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Learning about the past: where history isn’t bunk 18 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in EU / UE, History / Histoire, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Economist (U.S. Edition),

March 17, 2007, dublin, istanbul and sydney

Teaching history catches a nation’s collective mood Across the world, approaches to teaching children about their nation’s past are hotly contested—especially at times of wider debate on national identity

If the past is a foreign country, the version that used to be taught in Irish schools had a simple landscape. For 750 years after the first invasion by an English king, Ireland suffered oppression. Then at Easter 1916, her brave sons rose against the tyrant; their leaders were shot but their cause prevailed, and Ireland (or 26 of her 32 counties) lived happily ever after.

Awkward episodes, like the conflict between rival Irish nationalist groups in 1922-23, were airbrushed away. « The civil war was just an embarrassment, it was hardly mentioned, » says Jimmy Joyce, who went to school in Dublin in the 1950s.

These days, Irish history lessons are more sophisticated. They deal happily with facts that have no place in a plain tale of heroes and tyrants: like the fact that hundreds of thousands of Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, fought for Britain during the two world wars.

Why the change? First because in the 1980s, some people in Ireland became uneasy about the fact that a crude view of their national history was fuelling a conflict in the north of the island. Then came a fall in the influence of the Catholic church, whose authority had rested on a deft fusion between religion and patriotism. Also at work was an even broader shift: a state that was rich, confident and cosmopolitan saw less need to drum simple ideas into its youth, especially if those ideas risked encouraging violence.

As countries all over the world argue over « what to tell the children » about their collective past, many will look to Ireland rather enviously. Its seamless transition from a nationalist view of history to an open-minded one is an exception.

A history curriculum is often a telling sign of how a nation and its elites see themselves: as victims of colonialism or practitioners (either repentant or defiant) of imperial power. In the modern history of Mexico, for example, a big landmark was the introduction, 15 years ago, of text-books that were a bit less anti-American.

Many states still see history teaching, and the inculcation of foundation myths, as a strategic imperative; others see it as an exercise in teaching children to think for themselves. And the experience of several countries suggests that, whatever educators and politicians might want, there is a limit to how far history lessons can diverge in their tone from society as a whole.

Take Australia. John Howard, the conservative prime minister, has made history one of his favourite causes. At a « history summit » he held last August, educators were urged to « re-establish a structured narrative » about the nation’s past. This was seen by liberal critics as a doomed bid to revive a romantic vision of white settlement in the 18th century. The romantic story has been fading since the 1980s, when a liberal, revisionist view came to dominate curricula: one that replaced « settlement » with « invasion » and that looked for the first time at the stories of aborigines and women.

How much difference have Australia’s policy battles made to what children in that cosmopolitan land are taught? Under Mr Howard’s 11-year government, « multicultural » and « aboriginal reconciliation », two terms that once had currency, have faded from the policy lexicon.

But not from classrooms. Australia’s curricula are controlled by the states, not from Canberra. Most states have rolled Australian history into social-studies courses, often rather muddled. But in New South Wales, the most populous state, where the subject is taught in its own right, Mr Howard’s bid to promote a patriotic view of history meets strong resistance.

Judy King, head of Riverside Girls High School in Sydney, has students from more than 40 ethnic groups at her school. « It’s simply not possible to present one story to them, and nor do we, » she says. « We canvass all the terms for white settlement: colonialism, invasion and genocide. Are all views valid? Yes. What’s the problem with that? If the prime minister wants a single narrative instead, then speaking as someone who’s taught history for 42 years he’ll have an absolute fight on his hands. »

Tom Ying, head of history at Burwood Girls High School in Sydney, grew up as a Chinese child in the white Australia of the 1950s. In a school where most students are from non-English-speaking homes, he welcomes an approach that includes the dark side of European settlement. « When you have only one side of the story, immigrants, women and aborigines aren’t going to have an investment in it. »

Australia is a country where a relatively gentle (by world standards) effort to reimpose a sort of national ideology looks destined to fail. Russia, by contrast, is a country where the general principle of a toughly enforced ideology, and a national foundation story, still seems natural to many people, including the country’s elite.

In a telling sign of how he wants Russians to imagine their past, President Vladimir Putin has introduced a new national day—November 4th—to replace the old communist Revolution Day holiday on November 7th. What the new date recalls is the moment in 1612 when Russia, after a period of chaos, drove the Catholic Poles and Lithuanians out of Moscow. Despite the bonhomie of this week’s 25-minute chat between Mr Putin and Pope Benedict XVI, the president is promoting a national day which signals « isolation and defensiveness » towards western Christendom, says Andrei Zorin, a Russian historian.

Because trends and ideas take time to trickle down from the elite to the classroom, Russian schools are still quite liberal places. In a hangover from the free-ranging tone of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, teachers can portray the past pretty much in whatever way they choose. But they are bracing for a change. As one liberal history teacher frets: « I can imagine that in a year’s time we will be obliged to explain the meaning of the new holiday to first-year pupils. » And part of the meaning is that chaos—be it in the Yeltsin era or prior to 1612—is a greater evil than toughly enforced order.

In South Africa, where white rule collapsed at the same time as communism did, the authorities seem to have done a better job at forging a new national story and avoiding the trap of replacing one rigid ideology with another. « The main message of the new school curriculum is inclusion and reconciliation, » says Linda Chisholm, who helped design post-apartheid lessons. « We teach pupils to handle primary sources, like oral history and documents, instead of spoon-feeding them on textbooks, » adds Aled Jones, a history teacher at Bridge House school in Cape Province. It helps that symbols and anniversaries have been redefined with skill. December 16th used to be a day to remember white settlers clashing with the Zulus in 1838; now it is the Day of Reconciliation.

By those standards, parts of the northern hemisphere are far behind. A hard argument over history is under way in places like south-eastern Europe: this battle pits old elites that see teaching history as a strategic issue against newer ones that hope for an opening of minds.

In modern Turkey, classrooms have always been seen as a battleground for young hearts. Every day, children start the day by chanting: « I am a Turk, I am honest, I am industrious »—and woe betide the tiny tot who stumbles because Turkish is not his main tongue. Secondary schools get regular visits from army officers who try to instil « national-security awareness ».

In such a climate, it is inevitable that « history is considered a sensitive matter, to be managed by the state, » says Taner Akcam, a Turkish-born historian, whose frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 have exposed him to harassment by Turkish nationalists, even in America where he now lives. But text-books have changed recently, under pressure from the European Union: the latest still call the British « sly and treacherous » but are a little kinder to the Greeks. Neyyir Berktay, an educationalist, calls the new books « significantly better » than what went before; but they are still far from accepting the idea of more than one culture within Turkey’s borders.

In neighbouring Greece, there is a bitter controversy over a new textbook for 12-year-olds. Its approach is a challenge to some historical vignettes that are dear to modern Greek hearts: for example the idea of « secret schools » where priests taught youngsters to read and write in defiance of their Ottoman masters.

While Ireland’s religious nationalism is in retreat (because the Catholic Church has lost influence), Greece’s Orthodox leaders, like Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, are putting up a harder fight to preserve the nationalist spirit which their predecessors embraced, reluctantly at first, in the 19th century. Ranged against them is a new school of Balkan history that reflects a cross-border dialogue between scholars. The net result is a fairer story—though when books try to be fair there’s always a risk of being bland, says Thalia Dragona, a Greek educational psychologist.

Meanwhile some Greeks retort that 11 or 12 is too young to go looking for facts. In a web-discussion of the new Greek textbook, one participant thunders: « At university, the goal of historical research is the discovery of truth. But in primary schools history teaching has an entirely different aim—to form historical consciousness and social identity! »


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