The value of innovative and responsible history education.

Steven Segers EUROCLIO ,

Opening speech by EuroClio Executive Director Steven Stegers at the World Congress of School History Teachers,
Moscow, Russia, 5 October 2021

I would like to start by expressing my appreciation to organizers of this Congress, who have managed to bring together history educators from across the world and decision makers from all over the world, to learn from and talk to each other. Initiatives like these are much need to counter stereotypes, and overcome differences to achieve common goals.

It is a sign of hope that we can be here.

Russia was the first country where EuroClio worked intensely. I sincerely hope this meeting will be the start for more cooperation in the years to come.

Today I would like to speak about the value of innovative and responsible history education, why it matters, and by doing so clarify what we mean with this concept.

So, why do I believe it does matter?

History education is uniquely suited to teach about challenges on global and local level: Climate change, the fragility of democracy and competing world views, are just a few. It is the best chance that we have to create a better future.

The interpretative nature of history - where historians offer competing interpretations of the same facts - forces students to think for themselves. When students are presented with different interpretations, they have to ask which interpretation they find most convincing.

As a result, students learn how to respectfully disagree, how to convince others, how to be challenged in their own thinking, and how to deal with uncertainty. They will realize that the way people see history is influenced by their beliefs and experiences.

With an understanding of difference, ability to put themselves in the shoes of others and willingness to consider alternative explanation, these students more likely to find peaceful solutions to conflicts, and deal with difficult pasts.

The historical method that is at the heart of history education is the perfect antidote to fake news and disinformation.

Student learn to look for sources, to analyze and interpret them, to consider different explanations, to read between the lines, to check facts, and to adjust conclusions in the light of new evidence.

Student learn to resist manipulation.

 

There is more that studying history can contribute to the personal development of young people. History enables students to ask questions and makes them curious. This includes seeking answers to difficult questions, thinking about moral dilemmas and reacting to historical injustices.

This helps them to develop a moral compass.

All of this helps students to succeed at school, but also in life.

How to achieve all of this in practice?

Well, it is easier said than done.

Students need the right level of challenge and support. If it is too easy, students get bored. If it is too difficult, they get frustrated.

Keeping up to date with the latest research is challenging. Everyday new research is done and keeping up with this takes time. The same applies for the research of historical source materials and the creation of learning experiences that are tailored to the needs of individual students.

In many countries, educational systems do not support innovative and responsible history education.

Many educators are struggling with the amount of content that they need to cover in the curriculum. This leaves very little time to go in depth, to teach students how to do their own reach. This makes it difficult to teach students how to think, instead of telling them what to think.

The lack of choice in the curriculum is another challenge that many educators face. This makes it difficult to focus on those questions and topics that resonate with the students, that are meaningful for them.

A final challenge for many educators that I would like to highlight here, are the exams that are not assessing the right things. If students who challenge a teacher, textbook, or other authority on the basis of solid evidence and sounds arguments are punished instead of rewarded, there is no room for critical and independent thinking.

I greatly admire educators who are able to make history teaching motivating and meaningful despite all these challenges. I would like to express my gratitude to all the educators who are spending time with us despite the demanding jobs. I realise that you being here, means you have to catch up with more work later.

Let’s make this worth your time.

I wish us all a great congress.

 

Steven Stegers

Executive Director
EuroClio, European Association of History Educators

Towards a history education for the 21st Century: An interview with Dr. Jochen Hung

EuroClio had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Jochen Hung about the challenges and opportunities for history education at university level in Europe. Dr. Hung is Assistant Professor of Cultural History at Utrecht University and a specialist in the cultural and media history of 20th-century Germany. In his role with the history department of Utrecht University, he is also leading the coordination of the project Teaching European History in the 21st Century, a collaboration between seven European research universities (Utrecht, UA Madrid, HU Berlin, Sheffield, Prague, Budapest, Lille) and EuroClio. 

Q: What is Teaching European History in the 21st Century and what are the challenges you seek to address? 

Dr. J. Hung: The idea for the project started 6-7 years ago as we here at Utrecht University set up an English-language Bachelor’s programme in History. As far as we know, this was the first such programme on the European Continent with all three years of study offered entirely in English. As we were setting this up, we connected with several other European universities who had similar plans or who were already offering much of their history education in English. We really set out to build a network with universities elsewhere, also for our students through Erasmus exchanges, and we were quickly convinced that this would be a much more normal thing in the future: that with Brexit in particular, there would no longer be a need to go to Britain or Ireland to get your English-language degree but that this could be done in Continental Europe. 

While talking to our partners elsewhere we noticed a quite practical problem connected with this development: that the usual entry-level textbooks used in English-language undergraduate teaching were all written by British, Irish or American authors. As a result, they portray a very specific view on European history - essentially the view of European history as seen from Britain and the United States. This is of course entirely normal and expected, but we felt that it did not accurately reflect the European experience: that lots of different nations and countries are connected to each other through various points of interactions and processes. 

Concretely, if you have an Italian student going to study European history in English at a Dutch university, what should then be the national perspective? Our view on that is there should not be any one national perspective, but rather a multi-perspective approach to our shared European experience. 

Formally speaking, the project is now a collaboration between seven different European universities, plus EuroClio, that is being funded through the Erasmus+ Key Action 2 programme of the European Union. We received a three-year grant and the project is designed for creating innovative, multi-perspective teaching material. When our project started, online lectures with a digital platform were still something quite innovative. With the pandemic, this has now become the new normal for universities. In that sense, we see that our project now fits within a larger trend and that we no longer need to convince people that this is the way forward.

Q: What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities facing history departments at European universities at the moment?

Dr. J. Hung: There are of course challenges, but also clear opportunities, particularly connected with Brexit. I expect that students that were planning to go abroad will be going to Britain in much fewer numbers and that we will see a big influx of students coming to Europe, including Utrecht, wanting to study in English. While this is great for us, it does also entail some practical challenges - some of which we are addressing with our project. We also see a larger discussion around the merits of this development. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, there are questions about what will happen to the specific Dutch view of European history. Does this internationalisation mean we are losing something in the process? Personally, I see it as an opportunity. 

An additional challenge is connected with online teaching. Even as the pandemic is less of a concern, it is here to stay. This presents us with some clear opportunities for internationalisation: it might be both easier and cheaper to study abroad with some parts of your degree being offered online. Having said that, we see of course the usual problems with technical challenges and the lack of direct interaction with students. I do think these are challenges that will be solved in the coming years, however. 

A final thought on the challenges we are facing now is the new nationalism that we see rising all across Europe. As far as I see it, it will be good to teach our students that it is totally fine to have national perspectives. It is normal and it is what has made Europe, in a way. What we need is, however, to get to know all of these different national perspectives, acknowledge that there is no hierarchy between them and, in a sense, try to bring them together and teach students how they interact.

Q: Coming back to the project that you are leading from Utrecht University. What are the current plans and when can we expect to see some of the tangible results coming out of it?

Dr. J. Hung: Well, there are three big outputs of the project. That is a handbook, co-authored by the universities involved. It is our magnus opus and will be finished by the end of next year. Additionally, we are at the moment recording a number of online lectures. We hope to make some of these available in the coming months. Finally, EuroClio is working on an online portal where you can find these texts and use them together with primary sources to construct teaching plans and syllabi. 

Q: Do you see any uses for teachers at secondary level education? 

Dr. J. Hung: The aim was to produce a handbook for first and second year undergraduate students. That is really close to high school level and it was always the aim for us that the texts that we author are very accessible, so I do hope that secondary education teachers can use the platform, the texts, and the sources, giving their students an idea of what awaits them at university. It is also a great opportunity to make use of our multi-perspective approach. If you for instance teach in high school about the history of, say, inequalities in Europe, you could pick up these texts produced by authors from four different countries and their corresponding viewpoints. The same topic can be understood and taught in very different manners and these contrasting perspectives can, I hope, be really valuable also for history teachers.

‘Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis’, Turning Students into Historical Actors – an Interview with Sofia Ahlberg

Giulia Verdini Articles ,

“Whatever overwhelming change we might be going through needs to be part of the classroom. We used to think of the classroom as a space that was somehow removed from the world: I think that’s a losing game.

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Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis looks at the range of different crises currently affecting students and at the way teachers can respond to new challenges which require immediate action and a renewed approach. Sofia Ahlberg shared with EuroClio her reflections on these unprecedented times, her tips on effective teaching practices and her personal take on history as something that is lived and shaped by people each and every day.  

Let’s make it clear, Sofia Ahlberg’s teaching practices were not disrupted by the pandemic. Before teaching at Uppsala University, she had worked for over twenty years in Australia, where online teaching is very common. 

As a result of this, she did not start writing this book because of the pandemic, on the contrary, she had already started a couple of months before the pandemic hit. “I noticed that my teacher training students were responding to their education in a different way from what I was used to and it might have been because of the activism of Greta in Sweden. Obviously, she had a huge impact on my students. But all of a sudden they started asking the kinds of questions that had less to do with literary studies as such and more to do with activism, relevance, societal problems, climate change, inequality. It became apparent to me that I had to change the way I was teaching and I took it upon myself to write this book in order to show other teachers how to make reading literature relevant in a world of change.”

The book is certainly intended for teachers: secondary school and university teachers as well as teacher training students. “The reason why my focus is so much on teacher training education is because they need to have the skills. Crisis is not something that's going to go away, and we need to equip our teacher trainees with these kinds of skills so that they can engage and inspire their students.

Learning how to engage with a world of change

Despite - but at the same time in line with -  the title of her work, Sofia speaks of a world of change and not of one undergoing a catastrophe by reclaiming the original meaning of the word ‘crisis’: “In ancient Greek the word has a different meaning to what we think of it now. Now, we think of crisis as synonymous with disaster, calamity, something that is totally beyond our control. But actually, if you look at the original ancient Greek word ‘κρίσις’, it means something different: it generally refers to “a decisive stage where change must occur”, and it could also mean a turning point. But either way, it seemed to me that it was something that our students and ourselves as human beings could engage with rather than just be passive.

Sofia goes on explaining her personal approach to crisis, and the perspective she embraces in her book: “Crisis is an ongoing process, crisis is not an interruption of normality. If we think about the pandemic now, I often hear amongst my colleagues and friends, “soon we will get back to normality” - but what if we could ask ourselves instead “what kind of new post-pandemic world do we want to make?

Sofia has noticed the negative connotations that not only the word ‘crisis’ has, but also the bad experience that is associated with it, especially in the way that people face it. This is transferable and applicable to the classroom environment. “I’ve noticed that the way we talk about crises or historical events that are tragic is often in a way that leaves our students with a sense of deep grief, actually, and anxiety, and anger and depression.” For this reason, she highlights the role and the responsibility that teachers have in this regard: “rather than making students passive, we need to give them the skills to become actors. Rather than be subject to crisis, we can engage with it.

Empowering students with local roles to play

When asked about the role of literature, she immediately explains that for her neither literature nor the act of reading represent an escape from reality. “The literature we engage with is always a response to crisis. Crisis affects us as individuals, in very minute detailed ways, but it also affects the historical events, the evolution of our societies, of ourselves as human beings. Crisis seems so difficult to comprehend, but literature has so much to teach us about the scale. It’s about that narrative rhythm, it’s about overcoming that problem, and having a resolution.” And that is exactly where the power of literature lies: “Literature is a safe space, a place where you can respond to very serious and often quite overwhelming events that most of the times are fictional - but the way you respond to them as a reader is something that you can then apply to real life events - the way you learn to how to respond to characters for instance, how to respond to plot, to narrative, is something you can apply to real life.

Sofia depicts literature as something that can empower students as global citizens with local roles to play, where reading practices correspond to transferable skills. Readers are not just readers of a book, but readers of the world: “the moment when we read and reflect, we respond, that’s when we’re turning our students into historical actors rather than just simply being subject to historical events: we are showing that even in a very small way they can be active participants. Seeing something happening on the street and being able to read and judge and evaluate in an ethical way, and knowing something about how to respond to it - how to think about it, how to evaluate it - that is where literature and global events are connected. Reading is translated into some sort of behavioral change.” Books and literature can also change the course of history. “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ for instance, a book about slavery that completely changed the way people thought about slavery in America at the time.

Sofia insists on literature’s response to crisis and on the fact that teachers must engage with events and the challenges that those events may bring. “Whatever overwhelming change we might be going through needs to be part of the classroom. We used to think of the classroom as a space that was somehow removed from the world: I think that’s a losing game. For me, in the Swedish learning climate, that’s not possible. My students will get very frustrated if they can’t refer to real events, whatever they’re doing.”

Weathering the crisis together: fostering collaboration in the classroom

What are then the kinds of exercises that can help students face a world in constant change? “A lot of the exercises in the book are about participatory problem solving exercises. They include the ability to learn from others, to understand, to respect their needs, their perspectives, their actions - kind of empathetic leadership on the whole to overcome the fear of uncertainty and overcome the fear of looking stupid, of saying the wrong thing. The reading practices that I show have to do with ‘collaborative competence’. One of the first things we have to teach our students is that crisis is not something you can weather alone, you have to collaborate with others.

Sofia is trying to achieve this by using exercises that develop participatory problem solving skills. “This means that rather than asking your student to write one essay, written for one person, I’m asking my students to write together with others, to do collaborative writing. Students are randomly put together and [with the multi-ethnic and multi-racial student cohorts that are increasingly common] this fosters that kind of collaboration that is at the heart of fighting systemic racism as well.” Another technique is using imaginative exercises that are still very much connected with reality as students can confront and respond to what is happening in the world. The book contains reading practices that are about making an intervention, almost in an activist sense, in real-life events and thereby shaping the future. I have this exercise where we as a class discuss: ‘what do we actually want to preserve from the past? What do we need and what do we want to do differently?’ It gives the students the power to imagine themselves as being able to choose and therefore impact the future.”

When she is asked whether reading practices can help decolonize history, Sofia has no hesitation. She immediately recognizes that the attempt to decolonize history is specifically tied to language choice: “this is how it can change - through the way we refer to something. I speak of systemic racism in my book, but I’ll give you one environmental example: if we look at the various activist movements for environmentalism, we have “Greenpeace”, that was founded in 1971 - just the word “green peace” speaks volumes, it says something about people’s attitude at the time. If you compare it to “Extinction Rebellion”, which was founded in 2018, there’s an enormous difference. In the literature classroom, we are training our students to be able to detect this kind of nuance to language, to … cultural and linguistic coding. We need to be more alert to how we speak about others.”

She also provides another brilliant example, a very powerful exercise she has thought of, that she has used in the classroom with outstanding results. “I give the students a paragraph from literally anything - it could be from any text that any teacher is teaching: I ask them to use those words in the paragraph and repurpose them and turn them either into a love letter or a breakup letter. It’s really fascinating for students, they are not allowed to add other words, but they are allowed to shift them around and turn them into different messages. With this exercise, I’m showing that you can use words for a specific purpose, that you can bring another kind of intentionality to them.

How can historians benefit from this book? How can history teachers use literature in the classroom?

The book is specifically addressing reading practices that might be particularly helpful in a literature classroom, but nonetheless relevant for history teachers as well. Sofia admits: “I want so much for history teachers to be able to benefit from reading the book. I think we have everything to gain from an interdisciplinary approach to education. My book does offer a perspective on history, but it offers a perspective on history in the making, not history in a retrospective way, but as something which still hasn’t settled yet. And it’s possible that that’s how history is taught - but I have a feeling that this can be the specific contribution of literary studies."

I believe that history has always been punctuated by crisis and it is the role of historians to connect the dots leading up to crisis so as to understand how to prevent the crisis from happening again. By practicing your reading skills, you can be more selective about what you take with you into the future.Sofia Ahlberg

Sofia has also tips to share on how to use literature in the classroom. Her first recommendation is mixing genres - for example, putting in dialogue an older novel with new genres or something set in the future for history teachers to be able to bring in the perspective. “It’s not necessary to take a whole novel. For instance, bringing in just a page of sci-fi (speculative fiction). Imagine teaching the witch trials from a historical point of view, and putting that in dialogue with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which is another kind of witch hunt. Magic happens.” Her second tip would be taking a historical text, but playing around with narrative voices. “I can imagine, from a historical point of view, it would be incredibly fascinating to try to insert a narrative voice even where we think there is no narrative voice.

Sofia Ahlberg is smiling from the camera of her laptop: “What I hope and what I believe that I have shown in the book is something that’s transferable first of all. These are transferable skills that can be applied in the classroom, in any classroom - I would say.

Written by Giulia Verdini

About the author

Sofia Ahlberg is Vice Dean at the Faculty of Languages for education and collaboration and Associate Professor at Uppsala University’s Department of English:I grew up in African and the Middle East and lived in the Southern Hemisphere which helps me to bring a global perspective to my research interests in energy humanities, pedagogy and ecofiction. I'm convinced that literary studies has an urgent role to play in the design of alternative social frameworks. For this reason, I'm committed to classroom practices that can respond to a rapidly changing world.”

Purchase the book!

From June 14th, you can purchase the book Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis.

Another Family’s Starting Over: The Resourceful Glass Family of Paris and New York

James Diskant Reviews ,

Too often history classes only focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and of Nazi rule; there is, however, an increasingly growing iterature that details the ways in which people resisted, helped one another,  and successfully managed to survive.

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This book by Freeman is one example that will help educators rethink the ways that they teach this period or supplement what they already do and know. Freeman’s book not only details her family’s history to show how some of her relatives coped with life in France in the 1930s and 1940s, but also to allow students to grapple with the difficult questions about survival in this period when the odds were against Jewish survival. By looking at one family, one can unravel the advantages, limits, and/or shortcomings of different approaches. The book can be superb background for educators, as well as the basis for an interesting Socratic Seminar about the concepts — assimilation, passivity, defiance, and emigration — that she discusses and for students to probe into each of them in detail.  After all it would be great if one could learn from the past, wouldn’t it? 

When I was perusing a bookshelf about World War II in a bookstore a few weeks ago, I came across a fascinating book: Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (London: Fourth Estate, 2020). Since this family has some parallels to my own in terms of an emigration pattern (see Post #1: Planned Escape(s)), I thought that I would share my impressions of it, along with my recommendation of it, here. Freeman, through the use of family memoirs, artifacts, and pictures, interviews with family members, and official documents, was able to put together a riveting account of how her Jewish relatives, that is her grandmother and two of her three grand uncles, managed to survive the horrors of World War II in the United States and in France respectively. It is remarkable how well she is able to document these personal histories and to situate them in time and in historical interpretation. The book – which is part memoir, part history, part commentary, and part family discovery –is a gripping, empathetic account of not only these three people, but also of others who were essential parts of their stories.

Typically, I first read any opening quotation (if there is one), the introduction, and the acknowledgments. And in this case after reading the opening quotation from Arthur Miller (excerpted from Broken Glass, 1994), I was hooked:

‘Getting this hysterical about [anti-Semitism] on the

other side of the world is sane?’

When she talks about it, it’s not on the other side

Of the world, it’s on the next block.’

‘An that’s sane?

‘I don’t know what it is! I just get the feeling some-

times that she KNOWS something, something that

… It’s like she’s connected to some … some wire

that goes half around the world, some truth that other

people are blind to.’

While I have not seen or read this Miller play – which takes place in 1938 – when a Jewish couple in New York reacts to the horrors of the Night of the Broken Glass in Germany, the quotation pulled me into this family story. Of course, given her family’s last name of Glass, Freeman’s use of the quotation intrigued me. Afterwards I skimmed the introduction, and acknowledgements, and I was curious to learn about the Glass family.

Wow, I was not disappointed; I read the book originally in two sittings and just re-read it!! Freeman was able not only to find fascinating details about her grandmother and her great uncles, but also wrote a touching memoir about surviving, coping, and changing. In so doing she argues that these people may represent ” prototypes”, that is different ways of coping and coming to terms with their past. The book is an inspiring journey into uncovering family secrets, unraveling different ways of moving forward (or not, I suppose), and the horrors of experiencing antisemitism in Poland and in France, and yet the importance of staying true to one’s values and beliefs.

In the book – which had originally started as a memoir of Freeman’s grandmother – one’s learns much more – about Sara (aka Sala) who was able (almost reluctantly) to escape France during the war by moving to the United States and by marrying an American. In June 1937 she started over in New York with a man whom she barely knew; it was apparently her key to survival and yet she returned to France multiple times in the 1930s and ultimately found her niche as wife and mother in New York without losing the French identity that has been so important to her. We also learn about her brother Henri (aka Jehuda) who assimilated well into Parisian culture and along with his wife Sonia, were part of the Resistance, about Alex (aka Sander), who not excelled well into that same culture and also was part of the Resistance, and about Jacques (aka Jakob), who sadly did not survive and was murdered in Auschwitz.

The story begins with Freeman sharing the contents of a shoebox of her grandmother’s memorabilia, which included papers and photos, some of which were indeed puzzling. Together they encouraged Freeman to research and to write about her family. Then with her great uncle’s Alex’s memoir, family letters, official documents and statistics, she was able to write a thought-provoking account of how in the 1920s the Glasses were transformed from the Glahses from Chrzanow, a Polish village, part of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as their lives beyond this initial emigration. In some ways she writes a typical story of immigration and how some members of the family found this to be easier than others and yet her careful prose shows the complexities that were involved in these decisions and changes.

Her careful use of these various sources gives life to these both “ordinary and extraordinary” people. One may argue with her “one word” characterizations of individuals as “passive” for her grand uncle Jacques, “defiant” for her grand uncle Alex, “assimilated” for her grand uncle Henri, and “emigrant” for her grandmother. Still they mirror sociological descriptions of different ways in which people respond to crises and relate to an extensive literature of migration stories. There may be truth to these characterizations, which helps us understand how people are influenced by their personal assumptions and niches. Not only does Freeman write about how these three siblings survived the war, but she is also able to share their intertwining stories in the years after the war – from the “ordinary and the “extraordinary” as puts it … Henri and Sara in the first category and Alex in the second – and in so doing share fascinating insights into gender, migration, and much more. These three siblings are able to continue their lives – family, children, work, travel – and in Freeman’s account we learn how these stories are connected to one another.

In different ways the three survivors assimilated into their respective culture(s) and societies; they managed to live normal lives as best as they could, which suggest that there may be lessons for the present and future from the way in which people respond to the past. Starting over is not uncomplicated – as I know from my own family history and my life – and yet Freeman shows with detail and empathy how her grandmother and her grand uncles managed to do so. She provides a nuanced and empathetic portrayal of how they all managed to survive. The book raises essential questions for all of us to ponder about the complexities relating to assimilation, starting over, Jewish identities, gender roles, unjust governments, and assumptions during a challenging period of history — the world of World War II and its aftermath in the United States and in France. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these questions.

 

Written by James Diskant

This book review was originally published on James Diskant's blog: "Chronicles from Berlin: Anecdotes About Starting Over, Coming Out, and History Teaching", where, among other things, Dr. James Diskant also provides reflections on lessons from many years as an educator in history education.

Creating a Historical Argument: Dr. James Diskant’s Webinar on Women Working in the 19th Century

How can we teach students to create a defensible thesis?

On April 21st, Dr. James Diskant, a member of EuroClio’s History and Learning Team, a historian of modern German history and a retired world history teacher with an emphasis on the 19th century, continued our Historiana Webinar Series. The series is an occasion to explore the platform’s teaching and learning tools and to debate critical thinking skills. By using Historiana’s e-builder, he was able to show how different tools have different aims, and how their use can shape students’ thinking patterns and thus lead to different outcomes.

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

What does it mean to create a valid historical argument?

Dr. James Diskant started off by showing a painting without revealing any additional information. He asked the audience to consider the following questions: “What do you see? What do you think that it is? What does it show about the 19th century?”

The painting, called “The Gleaners”, was painted by Jean-François Millet 1857 shows three French peasant women collecting left-over crops from a farmer’s field after the harvest has been collected. In many European countries, the rural poor had the right to glean the fields to supplement their diet; this painting illustrates in part how peasants lived in a world of scarcity during the early Industrial Revolution. While this painting is an important source that represents a specific moment of history, taking into account different sources allows us to define different historical narratives. It helps us create defensible historical arguments based on different kinds of evidence.

Before diving into Historiana’s platform and the advantages of its eActivity Builder, he defined what we mean by making a historical argument:

“Creating and supporting a historical argument involves your ability to create an argument and support it using relevant historical evidence. This includes identifying and framing a question about the past and then coming up with a claim or argument about that question, usually in the form of a thesis. A good argument requires a defensible thesis, supported by thorough analysis of pertinent and varied historical evidence.” AP World History

He also shared step by step indications on how to approach a source:

  • Closely examine the source
  • Take notes on details - what we think it is (words, images, and/or ideas)
  • Analyze the details and find patterns that emerge
  • Analyze the patterns and establish what the patterns reveal
  • Formulate an argument about it based on a pattern analysis

How can Historiana’s eActivity Builder help students create a defensible thesis?

Dr. James Diskant argued that in order to create a defensible argument, it is best  to choose carefully one’s sources. He selected fourteen images from Historiana’s Source Collection on Visual Representations of Women to provide different insights into women working in the 19th century. He then threw down a challenge to the audience: participants, who were sent into various breakout rooms, were given different images and were asked to reflect on the meaning they conveyed and on their relationships with one another. More specifically, he asked them to reflect on which Historiana’s tools of the eActivity Builder worked best to highlight the relationship between them.

 

Interactive tools for critical thinking

The eActivity Builder offers many different tools. All these tools have been created with historical critical thinking in mind and serve different purposes; each tool is thoroughly explained here. Among others, he decided to focus on four tools in particular, as using these specific tools can help students create a defensible argument. 

 

  • The Analyzing tool was created to analyse one source in detail, using annotation. You can use it to have students suggest the time period at which the source was created, practise really close observation, or make connections between parts of a source and knowledge.

 

  • The Compare & Contrast tool has the aim of comparing different sources.  It works the same as the analyzing tool, but for two or more sources. You can use it to have your students think about similarities and differences between visual sources from the same time period, or identify change/continuity when they belong to different time periods.

 

  • The Sorting tool allows students to categorise sources according to the criteria set by the teacher. You, as the teacher, can decide where to initially place the images and ask the students to arrange them in the way you want to. One can sort chronologically, by theme, or into smaller groups. After adding sources to the tool, you can also set a background: different backgrounds have different aims, for example one can divide sources into categories (positive or negative, thematic headings, relevance to a topic, timeline, and/or sequence of events). This tool allows you as a teacher to create a variety of ways to have your students work, as there are so many ways to organize the activity! In some ways this tool then works the best to emphasize higher level thinking. 

 

  • The Discovering tool allows you to look at different relationships between various images and see the connections and in this way, it allows students to develop their level of thinking. The Discovery Tool is inspired by a mind map, but the idea is that students can discover the connections between different sources. They can reveal the sources one by one, and then see the word that connects them. It was specifically created for students to learn more about sources and the principle of causation because they can discover sources in an order defined by the teachers by simply clicking on the sources.

Allowing different tools you could have in the block, you could allow students to look at things in different ways Dr. James Diskant

In the activity that he created with the eLearning Activity Builder, he asked students: “In what ways did Industrialization change work for women?”. By analyzing 14 images from 19th-century European countries, students can create a defensible historical argument about change and continuity as a result of the First Industrial Revolution. By using the tools differently, you could do sorting activities in various ways! In this specific case about women working in the 19th century, it can help make clearer to students the changes related to industrialization, working conditions, and gender roles.

“The evidence used should be built around the application of one of the other historical thinking skills like comparison, causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, or periodization. Finally, it involves your ability to look at a variety of evidence in concert with each other, identifying contradictions and other relationships among sources to develop and support your argument.” AP World History

Using the eLearning Activity Builder allows you as a teacher to decide how you want to create and organize the entire activity, including the order of images. Historiana’s platform provides reliable (copyright-free!) sources so that evidence can back up student’s arguments and the interactive tools promote their critical thinking, highlighting the connections between the images. In this way, it fosters students’ capability to analyze sources, make historical connections, apply chronological reasoning, and ultimately to create and support a historical argument.

Learn more about Historiana Webinar Series

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

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

On February 17th Bridget Martin, History Teacher at the International School of Paris, focussed on contributions to WWI and showed the purposeful eActivity she was able to create by using Historiana’s e-builder. >> Watch the full event | Read the article to know more.

If you’re not familiar with the platform, we recommend you to watch this helpful video as an Introduction to Historiana’s eActivity Builder. You can also just try out the platform yourself - you’ll see that it is very intuitive and offers you plenty of interesting options.

What’s next?

Don’t miss the last webinar of the series! On June 16th, Gijs van Gaans (Teacher Trainer, Fontys Tilburg) will be examining Schisms within Christianity and discuss change and continuity: register here!

 

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

Written by Giulia Verdini

Sources

Main image - Source: Gleaners by Jean-François Millet 1857. Musee D’Orsay, Public Domain.

The Albert Team, “The 5 Most Important Historical Thinking Skills for the AP World History Test”. In AP World History, 2020. Link: https://www.albert.io/blog/5-most-important-historical-thinking-skills-for-the-ap-world-history-test/

Safeguarding a Pluralistic Approach to the Yugoslav Wars through History Education

Learning History that is not yet History II - Blogpost #1

The wars in the Balkans that marked the end of Yugoslavia are ever-present in the collective memory of the countries in the region. The highly sensitive and divisive events left behind their scars and influence societies that both include citizens who have lived the events, as well as the younger generation perceiving the wars as history. This blogpost is the first contribution to a series of blogs, dedicated to our project Learning History that is not yet History II (LHH2). The series will grant an insight into the project and an array of topics related to it, with contributions from the project partners and EuroClio.

Contributing to strengthening stability in the Balkans

The aim of Learning History that is not yet History II is to promote a pluralistic approach to teaching the 1990s Yugoslav wars. No topic is more sensitive or divisive in the Balkans, which makes teaching about this a challenge. We strive to offer a balanced view of the historical events that will lead to mutual understanding in the region, and will ultimately contribute to strengthening stability in the Balkans. However, this is not an overnight process. LHH2 is the embodiment of the special relationship between EuroClio and the region. EuroClio and its members have been working in the Balkans for more than 20 years, strengthening the capacity of the history teachers’ associations, developing workshops with and for local teachers, creating a repository for historical sources and creating resources about common regional history.

The crown on the work of years of trust building

All the results of these past efforts combined will help us create teaching materials which can be used in the classroom and provide teachers the resources to implement the materials as smoothly as possible. Through our previous experience working in the Balkans, and closely collaborating with project members throughout the whole region, trust was established between the people. This allowed us for a strong network to be created, along with the skills in making educational materials. Building this special relationship was crucial in order to tackle the sensitive topic of the 1990s wars. Our strong connections in the region serve as a foundation for the project and the time has arisen to create lessons about the Yugoslav wars. Conclusively, making the LHH2 project the crown on the work of years of trust building in the region.

Follow-up on the award-winning project and broadening the scope

The project is a follow up on the award-winning Learning History that is not yet History (LHH) project. Many steps have been made and successes achieved, and as a crowning of the work the LHH team was awarded the Global Pluralism Award 2019 by the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP). LHH2 will continue the efforts in the Balkans and with the award money, we were able to get started with making lesson plans about the 1990s wars, developed by local educators from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. With additional support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was possible to bring all 7 countries on board. This considerably broadens the project’s scope to the dissolution of the 1990s. Multiperspectivity is imperative to tackling the 1990s wars and being able to include all 7 countries in the project, provided us the valuable partnership to do so.  

The outputs of the project

Building on the results of its predecessor, the outputs of the projects will be 18 ready-to-use lesson plans. In order to safeguard multiperspectivity, the lesson plans will be made in cross-border teams. The themes of these lesson plans will yet be defined, depending on the needs and expertise of the authors. An additional Teacher’s Guide will similarly be part of the project’s outputs, equipping teachers with the accurate knowledge on how to smoothly implement the lesson plans. Teaching sensitive topics can be confrontational, therefore, themes such as dealing with emotions and controversies will be included in the Guide. Along with the lesson plans and Teacher’s Guide, LHH2 aims to reach as many teachers as possible in the region, to bring about the biggest impact. In order to achieve this, a new redesigned LHH2 website will act as a hub for the project initiative. To further promote the project and the activities in the Balkans, a promotional video will be made to give an insight into the project’s discussions and varying views and experiences of everyone involved in the project. Lastly, to complement this, local partners will launch a communication campaign to reach local stakeholders. This way, the mission of LHH2 to increase mutual understanding and strengthen stability in the Balkans will be broadened.

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

Alicia Rijlaarsdam Articles ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decolonising the Curriculum: a coalescence of old and new conversations

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

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

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

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

Initiating change

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

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

About Prof. Peter D’Sena 

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

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

 

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

Decolonising history by reframing significance

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

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

Introduction: Why Significance?

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

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

How should we understand significance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about what has survived, and what is lost

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about the meaning and value of evidence in new ways

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

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

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

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

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

Using Historiana to teach significance

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Call for entries: Medea Awards 2021

For more than 13 years, the MEDEA Awards has been encouraging innovation and good practice in the use of media (audio, video, graphics, and animation) in education. These annual awards recognise and promote excellence in the production and pedagogical design of media-rich learning resources and bring to the forefront those producers, designers and teaching staff who provide such inspiration to the entire educational community, particularly in Europe.

The MEDEA Awards were launched in November 2007 and from 2015 onwards, the MEDEA Awards have been supported by the Media & Learning Association. Learn more about the history, aims and participation guidelines here.

MEDEA Awards 2021 are now open again for all media that are produced in the higher education, continuing education, or training sectors, and that are aimed at all types of learners.

Read the official call and submit your entry.

Deadline: 31 May 2021.

Historiana: Winner of the Special Prize for European Collaboration in the creation of Educational Media

EuroClio's educational platform Historiana won the special prize for European Collaboration in the creation of Educational Media in 2012. Historiana is an online multimedia tool that offers teachers and students multi-perspective and comparative historical sources and learning activities: it represents a digital alternative to a European History textbook and promotes the acquisition of cross-border historical knowledge and the development of critical thinking. Learn more about the benefits of the platform for educators and Cultural Heritage Institutes here.

What the judges said

Historiana is an educational website that offers young people free access to quality education materials on history and heritage from a global perspective. The quality of the content provided is very good, the learning objectives are clear and properly addressed.

An interesting initiative, it is aesthetically well designed and user friendly, and presents a holistic critical perspective about historical facts and social consequences. 

It is easy to use and has structured guidance questions that work as a table of contents for every subject.

Since then, a lot has been improved on Historiana: new features were added, new tools, many Source Collections and eLearning Activities. At the moment, Historiana provides access to:

  • 50+ source collections
  • 5 multistranded timelines
  • 14 variety of viewpoints
  • 50 eLearning Activities
  • 100 learning activities
  • 3 modules centered around key moments.

Find out more about why Historiana won the prize here - and have a look at how the platform used to look like by watching this video MEDEA Prize Winner 2012: Historiana - Your Portal To The Past

Decolonising Literary Canons and Fostering Multiperspectivity through Fiction: why Nella Larsen’s “Passing” should be used in history education

Giulia Verdini Reviews ,
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Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ was first published in 1929. The title refers to the practice of “racial passing” which meant crossing the colour line between blacks and whites: the attempt to claim recognition in a different racial group than the one people belonged to was a quite common practice in the US of the 1920s. 

Background

The novel belongs to the heyday of the African American literature in the 1920s: after the disillusionment of World War I and in a milieu of racial segregation, the black community stood out and developed its art through the motif of "Négritude". Intellectuals of the New Negro Movement claimed their roots and did their best to represent their ethnicity: what followed is what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, which gave voice to a new African American consciousness. Passing reflects upon African Americans' crisis of identity in a white environment and their need to retrieve their ethnicity, but at the same time it also calls into question the very notion of race, which is represented more as something ambiguous rather than a defining feature. It depicts the complicated intersection of race, gender and social class, and the clashes between personal freedom and social obligations.

The epigraph

The reading of the novel begins with its epigraph. Before diving into a story, the reader is confronted with a short poem. Passing’s epigraph is an original paratextual element and it is an allographic epigraph as it was written by Countée Cullen, one of the most representative authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The short poem introduces the theme of Africa, the meaning of roots and ethnicity: the speaker asks himself "What is Africa to me?", a question which guides the poem and its ongoing reflections. The original, full-length poem is part of a collection, Color, published in 1925. The decision of omitting the original title of the poem, Heritage, hints at an understanding of the act passing as a loss rather than a gain, in particular the loss of heritage - the title of which the poem appearing in Passing is deprived of.

Plot

The story is set in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City. The plot revolves around two African American women who see each other again after a long time. Irene Redfield is the mother of two sons and the wife of a black husband: as he is too dark to pass, she occasionally passes as white when she is alone. She is passing as white when she meets her old friend Clare Kendry: the two women pretended to be white to enter a Chicago hotel and enjoy the sunny day on its rooftop. Clare immediately recognises her friend and her ethnicity, but Irene cannot the same. From the novel’s opening, race is slippery and terribly unstable.

Irene learns that Clare is currently living her life mostly as a white person and that she is married to a rich, white husband who is unaware of her racial roots. Irene would like to avoid further engagement with Clare, but she is too intrigued by her: eventually, the two women dangerously resume their childhood friendship.

Despite being a novel, the narrative is built as in a theatrical piece, where chapters can be understood as different acts and characters constantly perform a role and act as actors of comic yet dangerous scenes - until Clare Kendry dies, leaning backward in a window, in the final act. Whether she fell accidentally, committed suicide or was pushed by Irene or someone else, is up to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.

And so is the question of whether the theatrical piece is a tragedy or a farce.

Crossing the colour line: a tool of convenience?

Why would an African American pass as white? Making a political statement? Defying white supremacy? Or more simply, gaining a better social position?

People were undeniably passing as white in order to obtain something better, something that they would never get by 'staying black': crossing the colour line meant being eligible for a well paying job, living in a fancier neighbourhood, being allowed in whites-only environments, enjoying a multitude of privileges. 

The character of Clare Kendry embodies a different perspective on the practice of crossing racial boundaries. In the novel, passing is framed through Clare’s sense of playfulness. Her life is a theatrical piece and she is the protagonist on the stage, performing whatever identity she needs or wants to perform. Whilst Irene comes to wish she had not been born black, Clare does not take race seriously: she doesn't feel burdened by the yoke of race as Irene does. Clare plays with her own identity and laughs at danger.

After her father’s death, his bigot aunts treated Clare like a servant and forbade her from seeing or even talking about 'Negroes' - this is how African Americans are referred to in the novel. She was consequently also forbidden from revealing the truth about her race. But what is the truth about her race? Throughout the novel, Irene’s black perspective reminds the reader of how white Clare is. When she says that she desperately wants to see Negroes and be with them again, she is somehow acknowledging her belonging to another world - and she sounds irremediably white. She does not want to socialize with blacks because of racial belonging and solidarity, rather for the sake of excitement. Clare did not hate being black, nor she hated being white. On the contrary, she loved being both.

Passing was generally perceived as the required practice to gain opportunities for personal advancement, and it was consequently often dramatized as a mere class question. Larsen frees herself from the conventions around the theme of passing and its sole interconnectedness with climbing social classes. Passing is a tool of convenience, but for Clare it is not merely driven by material ambition. The term ‘passing’ itself usually refers to passing for white, whilst it is never used to mean ‘passing for black’: Clare is the one character that enables this shift in meaning, as she rather dreams of inhabiting different social classes at the same time and she is not concerned about moral implications. Moreover, here the focus is not on how the person passing is perceived by whites, but on how he or she is perceived by blacks. 

The novel revels in this ambiguity and does not clearly take a position: passing is a symbol of gain and loss at the same time - gaining respectability but also losing any bound with your ethnicity. The character of Clare suggests that race is something that can be manipulated and also acquired: the narrative ultimately perceives race not as a matter of identity but of performativity. By questioning the meaning of belonging and the idea of loyalty to a race, the narrative raises a problem of representation but more than anything disrupts the conventional way of thinking of them.

Decolonising literary canons

The theme of passing was a very recurring topic in American popular literature since the mid-19th century. Most of the fiction available was written by white men and told the story of an unfortunate black girl born from a tragic event. This girl was usually compelled to pretend to be white for her entire life; an aristocrat would fall in love with her beauty and marry her unaware of her racial status, but he would eventually find out or the girl would just confess. In the end, the girl usually dies of fever - but also of deep internal suffering, discomfort and social uneasiness. This regular path of the novel contributed to the creation of the leitmotif of what is known as the tragic mulatta figure”, a stock character in early African American literature. These types of accounts highlighted the feeling of social exclusion of the ‘Negro girls’, as this exhaustion would be the main reason for depression and suicide.

Nella Larsen’s novel portrays passing as a choice, and not as a constriction. Furthermore, the act of passing is neither condemned nor praised. There is no real judgement: the reader is enabled to make his/her own statement. This is reinforced by the unexplained death of Clare: it is the reader’s duty to make sense of what he has read and understand the conclusion of the novel as an act of crime, fate or suicide.

Clare Kendry’s character does not correspond to the tragic mulatto figure: she is a provocateur and a manipulator. Ultimately, she is a performer. Passing successfully for her means having no restraints. She is never hiding, but “stepping always on the edge of danger” (Larsen, 1). Does her race doom her to an already written fate?

The theatrical piece might have the form of a tragedy, but turns out to be a farce. Clare is not scared and does not demand pity, her death is not the consequence of her fear. Clare dies because fatalism must be at the core of Larsen’s work: the author acknowledges the literary tradition and yet breaks the boundaries, canons and limits. On the surface, the novel seems to conform to the stereotype of the mulatta figure. Nevertheless, the narrative resists the conventions of the genre and gives innovative treatment to a very worn racial subject.

How does the novel help decolonise history and why should it be included in history education?

The novel can be used in history education to teach the history of African Americans and to tackle the issues of race, social boundaries and belonging. More specifically, the novel deeply engages with the question: “where does race reside?” and suggests different plausible yet equally incomplete answers - blood, emotion, ancestry. The concept of race is ultimately understood as a function of science as much as of law and politics. It is primarily a function of history and as such, it has been subject to Western biases.

The novel should be included in the curriculum as

  • it is written by and focuses on a black woman, but more broadly on the lived experiences of African American people in the 1920s;
  • it promotes multiperspectivity via the two characters of Clare and Irene;
  • it reflects on the meaning of race and racial belonging;
  • it decentres hegemony established by colonisation and westernisation by challenging Western constructs;
  • it offers a new perspective on the practice of passing and disrupts the concept of identity;
  • it can be read by students, adults and young adults;
  • it questions how narrative history has privileged one version of the story and dismantles systems that privilege certain widely accepted narratives over others.

From fictional characters to historical accounts

Passing is a work of fiction, but it is also the telling of a world that truly existed, the world where its author lived. The fact that Nella Larsen has a lot in common with the character of Clare comes as no surprise. Larsen’s parents were Danish immigrants- her father specifically originated from the Danish West Indies and died when she was young. Her mother remarried, but her new family members disregarded her heritage and the ties that bound them. Furthermore, Larsen grew up in the vice district of Chicago, where there were very rigid boundaries between blacks and whites. 

For history educators who are interested in using the author’s life story, more information about Nella Larsen can be found here.

Specifications about the book:

  • Date of first publication: the book was originally published in April 1929 - USA;
  • Genre: Novel;
  • Sub-Genre: African American;
  • Age Range: Adult and Young Adult Literature;
  • Suggested edition: Chemeketa Press, 2018.

Written by Giulia Verdini

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Larsen, Nella. Passing. Chemeketa Press, American Voices Collection. 2018.

Rafia Zafar, “Black Modernism.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 348-352.

Wertheim, Bonnie. Nella Larsen - A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage informed her modernist take on the topic of race. The New York Times.

About Giulia

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 Giulia Verdini is a trainee at EuroClio from February 2021 and she is working at the Secretariat on outreach and project management for Football Makes History, In Europe Schools, Contested Histories and Historiana. Giulia holds a BA in Western and Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of Macerata and a MA in English Literature from Uppsala University, where she graduated focussing on questions of representation and specifically addressing the derangements of scales and the ethical challenges that the advent of the Anthropocene and globalization have unmasked. She previously interned as a teacher in Sweden and she is currently doing a Master in Global Marketing and Communication.