Today, an editorial in the Latvian daily Diena argues in favour of teaching the History of Latvia separately from History as such in the last years of lower secondary school. According to Diena, the reasons why History curriculum should be split to make room for an 'exclusive' curriculum on national history are twofold: a) this is the last chance for some students to learn the facts of history of their country and b) a good knowledge of the country's history makes people more patriotic. Both of these propositions are extremely naive to say the least, and in a moment I will explain, why.
First of all, it seems very unjust towards the students who may choose to go into vocational training after the 9th year of school to suggest that History lessons are the only source of knowledge about history for the rest of their lives. The media are full of references to recent history, and while those may not always be accurate, it is very arrogant to assume that all information gleaned outside the classroom if by default less reliable. It is, however, a more dangerous assumtion that history is about facts. While the dates of events and some of their circumstances are indeed known to historians and can be verified – and therefore translated into ‘facts’ which can be stuffed into textbooks – I have never encountered a History curriculum free of the elements of some ‘grand narrative’, be that a narrative of national destiny, of European integration or of something else entirely. All of such narratives are by definition the product of politicians, historians and publicists – and not, as it were, products of ‘history’ as such. In other words, History curriculum is always to some extent a product of the dominant ideology. If the ideological element in the curriculum increases to the extent that it becomes easily recognisable as such, this is likely to provoke resistance in at least part of the target audience. Witness the revulsion Soviet history books provoked. Making History curriculum more ideologically loeaded will produce more skepticism, not more partiotism in those students who are endowed with a modicum of critical thinking.
What does the shift from History as such to national history as a seprate item of curriculum signify for me as a historian and policy analyst? It signifies that the Latvian political and intellectual elite (including the editors of Diena) is drifting away from the European ideology and a more international outlook towards a more conservative ideology of ‘protecting the nation-state’. This trend has been noticeable since the EU Accession in 2004 – with the conditionality of the accession process removed, there was no longer a need for the elite to profess their Europan orientation. The campaign against multiculturalism that ended in the cancelling of draft Integration Guidelines in 2008 was a typical example of the trend. Current discussions in the media about the need for political parties to consolidate along ethnic lines are another proof of this thesis. In the midst of economic decline, the populist appeal of nationalism will likely be exploited for the next parliamentary elections.
To Europe, this will be nothing new. Witness the spectacular success of the xenophobic Jobbik party in the European Parliament elections in Hungary. Witness the desire to rejuvenate the teaching of the recent history of Balkan wars in the style of national patriotism, actively lobbied since 2005 in Croatia, or the pressure to reimpose a more national narrative of history and culture in the Netherlands. It is an easy and tempting path, to assert the power of the state though school curriculum, by making all others learn history along the lines approved by those currently holding political office.
The fundamental weakness of this approach is that history taught in order to promote the nation-state’s monopoly over the political narrative will inevitably founder when it comes under stress from the social and economic reality of increasing need for massive immigration. None of the countries mentioned here will avoid the need to open up within the next 20 years and to let in very many newcomers with their own histories and their own narratives. As Edward Hugh points out in his recent blog on the future of Latvia, the only alternative is the shrinking of economy and possibly the total demise of social welfare as we know it. The only way to prepare a country’s citizens to withstand the challenges of global economy and an open job market is to teach them to be better citizens of the world, not to increase the defensive stance against any influence that comes from outside. Especially – in the case of Latvia – if this influence comes from the West, which we chose to re-join.
As future political narratives in Europe will not be possible without the active participation of newcomers from other parts of the world, narratives of history, too, will have to become more global. It is only a question of time.