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As the Council launches a new education conference the report argues that the Council of Europe concerns about history being used as 'a tool of propaganda' are well founded but that the Council must examine its own role in exploiting the past.
The Council of Europe started a major conference yesterday aimed at improving teaching by tackling ‘historical manipulations’ and the use of history as propaganda. Yet, as detailed by a new report from MCC Brussels - The Politicisation of History Teaching in Europe – Exploiting the Past to promote contemporary concerns – the Council of Europe’s education agenda has moved beyond its initial concern with maintaining objectivity to the political promotion of values.
READ THE REPORT HERE
Report author Joanna Williams stated that history conveys a sense of national identity and values. She observed,
’History teaching is more contested than other school subjects; it is a topic for public debate and political scrutiny. History teaching has been a concern of the Council of Europe for over seven decades. This report examines the changing nature of the Council’s work in this area and considers its impact on classroom practice. We show how the European Dimension in History Teaching has moved beyond its initial concern with maintaining objectivity and eliminating prejudice to become a far more political promotion of values that transcend and often implicitly criticise nations and borders.’
“History Education in the Digital Age” is the title of the second forum of the intergovernmental programme of the Council of Europe. It will takes place in Brussels on 7 – 8 March 2023 and will bring together experts on history education to discuss perspectives on ways to deliver history education.
The Council said about their conference, ‘At a time when historical falsifications and manipulations are rampant on social networks, history can be used as a tool for propaganda to justify the unjustifiable. In this context, historical education through all its vectors (formal education, in history/ history-geography classes but also civic education; non-formal education; commemorations, visits to places of remembrance, etc.) has an essential role to play in promoting the contribution of critical thinking as a democratic foundation to respond to contemporary challenges.’
Joanna Williams said: “While it is instructive that increasingly there is a growing awareness that the teaching of history is a serious battleground in the objectivity versus propaganda wars, asking the Council of Europe to institute reform and correct direction is really like asking the proverbial fox to guard the hen house.”
READ THE REPORT HERE
About the Author of the Report
Joanna Williams began her career teaching English in secondary schools before joining the University of Kent as a lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice in 2007. She was the director of the University’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education until 2016. Joanna left academia to become Head of Education and Culture at Policy Exchange. Most recently, she has set up her own think tank, Cieo, which has a particular focus on democracy, education and citizenship. Joanna is the author of How Woke Won (2022); Women vs Feminism (2017); Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (2016), and Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can't Be Bought (2012).
About the Report
The report from MCC Brussels identifies several common features of history teaching in Europe’s schools today:
1. Instrumentalising the past: History is primarily considered a means of deepening pupils’ understanding of the current challenges facing society. This promotes an instrumental approach, with the past valued only to the extent that it provides illustrations for contemporary concerns.
2. Diminishing historical knowledge: When the starting point for history teaching is the present, historical knowledge risks being deprioritised and the subject left virtually indistinguishable from civics or citizenship classes. This paves the way for politicisation.
3. Promoting values: History is frequently used as a vehicle for teaching skills and promoting attitudes. Values such as diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability are often specified and cultivated under the guise of more neutral sounding ‘competences’.
4. Beyond the nation: The Council of Europe has consistently promoted moves away from patriotic approaches to history teaching that involved children being told a national story, often chronologically and with a focus on significant events and notable figures. Teachers have long been encouraged to focus on the history of other countries and show how nations impact upon each other.
5. The end of ‘great men’: History has been further broadened to encompass the experiences of diverse groups within the nation, at first in response to growing immigration and most recently, through highlighting the experiences of people with disabilities, transgender and queer people.
6. Confronting the sins of the past: A shift away from patriotic history was initially intended to promote a positive European outlook and identity based on shared cultural values. More recently, triumphalist notions of what it means to be European have also been challenged. Rather than pupils being encouraged to take pride in a shared cultural legacy or past achievements, common identity emerges through collective shame in relation to past sins, such as empire, colonialism and, most significantly, the Atlantic slave trade. The popular movement to decolonise history reinforces a focus on using history to confront past wrongs. A balanced approach to history demands that pupils be taught the negative impacts of their country’s actions. But when children are taught history solely to condemn their nation, they are left estranged from the past and alienated from the present.
7. Approved interpretations: From its early work on textbooks, the Council of Europe has focused on eradicating bias and prejudice in history teaching. Most recently, this has taken the form of challenging ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’. This is presented as a core skill pupils are expected to develop while studying history. But not only is it another distraction from teaching about the past, but it is also a further means of introducing politics into the classroom.
8. The EU as a saviour: If the past was sinful and the present corrupted with misinformation, only one institution can be relied upon: the European Union. The post-World War Two drive to promote peace and stability through European unity readily morphed into the promotion of political union and respect for the EU and its many off-shoots.
9. History as an empty vessel: When history teaching is no longer concerned with developing pupils’ knowledge of the past as an end in itself and cannot promote either a national story or a positive narrative about Europe, the subject risks becoming reduced to simplistic moral lessons. Children taught only what is bad about the past are alienated from their nation, distanced from older generations who do not buy into such national self-loathing, and estranged from a broader understanding of European culture and enlightenment values. Undermining national history leaves children with neither a foundation in the past nor a stake in the future.
To tackle this, MCC Brussels offer several recommendations:
1. Put the past back into history teaching. Teachers need to focus on what is most significant about the past that should be passed on to future generations.
2. Put knowledge back into history. Reducing history to a tool for promoting skills or values trivialises the subject.
3. Put the nation back into history. All children should have chronological knowledge of their national story. History should give children a sense of continuity between the past and the present.
4. Put academic expertise back into history. History specialists, not the Council of Europe, should lead national conversations about what children should learn about the past.
5. Put balance back into history. Children should learn about past acts of barbarism and crimes against humanity. But, for balance, they should also be taught about humanity’s past achievements.