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Teaching European History in the 21st Century

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What is multiperspectivity?

By Kim Ligtenberg.

The teaching material produced over the course of the TEH21 project is rooted in the notion of “multiperspectivity”. This blog discusses the most important aspects of this concept and how it relates to history education.

 

In 2007, the Dutch Ministry of Education decided that the national history teaching had to be revived and set up the ‘Dutch Canon’. This canon forms the framework of the topics that high school students should learn in Dutch history education. It is based on the role of the Netherlands in European history. One of the topics is the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC), Dutch trading companies of the seventeenth century, while one of the Canon’s learning goals is teaching young people how the Netherlands became extremely rich from the trade in goods from Asia. With this, the history of the VOC and the WIC is presented as a history of greatness in the so-called Dutch ‘Golden Age’ (1568-1648), an age in which the Netherlands ‘dominated’ the world stage and prospered like never before. However, the canon lacks a focus on the darker sides of this ‘Golden Age’, for both the VOC and the WIC were also connected to slave trade and mass murder. A reality that is mostly silenced in the education program. In the Canon, there is little space for ‘voices of slavery’, or for the people of Indonesia who were brutally subdued by Dutch colonization. According to historian Mieke de Vos, the Canon is  “a setback for all who had hoped for more attention to non-Western history, social history or the history of mentalities. The canon is connected to traditional political history”.[1] It presents, she argues, a Dutch historical identity in a master-narrative which is based on ethnocentrism, a concept defined by historian Jörn Rüsen as “the deeply-rooted and universally-spread mode of filling the difference between self and others with positive and negative values.”[2] The Canon places the Netherlands at the center of European history and emphasizes its supposed grandeur. The Netherlands is not the only country whose history education is based on ethnocentrism. According to political scientist John Coakley, history is crucial for modern states in the process to create and maintain ethnic or national solidarity: “Heroic achievements, agonies heroically endured, these are the sublime food by which the spirit of nationhood is nourished: from these are born the sacred and imperishable traditions that make the soul of nations”.[3] The function of history teaching in most countries is presenting a narrative to the students that their nation has a unique identity that is different from ‘others’.[4] In other words, history education is often used by modern states to strengthen national solidarity. However, as historian Sirkka Ahonen has stated, historical narrative is never a raw or immediate reality. It is the truth we tell ourselves, a constructed truth. However, studying history should be about learning to look critically at societies in the past (and present). A history education based on a single grand master narrative diminishes critical thinking. History is then “objectively represented by one “closed” narrative”.[5] Instead, critical thinking can be encouraged through multiperspectivity, an approach thatcan be seen as a “strategy of understanding in which we take into account another’s perspective (or others’ perspectives) in addition to our own”.[6] Wansink et al. describe it as “the epistemological idea that history is interpretational and subjective, with multiple coexisting narratives about particular historical events”.[7]

Historian Robert Stradling argued that all perspectives are influenced by cultural context and reflect our own viewpoint and interpretation. Arguing in a similar vein, historian Algis Bitautas has stated that “it should be noted that teaching history does not involve mere facts, but rather a diversity of opinions and interpretations”.[8] The core of history as a discipline is to view historical events, persons, developments, societies, and cultures from different perspectives. However, history education is often based upon ‘western’ perspectives and other viewpoints are being silenced. Multiperspectivity can bring much-needed critical thinking to history education as it reflects on historical events from various viewpoints. Multiperspectivity aims at a more complete history telling. Students learn that our own interpretation is not the only valid one, and to respect and understand other views on situations. Multiperspectivity honors the various voices of history.[9]

How can multiperspectivity be applied to history education? A multiperspective focus helps students to develop skills that enable them to research the past through primary and secondary sources and to treat all historical narratives as prejudiced and open to question.[10] A priority in history education is therefore that students learn how to apply a framework of analytical questions. Stradling emphasizes the importance of questions such as: What does a source tell me? What does it suggest? And, what does it not mention? This approach teaches students to look critically at a source. Then, they can move on to an analysis that compares multiple viewpoints.

Let’s apply this to the Dutch Canon and its teachings about the VOC. Their website recommends primary sources of Dutch VOC soldiers, such as letters and memoires. With this, students will only study the ‘Dutch viewpoint’ of colonialism. Other voices are ignored. To apply a multiperspectivity, primary sources of, for instance, Moluccans should be included. In the Dutch East Indies a special army, the KNIL (Koninklijk Nederland Indische Leger) was constructed to oversee and defend the territory. The soldiers in this army were recruited locally and many of these soldiers came from the Moluccan island. After the bloody war of independence against Indonesia (1945-1949), the KNIL had to be disbanded. Because many Moluccans stayed loyal to the Dutch in the lost war, their position in Indonesia was untenable. Therefore, after decolonization, around 12,000 Moluccans migrated to the Netherlands.[11] The Moluccans are an important part of Dutch history and the current Dutch identity. Their side of the story, however, is nowhere to be found in the Canon. Furthermore, voices of Indonesian soldiers provide a different side of the story and should also be included. In a multiperspective approach students should be able to analyze and compare primary sources of Dutch, Moluccan, and Indonesian soldiers.

However, applying multiperspectivity to history education does not come without complications. First of all, there is a problem connected to time management. It takes more time to teach students multiple perspectives of a historical event. All events that are talked about in history class now have to be viewed from multiple viewpoints. Furthermore, it is not enough to just add ‘forgotten voices’ and ‘history from below’ to the curriculum, the core of multiperspectivity is the connection and relation between these groups. This problem can be solved by integrating one or two different viewpoints into every topic but not all of them. Furthermore, historians often study a couple of different sources for a historical topic, but never include all possible viewpoints. This means that historians for instance study the role of women in conflict, but then do not look at the role the workers played in that same conflict. Therefore, many different historians have to work together to create a handbook such as the one produced by the TEH21 strategic partnership. Comparative source material from different historians has to be included. In order to effectively apply multiperspectivity the primary sources also need to be available. Not all voices of historical events are recorded or written down. Besides these practical problems, there is also an issue of historical empathy for pupils that receive this multiperspective history education: surveys show that students had problems placing themselves in the shoes of people in the past.[12] Historian Andreas Körber even wonders if “secondary school students find it difficult to exercise historical empathy of this kind because they are in the middle of the development of their own morality and are not able or willing to perform cognitive operations which require them to abstract from their own morality”.[13] However, I think we can never completely get rid of our own modern assumptions and cultural perspectives. Therefore, maybe it is not so much about empathy for, or affinity with the people you study, but learning that our own viewpoint is not the only existing one, that there are multiple views and opinions about society and the world, and none of them are intrinsically wrong or right.

Another problem that arises with multiperspectivity in history education is that dealing with different and contrasting viewpoints makes it hard for students to draw clear conclusions and judgements. What is more, they also have to find out how these different perspectives are related to and interact with each other. Stradling claims that this problem can be overcome by teachers that make the connections less abstract and more tangible for students. A multilateral timeline, narrative accounts, and examining “how people’s perceptions of each other change during the course of a particular event through examining press releases, propaganda or cartoons” could offer solutions.[14]

Even though multiperspectivity in historical education has some problems, implementation of it is still very much needed. Not only does it support the study of historical events, but also strengthens the understanding of our contemporary world and societies. We are living in a globalized world in which, more than ever, different cultures, peoples and nations are in close contact with each other. Societies and cultures become intermingled. An ethnocentric and nationalist history education is therefore inadequate for the contemporary cultural diversity in society. Multiperspective history education could be the start of a much-needed open debate between all groups in society. As historian Arthur Marwick notes: “some narratives are comforting, bind us together in terms of belief about what it is to belong to a certain community, its inheritance and define a notion of ethnic others”.[15] Ethnic majorities do not always realize that their own master narrative excludes groups of people. But if the narrative changes, and broadens, more groups of people could be part of this feeling of belonging to a community. This is what historian Arja Virta means when she claims: “schools and history lessons can be understood as meeting places for different historical cultures”.[16]

The only way to strengthen a multicultural society is to accept and embrace all different groups that are part of it. Multiperspective history education has the power to contribute to the strengthening of such a society. Teaching students that history is not one closed off master narrative, but a diversity of opinions and interpretations, encourages not only critical thinking but also valuable and necessary ways to find mutual understanding of different cultures.[17] With this, a multicultural society can be changed in the future from living next to each other, to living with each other.

 

 

Literature:

 

Amersfoort, Hans van, “The Waxing and Waning of a Diaspora: Moluccans in the Netherlands, 1950–2002.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 151–74.

 

Coakley, John. ‘Mobilizing the Past: Nationalist Images of History’. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 10, no. 4 (2004): 531–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/13537110490900340.

McCully, Alan. ‘History Teaching, Conflict and the Legacy of the Past’. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice 7, no. 2 (1 July 2012): 145–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/1746197912440854.

Rusen, Jorn. ‘How to Overcome Ethnocentrism: Approaches to a Culture of Recognition by History in the Twenty-First Century1’. History and Theory 43, no. 4 (December 2004): 118–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2303.2004.00301.x.

Stradling, Dr Robert. ‘Multiperspectivity in History Teaching : A Guide for Teachers’, n.d., 64.

Virta, Arja. ‘Learning to Teach History in Culturally Diverse Classrooms’, n.d., 14.

Vos, M. d. ‘The Return of the Canon: Transforming Dutch History Teaching’. History Workshop Journal 67, no. 1 (1 March 2009): 111–24. https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbn051.

Wansink, Bjorn, Sanne Akkerman, Itzél Zuiker, and Theo Wubbels. ‘Where Does Teaching Multiperspectivity in History Education Begin and End? An Analysis of the Uses of Temporality’. Theory & Research in Social Education 46, no. 4 (2 October 2018): 495–527. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2018.1480439.

 

 

 

 

[1] Mieke de Vos, ‘The Return of the Canon: Transforming Dutch History Teaching’, History Workshop Journal 67, no. 1 (1 March 2009): 111–24, there: 111.

[2] Jorn Rusen, ‘How to Overcome Ethnocentrism: Approaches to a Culture of Recognition by History in the Twenty-First Century1’, History and Theory 43, no. 4 (December 2004): 118–29, there: 120.

[3] John Coakley, ‘Mobilizing the Past: Nationalist Images of History’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 10, no. 4 (2004): 531–60, there 533.

[4] Alan McCully, ‘History Teaching, Conflict and the Legacy of the Past’, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice 7, no. 2 (1 July 2012): 145–59, there 145.

[5] Bjorn Wansink et al., ‘Where Does Teaching Multiperspectivity in History Education Begin and End? An Analysis of the Uses of Temporality’, Theory & Research in Social Education 46, no. 4 (2 October 2018): 495–527, there 496.

[6] Robert Stradling, ‘Multiperspectivity in History Teaching : A Guide for Teachers’, Councel of Europe (2003): 14.

[7] Wansink et al., ‘Where Does Teaching Multiperspectivity in History Education Begin and End?’, 496.

[8] Stradling, ‘Multiperspectivity in History Teaching’, 16

[9] Stradling, ‘Multiperspectivity in History Teaching’, 16.

[10] McCully, ‘History Teaching, Conflict and the Legacy of the Past’ 148.

[11] Hans van Amersfoort, “The Waxing and Waning of a Diaspora: Moluccans in the Netherlands, 1950–2002.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 151–74, there 153-155.

[12] Stradling, ‘Multiperspectivity in History Teaching’,  24.

[13] Stradling, ‘Multiperspectivity in History Teaching’,  24.

[14] Ibid, 25.

[15] Michael A. Sant, History teaching & research: bridging the theory/practice divide, vol. 3. Edited: George Cassar and Yosanne Vella (Malta: 2016) 18.

[16] Arja Virta, ‘Learning to Teach History in Culturally Diverse Classrooms’, Intercultural Education 20, no. 4 (2009): 285-297, there: 286.

[17] Wansink et al., ‘Where Does Teaching Multiperspectivity in History Education Begin and End?’, 496.