I wonder – to return briefly to my last post – how history is taught to youngsters in Tatarstan. The Tatar nation-building project sponsored new textbooks reflecting a less materialistic approach to history. Neither of the two authors I discussed talks about the content of history textbooks, but it would be very interesting to know how figures such as Ivan the Terrible, Chinggis Khan, or Mintimer Shaimiev are presented in Tatar-language and Russian textbooks.
As the fight in the Macedonian government over benefits to veterans of the 2001 insurgency illustrates, there is a crying need to heal communal rifts, and education is one way to do that. Yet, it’s difficult to think of a European country where the nation-building narratives of the dominant ethnic communities diverge more than in Macedonia. The Macedonian-speakers and the Albanians speak totally distinct languages and have radically different foundation stories.
The rancor of this came to the fore three years ago with the publication of an officially-sponsored Macedonian encyclopedia that caused a furor with what some saw as demeaning references to the Albanians and their history.
Added to this, official Skopje is stuck in a grinding, farcical dispute with Greece, each side claiming the name Macedonia and the right to flaunt its glorious past.
All this presents daunting challenges and dilemmas for writers of history textbooks, for classroom teachers, and of course for students.
The European Association of History Educators, Euroclio, has stepped boldly into the Macedonian minefield, issuing a report that underlines the most serious failings in the teaching of history.
Euroclio is no neophyte at this. Since 2000 they’ve worked with Macedonian, Bulgarian and Albanian educators on several projects to develop common curricula and teaching materials on the area’s modern history. They’ve also worked on similar projects in Georgia, among other places where competing nation-building ideologies clash to the detriment of education.
The new report, which was presented in Skopje 29 August, sums up the lessons learned from their most recent initiative, a joint effort with the Macedonian history teachers’ association ANIM.
It makes uncomfortable reading for Macedonian educators. To start with the end, Recommendation No. 1 is:
“The current history curricula in the Republic of Macedonia have to be rethought and revised … Groups of innovative skilled history educators and historians, but also a wider audience should be involved in this process. Rather than opting for a ‘quick fix,’ a reasonable timeframe of at least two to three years should be observed to allow fundamental reform.”
Talk of revising history textbooks is not new; it goes back at least to the Ohrid Agreement which ended the uprising in 2001.
Report author Joke van der Leeuw-Roord notes that the national history curriculum “does not challenge the dominant national narratives/nation building myths of both dominant ethnic communities and shows a lack of critical approach to the historical events presented. Both produce the traditional story of their considered national pasts. The Albanian academics I spoke with refused even to call it a common past for Macedonia; they insisted that their national history was fully separated from the history of the Macedonian speaking community.”
Incidentally, “culture clashes” of this kind also crop up between communities with much closer ties in the region, such as in nearby Montenegro where “Montenegrins” and “Serbs” have also quarreled over history books.
As the report notes, students from the two largest ethnic communities are taught about the other’s history. It is not the time spent on teaching about the other that is at issue; rather, it’s a string of related problems that TOL has also documented in the school systems of many other transitional countries. It almost seems as if there is a correlation between old-fashioned pedagogy and communal squabbling.
In Leeuw-Roord’s view, “As the curriculum is fully knowledge-based with focus on chronological understanding, basic requirements for innovative methodology promoting historical enquiry based on evidence (sources-based learning) are missing. The methodology is old fashioned. Also other internationally acknowledged key
concepts in history education such as interpretation, cause and consequence, change and continuity, empathy are not implemented in the various history curricula for primary, gymnasium and vocational education.”
Far too much emphasis is placed on memorizing chronologies, there is little use of more involving materials such as movies, and teachers have hardly any leeway to depart from the standard curriculum, she observes.
Another problem, as Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova reported in an article for TOL last year, is the all-too-common errors of fact and judgement in Macedonian schoolbooks, which forced the authorities to recall at least one textbook.
Leeuw-Roord says there are no authorized online history teaching materials in either Macedonian or Albanian. This is worrying for a generation of students that is far more tech-savvy than its teachers – and in a country committed to providing a computer to every student. Seeking for information online, young people may turn to the extremely dubious information provided by Macedonian nationalist groups, or no less intemperate counter-attacks by Greeks (I remember once reading on one of these sites about “genetic research” showing that Greeks are descended from some barbaric race of Africans.) Faced with such a pile of unreliable stuff, almost as easy to find online as porn, you can easily understand why separation from the majority community looks very attractive for some Macedonian citizens. Hopefully, teachers can counteract this nonsense by steering students to more reliable sites.
Photo of Macedonian schoolchildren by Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska