Why I believe history textbooks should tell the truth about Europe's violent past

May 9, 2003

Growing up in Turkey, I thought that table manners were "western" and that we learnt how to use the knife and fork from the more "civilised" Europeans. Didn't Norbert Elias in The History of Manners write the history of Europe as a civilising process?

My research shows how modern schoolbooks seek to challenge this view. A comparison of history textbooks and curricula used by secondary-school students in the UK, Germany and France in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s reveals dramatic changes in our historical perspective. So in recent English textbooks we read that the Christians apparently learnt table manners from the more civilised Arabs during their attempts to capture the "holy land". My image of marauding Vikings has also been shattered. They have gone from being pillaging aggressors to skilful traders who contributed to the local culture and economy in places they settled.

In these books, our "national heroes" look different. Napoleon is noted less for invading France's neighbours and is instead lauded for his reforming zeal. Figures who once personified national triumph now appear as individuals with ordinary weaknesses. Sir Francis Drake is both a good sailor and someone with an insatiable desire for worldly possessions.

Bismarck's grandness as the unifier of Germany is balanced with his authoritarian tendencies.

These changes are partly the result of the shifts in historiography, as epitomised by Fernand Braudel's monumental study of the Mediterranean.

Traditional historiography, marked by military rivalries and world historical figures, has lost its primacy to accounts of the cultural and social history of everyday life. But the changes are also partly the result of recent attempts to reassess European history and the way we teach it.

As the concept of Europe penetrates national spheres, there is a growing emphasis on teaching this as a common ideal. European teachers'

associations, academics, publishers and international organisations such as the Council of Europe and Unesco are all busy developing tools and guidelines for educating future generations of Europeans.

The changes in textbooks involve positive and negative aspects. There is the much-needed correction of biases, prejudices and myths that afflict national histories. The new textbooks are more balanced. They refrain from self-congratulatory accounts of national history and treat others' histories and civilisations in a more comprehensive manner.

But on the other hand, what we are presented with is a more sanitised and peaceful Europe than its history warrants. Current textbooks give the impression that Europe evolved naturally through the organic coming-together of similar nations, without antagonism and division.

This is the negative aspect of the changes, because they forget that what we celebrate as European legacy was born out of competition as much as out of cohesion. Europe's history is about more than commonality - it is often about conflict, and that should be admitted.

We teach our children a history in line with our current understanding of the past and expectations for the future. In an effort to emphasise a common European past and future, and common European ideals - democracy, progress, human rights, freedom and gender equality - we neglect to teach our children how Europe really evolved. What we celebrate as European ideals were results of fierce struggles and clashes.

Unless our children understand the truth, they will never appreciate the current world conflicts - or understand European reactions to them.

Yasemin Soysal
Senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex and president of the European Sociological Association. Her research, Rethinking Nation-state Identities: Changes in School Curricula and Textbooks was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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