Jonathan Even-Zohar (middle) at a training seminar in Spain.  Even-Zohar’s own interest in history was sparked by his inspiring teacher in upper secondary school. /Photo: EUROCLIO

Not one truth but many

Interview. Is transnational history education possible, with different European national curricula? Jonathan Even-Zohar, director of EUROCLIO,discusses the tasks and the future of European history education.


History education has a twofold task: firstly, to help people understand the story of previous generations, and secondly to help them understand the constructed nature of historical knowledge: No “one truth” about the past exists. This task is the same for adult learners and school children alike.

Jonathan Even-Zohar, director of the European Association of History Educators, explains why Europe is in need of transnational and multiperspective history teaching.

A teacher hands out small paper slips to the class. “Please, write down what kind of weather we had yesterday.” The class goes silent as pens rustle on paper. The pupils hand the slips back to the teacher who then promptly starts to tear the papers up, one by one. Only two slips are spared.

“I now have two accounts left about yesterday’s weather, the teacher says and reads the two remaining slips out loud:
“One says: Really nice and sunny. The other says: A bit too cold.”

Jonathan Even-Zohar likes to share this real-life moment from a history class as an example of great teaching.

– It is possible to illustrate the problems of history-writing to children very early on. History is often written based on limited sources and through the interpretation of the historian.

Understanding the nature of history

31-year-old Dutchman Even-Zohar is director of EUROCLIO, the European Association of History Educators. A history graduate himself, Even-Zohar is in charge of the network organization that aims at furthering and sharing innovative history teaching methods.

– History education has a twofold task: firstly, to help people understand the story of previous generations, and secondly to help them understand the constructed nature of historical knowledge, Even-Zohar argues.

According to him, children are able to understand the meta-level of history -problems of objectivity and uncertainty – very early on. It would actually be harmful to first teach history as “facts” and later on pull the rug from under the learners’ feet by admitting that some facts may not be so certain after all.

The director admits that history teachers’ task is not enviable. Time is often not sufficient even for a superficial coverage of main events in a given period, let alone a discussion of the nature of the discipline itself. Nevertheless an appreciation of history’s subjectivity is crucial for adults and children alike and would also be a powerful antidote against ideological uses of history.

The coin has at least two sides

A unifying aim for nearly all of EUROCLIO’s teaching innovation projects is multi-perspectivity: studying a period or an event through various actors’ viewpoints and also over different periods of time, from the eye-witness to the historian of today. This enables the learner to appreciate the multitude of arguments that can be made about a given period, and that there is no “one truth” about the past.
An example of multi-perspectivity in teaching comes from Bosnia where a teacher developed a learning module about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The event triggered the outbreak of the First World War.

The teacher divides the class into three parts and assigns them the roles of prosecutor, defender and jury. The man on trial is Gavrilo Princip, the young man who pulled the trigger on the Archduke. The prosecutors are asked to find evidence supporting a “guilty” verdict, defenders are asked to find the motive for Princip’s actions whereas the jurors are responsible for the verdict after examining all the facts.
After the trial the students are asked to plan a monument commemorating the assassination. What kind of monument should this be? Which side of the story should it reflect? Which story do existing monuments reflect? What do the learners think about the assassination now?

A nationalist monument marking the spot where Princip fired his fatal shots. The text praises Princip for “expressing the people’s protest against tyranny.” Photo: Smooth_O

The plaque was destroyed during the siege of Sarajevo and later replaced with the more neutral one (bottom)/ Photo: Mfield

According to Even-Zohar the method is very effective, causing the students to reappraise their previously held views and images.

Teaching disjointed from research

Jonathan Even-Zohar wishes for closer ties between academia and teachers. Currently, very few educators have the time and resources to follow latest historical research.

– Teachers’ in-service training is mostly about methods and assessment. What if they could go to research conferences instead? the director suggests.

He also urges scholars to be more proactive towards history education issues.

– I know several cases where scholars disagree with their country’s history curriculum, sometimes fearing that history is being distorted to fit some nationalist aims. Historians should speak up!

In some countries such as the Netherlands and the UK, researchers have been directly involved with developing the curricula in cooperation with teachers – with good results.

National framing of history on the rise

Even-Zohar sees a sweeping “renationalization” of history taking place across Europe. History is used to shape the national self-image in countries as varied as the Netherlands, the UK, Ireland, France and several Eastern European former communist states. This includes glorification of the nation’s past and often identifying “the Other” outside or inside the nation.

– I am not saying that this is harmful but it is certainly a trend we have witnessed in the past 10 years.

Learning from history?

Another trend is the rise of the “remembrance industry”, collective reminiscing of a seminal event, tapping into people’s emotions. This trend also boosts adults’ interest in the past and many take up history courses within adult education.

One such remembrance event is the ongoing centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Many commentators are keen to draw parallels between the world of 1914 and 2014 and urge not to let history repeat itself.

For Jonathan Even-Zohar, “learning from history” is first and foremost a mirror on the contemporary.

– Whatever we learn from history is decided by the questions we choose to ask today, and those questions reflect the problems we are preoccupied with right now.

Yet again we are faced with history’s theory of knowledge. For us to learn from the past we have to understand what happened, why, and also understand why a particular period of time is interpreted in a certain way. Full objectivity can never be reached.

We also need insight into the nature of historical events, the young director argues. Structures such as states and calculations of interest influence events but very often events are triggered by humans acting illogically.

History warns of populism?

One often-heard parallel between 1914 and present days  is the current rise of nationalism and right-wing populism in Europe. Right-wing parties secured significant victories in the European Parliamentary elections in May.

The parallel is justified for Even-Zohar although he is not quick to jump into conclusions.

– On the eve of the Great War people lived in a world that was becoming increasingly complex in terms of values, communication and crumbling empires. There was a demand for simple solutions to complexity and scapegoating. We live in a similar situation now, he analyses.

Minorities were a popular scapegoat then, as now, but Even-Zohar finds another popular present-day object of scorn.

– The EU itself, with its complex structure, is a sitting duck for simplified, populist scapegoating!

Jonathan Even-Zohar on teaching history beyond identity at the Tedx conference Amsterdam.

Historiana –transnational history teaching?

One of the flagship projects of EUROCLIO is Historiana, an online multimedia learning portal for history. It is the first attempt at truly transnational teaching material in the subject. It is intended to be a resource both for students and self-learners of all ages as well as teachers.

– Each country has their own textbook industry and content is driven from a national focus. We try to create a learning space that is truly transnational, Jonathan Even-Zohar, director of EUROCLIO explains.

Most nations in Europe have become culturally so heterogenous that a common shared historical experience is no longer a fact. Therefore, a new approach towards history education based on multi-perspectivity is needed.

Content of the portal is user-generated, drawing from the expertise of educators and historians from more than 30 countries, and scrutinized by an international editing team. July, for example, will see the launch of a module on the First World War. The portal also liaises with virtually all European national archives and libraries and plans to make much of their resources open to the public.

– The portal is still a work in progress, so I would call out to all interested parties to partner with us, Even-Zohar exhorts.

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