[Robert Guyver (ed.) (2016). Teaching History and the Changing Nation State: Transnational and Intranational Perspectives. London (UK) : Bloomsbury.]
Can history be owned by anyone? Jordanova explicitly discusses this question in her History in Practice, pointing at the examples of women’s history, black history and Jewish history. Can only a woman write women’s history, should the director of a Jewish museum always be a Jew? This would imply that the key to a true understanding of the past would be experiencing a shared identity, which in some mysterious way extends beyond the vicissitudes of time. Rightly, Jordanova (2006) repudiates this view, stating that the only dispositions a historian should have are ‘to be humane, accurate, self-aware and judicious’ (p. 144). For the rest, history is publicly owned knowledge open to anyone, regardless of race, sex, creed or ethnicity. The same should apply for the school subject of history: there should be no history which is the exclusive domain of a certain group of people any more than there is anyone’s specific mathematics.
However, the collection of essays edited by Robert Guyver in the volume Teaching History and the Changing Nation State shows a strikingly different reality. If there is one paramount impression after reading them, it is the extent to which history, especially school history, is the plaything of political and ideological forces everywhere in the world, even in the most advanced democratic countries. The creation of national identities by means of forging stories about the past seems a need so urgently felt by politicians, that there can be no escape from it. This may appear obvious in cases of open conflict, such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue or the conflict between Russia and Ukraine – two of the topics which are dealt with in this volume. Sensitive histories, whether recent or not, may also provide understandable reasons why coming to terms with past realities can be a difficult effort, like in the case of the genocide in Rwanda, the apartheid history in South Africa, or even the awareness of ‘an American Holocaust’ (Mottola Poole on page 152 of this volume), meaning the virtual annihilation of the culture and lives of millions of native Americans in the present territory of the United States. But why should there be historical myths or even ‘history wars’ in stable modern democracies such as Australia, New Zealand or the United Kingdom? Why can’t these nations just teach about the experiences of mankind relevant to democratic world citizens today, without exhausting themselves in pointless debates about how their national identities find their origins in unique past events pertaining exclusively to themselves?
The pointlessness of these endeavours is illustrated in a striking way by a passage in the chapter by Guyver himself about the UK describing the descent of present Britons in the analysis of Pocock: ‘simple ethnic categories prove impossible to define where there were normanized Irish and hibernicized Normans, bilingual Anglo-Welsh, monoglot Welsh and English (…), Celts who entered a Norse world and Norsemen assimilated to the Celtic pattern and the expansion of government at the expense of kinship’ (p.161). The ethnic conundrum indicated here suggests that ethnicity or race may be just as futile as national identity, of which we all know by now that it rests mainly on ‘imagined communities’ (Benedict Anderson). Yet, as soon as modern Spain emerged from the Franco dictatorship in the period after 1975 as a democratic state composed of a number of different communities, each of the communities started to construct its own (Catalonian, Basque, Valencian or Galician) past, of course extending as far back as prehistory – so we learn from the chapter about Spain in this volume, written by López Facal and Sáiz Serrano.
This indicates one of the two bottom lines present throughout the papers collected here. First, the histories taught in schools do not reflect what actually happened in the past, but the current political needs felt by the authorities of a country. Second, the chance of any veracity in the accounts presented about past events is greatest in countries where democracies are more developed: history and democracy are mutually dependent upon each other. This is very obvious in the first section of the volume in which the reader is confronted with the contested histories of Israel/Palestine, Russia/Ukraine, Greece/Turkey, South Africa and Rwanda, and Ireland. The situation in Russia, Rwanda, and Palestine is close to totalitarian, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece could be considered as ‘on their way’ towards more historically sound interpretations, while Ireland and South Africa are clearly the most advanced countries in the group represented here. Especially South Africa’s achievement is impressive in this respect and corresponds well with the thoughtful and peaceful process by which it has created a democracy out of the ashes of a defunct apartheid.
Yet, democracies are not exempt of the idiosyncrasies of political pressure. This is clearly visible from the chapters about the UK and Australia. Tony Taylor, the author of one of the Australian papers, even goes as far as comparing the situation during Prime Minister John Howard’s term with Putin’s Russia. Both Putin and Howard strived for a school curriculum capable of enhancing feelings of national pride among students, even if this implied smuggling away certain less favourable elements of the past. The main difference between Australia and Russia is then that in the last case there were no checks and balances, resulting in Putin having his way, while Howard was halted by Australian democratic institutions. How far Putin’s influence reaches is also evident in the other chapter in which Russia figures in a comparison with Ukraine.
Comparing situations in different countries, sometimes within one paper, sometimes between different papers, is one of the hallmarks of this volume. It must be noted, however, that the volume authors and its editor have not always succeeded in getting the maximum out of these comparisons. In some of the chapters, for example the one about Australia and New Zealand (written by the Australian author Tony Taylor and the New Zealand author Mark Sheehan respectively), no effort is made to really compare what is described or even come to joint conclusions. The two ‘bottom lines’ indicated above are not as such present in this book, they are left to the reader to be drawn. The analysis is often lacking as authors are caught up in describing the peculiarities of each national situation, taking the existence of national perspectives more or less for granted. In some cases, authors are clearly partisan and as such less apt to analyse the problems at stake in this volume, for example in the case of the chapter about Israel/Palestine in which the authors clearly choose for the Palestinian side and even come up with one ‘right solution’ to the problem of the historiography of the Middle East conflict at the end of their contribution.
Another suboptimal aspect of the collection is a certain degree of imbalance. The Australian case, for example, is expounded in no less than three of the twelve chapters in such a way that after completing the reading of this book, one is thoroughly aware of the existence of the curious phenomenon of an ‘Anzac legend’, even if one had never heard of it before. It has to do with the renowned raid on Gallipoli during the First World War, a battlefield on which of course Turkey was the adversary at that time. But even though one of the Australian chapters calls for a clear representation of the Turkish point of view on this issue in Australian history teaching, no Turkish author is represented here to clarify how Gallipoli is described in Turkish history books. The Australian (western) perspective is in this respect clearly over-represented. Even if modern Australian history teaching advocates multiperspectivity and demythologization in dealing with Gallipoli and the Anzac legend, the fact that they deal with this topic at all (while other nations in the world have probably never heard of it), is not questioned. Apparently, modern democratic history teaching does not necessarily dispute the self-evidence of the national character of history curricula.
This is the main asset of this collection, which in spite of a few drawbacks offers a fascinating insight into the international situation of history teaching these days: the reader is left with a strong feeling of discomfort by the very fact that so many peculiar national situations are confronted with each other. Each in their own context, they would bear a certain degree of self-evidence. Only after reading them all, the reader is left behind puzzled, asking himself: why do people do these absurd things with stories about the past? Why is there such a bad need for people to comfort themselves with myths and legends which are clearly untrue, but can stimulate feelings of belonging, of identity, or even national pride? Some of the most respected researchers in history education, Barton and Levstik, contend in their Teaching History for the Common Good that democratic nations need historical myths in order to give their citizens a sense of belonging to a state, if only to make them ready to pay their taxes (2004, p. 59). This is a rather cynical view of the duties of the history teacher. But also in the volume reviewed here, national perspectives are omnipresent. Only the Spanish authors (Lópz Facal and Sáiz Serrano) at the end of their contribution come up with the questions that should be asked:
‘- Can we promote a post-national history education that opposes the survival of teaching routines and age-old cultural traditions based on national myths?
- Should history education question the dominant thought that seeks to become the only form of thought through exclusion or rejection of any possible alternatives or different points of view?
- Can this task be carried out from the territorial framework of national states?
- Is world history the alternative to national histories? How can we integrate the local dimension into it?’ (pages 213-214).
It is high time that history educators should start taking these questions seriously.
Professor in Social Studies Education
Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, School of Education