cases. Nevertheless, early on he realized that the urgent character of many of these cases required more than data collection: it required an immediate response. “This situation appealed to me, not only as a researcher but also as a member of the community of historians. The ongoing cases clearly called for more than research: they called for action also”. This call for action could not be made from scratch, though. The international human rights organizations, which had already been campaigning from time to time against such abuses seemed like a good ally. “After the Congress, the time for action seemed to have arrived. I attempted to unite colleagues I had met in Montréal who were willing to campaign for their persecuted colleagues in this Network of Concerned Historians (NCH). On Friday 13 October 1995, a website was created. That is how it started”.

From that day until now, the NCH has been monitoring the state of the situation globally, publishing 24 Annual Reports to this date with an assessment of cases in countries worldwide. In its mandate, the NC

H states that it serves as a link between concerned historians and human rights organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Amnesty International, Article 19, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, and Scholars at Risk.

In addition, Antoon De Baets has continued conducting research, systematizing databases and looking for worldwide patterns and trends. The results of these efforts will be presented in his next book, Crimes against History, which will be published in January 2019. This material includes, among others, 428 cases of history producers who were killed for political reasons from ancient times until today. One of De Baets’s conclusions about the repression of the historical profession is the following: “The present age is no exception; it even has the worst record. In myriad ways, the outcome of the historian’s work can damage those happening to hold power, and, therefore, critical history with its unwelcome truths is always potentially threatening”. In this regard, history producers are described as fragile, yet their work is not. “With some luck, their views may survive the regimes that killed or censored them”.

Check here the latest NCH Annual Report, and visit the NCH website at http://www.concernedhistorians.org