Teaching History: A New Approach

30 Jan , 2016 Op-Ed

History is one of the main disciplines that every child needs to study in school, from the gymnasium and up to the last year of high-school. History as an academic subject is fundamental for every modern society in multiple ways. The study of history by the young generations is one of the ways the state constructs the national identity, propagates historical mythology, and assures the reproduction of constructed myths of national origin. All of them are essential parts of the construction of any modern nation. The citizens of any modern state are kept together by a sense of belonging to the political and cultural community they are part of, by a type o cohesion that is intrinsically linked with the shared imaginary of the polity that is constructed by the state’s mechanisms of social construction and reproduction of the nation.

Every nation needs heroes, historical (military) victories, and a sense of importance in the world, a status of uniqueness that is essential in constructing the identity of the Self as different from the Other. The Self must be special, with perceived positive qualities that make him superior to the Other. This is the way the majority of our modern nations were created in the last two centuries, by defining the Self and excluding the Other. If a political or ethnic group doesn’t have known heroes, important victories on the military field, the national elite will just invent them or overvalue some military victories of former leaders of the territory they reside (Battle of Călugăreni is a good example).

The History that we learn in school is the main official mechanism for imposing the “official” historical narrative of the state and, indeed, for the reproduction of the historical prototype that the state is constructing. One of the main domestic powers of the state is to define the social reality and history. The national cohesion, one the most important factors that provide power to the state, is constructed, reproduced, and adjusted by the state through multiple societal mechanisms, two of them being the standardized history and the standardized language that we learn in school. This assures the reproduction of the values the state supports and the political and cultural stereotypes the state needs to impose its policies in a way that seems natural to the polity.

This approach of using history for imposing the official ideology and historical narratives is a natural consequence of the political paradigm of the 19th and 20th century, two centuries that are more than anything else characterized by the Real Politik paradigm and the radical ideologies. The question that arises now is if this approach is still suitable for our new world, for a transnational and more globalized society, for a Europe that no longer seeks to go to war and who tries to integrate?

The main topics of our History are about the political and military event of the past, creating a national mythology based on real, partially real or just fictional events that are considered to be of significant relevance for the history of the nation. A nation cannot exist without a standardized history, one that creates a pantheon of heroes for the nation to praise and to use as examples of uniqueness and superiority comparatively to the Other. The history of ethnic nations, like the Romanian nation, is ethnocentric, as if the nation is the navel of the World. The international context and the international events that could have influenced our history are made irrelevant or presented only when favors the official narrative.

Nothing else exists in the school history textbooks, nothing about the way the people lived, how the economy looked, what were the customs and habits of the past generations. Only the past victories and wars of the territorial leaders that ruled the land.

Shouldn’t we look beyond this narrow history that is so centered on the military events of the past? Aren’t we mature enough as a nation to go beyond the historical mythology and basic historical event? Isn’t important for our young generations to know more about the average Jon from the past, how was to live in Bucharest at 1700 or how was the life of a peasant in the 1600’s? Maybe they will like more a history with interesting stuff about the life of the people from the past than to memorize dozens of dates and names of military events. We could create future members of the polity who will understand better our society and the way it developed.

It could affect the national identity and the mythology that is one of the fundamental pillars of the nation? Indeed, it could, but who says that it will do so in a negative way? Many parts of the current history that pupils and high-school students learn in school are full of biased and even fabricated events. The changes could clarify the last parts of the national-communist historical mythology that remained after the 1989 Revolution, parts that were created by the communist regime to serve ideological and political purposes of the party.

These days, when the Ministry of Education is debating the new educational curricula, we have the best opportunity to make a paradigmatic change in the way our children learn, understand, and perceive the history of our nation. We should not lose the chance!


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