Teaching history holds many challenges for educators, especially among divided communities or those with a troubled past. They must be careful to have a neutral perspective, and present the facts in a balanced way. But learning history can also help to build bridges and foster reconciliation.
In Wroclaw, Poland, Euroclio – the European Association of History Educators – is working to give students a better understanding of events.
Everywhere in Wroclaw, there are reminders of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German theologian who opposed the Nazi movement and was executed in 1945, in a concentration camp.
Sylvia Semmet, a history teacher and president of EUROCLIO, explained: “Bonhoeffer is usually used as an example for the kids. When you are teaching about resistance against the national socialist regime, and when you are talking about resistance within the church, then Bonhoeffer is usually a popular example.”
Text books are the main source material for history students. But these are normally one person’s interpretation of the facts; other historians might have another point of view. That presents a big challenge in countries divided along sectarian lines, like Lebanon.
The Lebanese still have not managed to agree a common history of what happened during the civil war at the end of the last century. Lebanese schools all teach different versions of the war and students do not trust the school books, instead turning to their families for information.
Since Lebanon’s Ministry of Education has not published a history textbook for schools, they use books written for the most part by historians with sectarian and/or political agendas. Ancient history is easier to teach but modern history is something of a minefield. Although the main facts are not contentious, the interpretation of them remains disputed.
The Ministry of Education has tried several times to agree a common history book but Lebanese politicians and community leaders cannot reach consensus.
Without an agreed common history of the Lebanese civil war, in some way the war goes on. A common history is vital for closure, for reconciliation, for constructing a lasting peace.
Reading words on a page is one way of learning history. But it cannot convey the full horror of events like the genocide in Rwanda. At the Kigali Memorial Centre, Rwandans can revisit and try to comprehend their country’s darkest hour. It holds vital lessons for survivors and future generations.
In just four months during 1994 800,000 people died in the Rwandan Genocide which was organised by extremist Hutus who wanted to eradicate the Tutsi, a minority population in Rwanda.
Today education is part of the reconciliation process. It is important to inform Rwandans about the genocide and the importance of never letting such horrific events occur again.
Taking school groups to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, sited near the mass graves of quarter of a million people who died in the genocide, is part of this education.
It is a particular difficult subject to teach because of the intrinsically ethnic nature of the killings. The centre’s approach is to remain truthful and accurate without accusing or blaming any section of the population today.
Seventeen years later, Rwanda has a stable democratic government, and many of the perpetrators of the genocide have been brought to justice. By learning from the past, Rwanda can now look forward to the future.