After one year of studying History I understood something revelatory, I might say – even tough it shouldn’t have been surprising at all. I understood that nothing I’ve learned before is as stable and precise as I’ve been told. There are no heroes, there are no big, revolutionary ideas that led to the progress of humanity as we see it today. There are only facts and interpretations, and it is the value we attach to them that makes history seem so great. So far, so good. But prejudices and myths are an intrinsic danger that History brings with it in the development of critical thinking and in the relationships between different nationalities and cultures. What is it to be done then? Jonathan Even-Zohar, MA, is the Director of EUROCLIO – the European Association of History Educators. As a specialist in History Education, he has managed various projects in this field in transitional countries. As far as I see it, he might have some well founded answers and solutions to these problems.
Why History Education? Why not simply History?
The study of history is an attempt to understand how the world around us came to be. It is a very wide discipline which seeks from today’s vantage point to amass a comprehensive recollection of events, processes and mechanisms of societies, on many different levels. For researchers, but also for the public at large, it is inspiring and it offers deeper understanding, but how to teach history is, I would say, an even more complicated affair. Unlike most other school subjects (exceptions being for example language and religion), history education is a hotly debated public good. Which history should be taught? How should it be taught? Do we need more, or rather less of it in schools? Do children learn history as a story of the nation or as a variety of inquiry-based interpretations? Does the state include the history of minorities? Does the national story fill the young hearts with pride and collective pain, or does it problematize complex layers of dealing with past crimes?
Why did I choose History Education? Because it is this complex minefield, because, as EUROCLIO Members in former Yugoslavia have said, it has been used as a weapon for a very long time, when it should be used as a tool to build peaceful societies.
History is frequently associated with a purely theoretical discipline. Is there a practical dimension to both teaching and studying history? If there is, how could it be explored in a more socially responsible way?
Besides History being just “stuff that happened”, learning how to think historically, how to balance, question, judge and analyze are all skills that strongly develop a young person’s sense of critical thinking. This can be of great value when building stable democratic societies. In this sense, history education can be seen as a contribution to society. In addition, in most societies there are lots of inter-group tensions which can be related to differences of opinion in the field of history. The ability to understand the difference between basic facts and manipulation, distortion and bias is of great value in/when trying to resolve these tensions.
Divergent historical perspectives are always instrumentalized and historical facts deformed in different purposes, especially political ones. What kind of instruments does History Education provide in order to fight this ailing tendency?
History Education will not be able to stop the instrumentalisation, but if that counts, just raising awareness of this tendency is a way to cope with it. Historians are trained professionals who practice a certain ethic code. It is vital that they are able to continue their independent and ethic responsible conduct, but on the level of education, the only thing would be for students to learn about the sensitive nature of history for use, and abuse.
Is the development of critical thinking and social responsibility enough to overcome these defaults particularly in a society where education is highly impregnated with misconceptions?
What is needed is for education professionals to be able to develop their own field, free from the constant political interference. For this much more investment is needed in initial teacher training. In many countries, there is no methodological and pedagogical preparation for teachers. They simply learn how to be a historian, and are then thrown into the two-pitter fire of “the textbook” and “the exams”. Instead, proper initial training, but also continuous professional development, are much needed. Moreover, supporting a wider, independent movement of civil society that deals with history (museums, memorials, archives, libraries and, indeed, educators) to act as a counterbalance for political interference would foster this approach.
Do you believe History Education is twice important in transitional countries than in long tradition democracies or is it a pointless distinction?
I think it is important everywhere, and should not be taken for granted. But I believe this is far more urgent to address these issues in transitional countries, and especially in post-conflict societies. This is because as long as history remains in the grip of politicians and “the street” and the professional voice is missing in the public debate there will not be a change to a more democratic approach. In post-conflict societies, history is often one of the root causes for sustaining hostile images of “the other”. This also can be resolved by promoting more professional approaches.
In a TEDx show you supported the idea that history should be taught beyond national identity. I wonder: could this new perspective create an uncertainty state of affairs that would have undesirable effects? Is there some sort of supranational identity that would replace the existing national one?
Everybody has the right to define themselves and certainly it has tremendous value to welcome children into societies, creating a sense of belonging, of home. But this is something else than fostering exclusive national identities. I believe that a citizen who is only taught to look at reality through the nationality lens does not realize the full potential of being a democratic citizen. “Us and Them” has not brought our world anything else then conflict. Sure, you can support the country where you live during the Olympics etc., but why would a school create thick identities, while instead it could foster curiousity, questioning and actually teaching students to think in divergent ways?
A supranational identity is not really necessary if people are simply there to be responsible citizens in their community. And in the end everybody already has multiple layers of identity, the national is just one layer.
How exactly could History Education promote multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue?
I suppose an inclusive view on history is needed. Not just a Director’s Cut of the national story, but a content that is adjustable to today’s challenges. Do we have a migration crisis? Then we need to know about the history of migration. Are we running out of fossil fuels? How did civilizations in the past deal with limited energy resources? Are we experiencing a “clash of civilizations”? How have societies lived together in the past? History is our database of human behavior. It should help us deal with real issues, and not foster nostalgic and romanticized stories of heroes.
 See concernedhistorians.org for more on Code of Conduct.