Monday, 17 January 2022 12:25

History education can put democracies back on track


The backsliding of democracy in Europe is also driven by the distortion of historical facts and facilitated by a lack of the will and ability to identify disinformation. History education is a key element in providing future generations with the knowledge, understanding and tools necessary to address the challenges of the 21st century.

The global state of teachers’ abilities to address sensitive but crucial issues in the field of education on human rights, tolerance and cultural diversity is alarming. Around half of the 58,000 respondents in the 2021 UNESCO’s Global Survey for Teachers indicated that they face challenges in teaching these topics. The challenges are often related to a lack of cultural and historical knowledge and appropriate methodologies (UNESCO 2021: 35).

Today, Europe faces a multitude of political and societal challenges, which in many cases affect the quality of democracy. These challenges range from adapting democratic governance to handle the increasingly diverse nature of our societies to deliberate attempts to weaken or dismantle democratic institutions and culture, partly from within the centres of power (Bermeo 2016). These attempts are often connected to the seemingly mounting tide of nationalism, including its deliberate misuse to generate legitimacy and support for populist politics in the face of democratic shortcomings (Bieber 2018).

These developments have contributed to the revitalisation of certain dividing lines in Europe, which can have especially severe consequences on reconciliation processes in conflict and post-conflict situations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced a surge in hatred, racism and anti-Semitism, as foreigners and minority populations have been scapegoated for the outbreak and spread of the disease worldwide (UNESCO 2021). Such practices reduce the ability to live peacefully together in culturally diverse, democratic societies.

The Council of Europe, as the continent’s leading human rights organisation, cannot stay silent when its core values and principles – the respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – are attacked. These are not only the prerequisites for good governance. They facilitate international cooperation across the continent and are the key components of the European order of peace.

While teaching history cannot be the panacea for all these ills, the current threats to democracy, international cooperation, and ultimately peace are closely linked to the negation or distortion of historical facts and events by developing a one-sided and nationalist historical narrative (Bentrovato & Schulze 2016: 18).

The Council of Europe has early recognised the decisive role that history education plays in maintaining peace and democracy and in building understanding across borders. As much as history education can contribute to reinforce divisions within and between European societies, it also has the potential to strengthen democratic culture and understanding, as it can offer multiple perspectives on regional, national, and European history.

The relative success of manipulative accounts of history is facilitated by the lack of historical knowledge and understanding, the limited ability of many citizens to reflect on the production of historical knowledge, and the absence of the will and capacity to identify and distinguish such accounts from authentic historical scholarship.

The UNESCO (2020) for instance, stressed the importance of media and information literacy in regard to the fight against hate speech. History education therefore has a decisive role to play in helping students develop critical thinking skills, as outlined in the Council of Europe Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture. History education can, for instance, provide students with the skill to detect disinformation by uncovering mechanisms of propaganda through historical material and by discussing similarities and differences to contemporary forms of manipulation.

The Council of Europe has a long track record in promoting quality history teaching that contributes to the strengthening of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, as well as mutual understanding and cooperation across borders through projects, publications, and policy recommendations. However, these traditional forms of activity do not suffice in the light of the current challenges.

The Observatory on History Teaching in Europe, established in 2020 as an Enlarged Partial Agreement with currently 17 full members and one observer State, takes the Council of Europe’s work on history teaching a step further. The Observatory aims to take stock of the state of history teaching in its member States through a series of regular and thematic reports. While the Observatory is not a monitoring body, the collection and analysis of data on history education in its member States is part of a follow-up to the Council of Europe’s recommendations and good practices of history teaching.

The Observatory seeks to identify good practice initiatives not only in the organisation of curricula and history textbooks, but also in areas like learning outcomes and the experiences of history students. In this way, young people have the opportunity to develop their thought processes beyond their immediate experience or national ideologies.

A multi-perspective and fact-based approach, which is central to the work of the Council of Europe in this field, provides the students with the tools to think critically about the past and historical narratives. This approach is preferable to expecting them to absorb content without considering and reflecting on the impact a given event has had on our societies from multiple angles.

The snapshot that the Observatory takes of the state of history teaching enables governments to identify weak points in their own history education. This provides an important opportunity to improve democratic culture by equipping citizens with the knowledge, understanding and tools to identify and reject manipulative narratives and to independently participate in the democratic process. It thus institutionalises the dialogue about history teaching and therefore facilitates the reflection on and the exchange of good practices between member States, involving governments, research institutes, experts and civil society actors.

This inclusive approach ensures a balanced, comprehensive and – as far as possible – unbiased view of the state of history teaching in the member States. This must be the basis for improving history education so that it can better contribute to the development of democratic culture.

As democratic decline is a European and even global phenomenon, 17 member States can only be a starting point for the Observatory’s work. For the Observatory to be able to truly make a difference, more member States are needed. The Observatory is an Enlarged Partial Agreement, which means that not only European, but every country worldwide can join. Thus, every country has the possibility to assess and improve its history education in cooperation with the Observatory.

With the help of the Observatory, every country can do its bit to strengthen human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and ultimately, peace. This is not a European prerogative, and the Observatory does not need to be limited to Europe.