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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Recent History Revisited

Over a fine lunch served after the elder Frenchling came home from school (yes, they go to school on Saturday here) we had a long and illuminating talk about recent history.  My daughter is preparing for her final exams in June (the "Bac") and today her history teacher used the class time (all 2.5 hours) to have the kids write an essay about Communism from 1947 to 1991.   Listening to my daughter talk about how she answered the question, I became excruciatingly aware of two things:

  • My elder was born in 1993.  To her what she has learned in school on this topic is practically ancient history.  I, on the other hand,  was born in 1965 and I remember (and I was surprised to discover how vivid some of those memories were) many of the events she talked about:  the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Gorbachev and Perestroika, Solidarity and the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
  • Her interpretation of these events is based on information and a perspective that has come from her teachers in the French public school system.  Mine comes from what the American media (radio, television and print) was reporting at the time and what my teachers in the American public school system taught. 
It should not have been a big surprise that there are some significant differences in our perspectives.  Not surprisingly, in the French school system, world history is viewed through the prism of French interests, dreams and fears.  And, I can confirm by my own experience that this is equally true of the American one.  However, this is very hard to comprehend if the only educational system you have ever known is the one you grew up in.

Alas, I have no solution to this and I am not even sure it's a problem.  I just don't see a culturally neutral way to teach history.  For one thing, history is taught in school by fallible human beings who have their own opinions about what is important and what it all means. (My Frenchling reports that her teachers are quite to the Left of the political spectrum.  I remember mine as being fervent Free Market advocates.)  For another, the public schools systems in both countries exist to create citizens - not world citizens but citizens of a specific country with a collective memory that we all agree should be transmitted to each generation.  Finally, to be entirely pragmatic, in the few short years that our children are captives of the school system, there is simply not enough time to teach everything from every perspective.  Choices are made and sometimes what is included is less significant than what isn't.

This bothers me less than you might think.  I would not think of asking the French school system to include an American perspective in their curriculum any more than my husband would ask the American schools to include the French one if we were living in the States.  What I would hope for in either case, above and beyond the facts and the perspective on those facts, is a bit of humility - an admission that this may not be the whole story.  That other people in other places might look at the same facts very differently and come to very different conclusions.  In addition, children should be actively encouraged to seek out these people and places and to take those perspectives seriously.

In my day, we called that "intellectual curiosity."


EJ said...

You make an interesting point about school being an enculturating instrument, and I agree that this can certainly have benefits -- and missing it can lead to challenges. I was educated in the country where I now live, but I went to an unusual school, and I often feel like I had a childhood completely separate from my peers who went to more mainstream schools. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it is a big drag.

But it is also true that there are circumstances in which it is extremely dangerous for schools to limit themselves to teaching students to be "citizens of a specific country with a collective memory that we all agree should be transmitted to each generation." Obviously there are times when we do not all agree on what should be transmitted to each generation, and some of the worst disagreements arise when a community has endured a history of serious ethnic violence. The former Yugoslavia springs to mind.

There is an interesting effort afoot to help ease the divisions and mistrust among the communities of the former Yugoslavia and its neighbors: the Joint History Project (a project of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, which is based in Greece.) The project has edited and published a series of textbooks about the recent history of the region, written from multiple perspectives and designed to engage students in critical analysis. The JHP offers the texts for free, in several languages, and supports them with teacher training efforts.

This seems like a hopeful project to me, and I would imagine it will do some work to help promote peace and stability in the region. But I think the greatest potential in an effort like this is its potential to encourage students' overall critical skills. And the development of critical skills is something that many education systems decline to emphasize, sadly.

Moe Seager said...

I like your topics, your style of expression. I'm a commentator for RT TV. This week doing a feature on France/sarkozy's prder to have French history books sanitized of French imperial periods, especially in Algeria & other north Africa states. me; Moe Seager I'm on Facebook. perhaps I'll see you soon at the club at noon?
Ciao for now.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Moe, thanks so much for stopping by and reading. I really appreciate your comments - always great to get some feedback.

I would really like to see the feature you're working on. Is there a link and do you have a date when it will be broadcasted?

I'll be there Friday and Monday at noon. Would be great to see you there!