March 4. 2024. 7:33

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Education minister: Europe must not teach a ‘one sided’ view of history


With historical falsifications and manipulations rampant on social networks, history can be used as a tool for propaganda. Teaching in Europe must encourage critical thinking and multiple perspectives, Portuguese education minister João Costa told EURACTIV.

“History is about memory and identity, complexity and being able to interpret, to look at multiple variables to understand the past and present,” Costa said.

Speaking ahead of the European Innovation Days in History Education, Costa explained that history teaching is unique in shaping national identity, memory and political values. However, that makes it vulnerable to politicisation and distortion.

“Populism is about providing simple answers to complex questions. Complex questions require complex answers,” Costa added.

In this context, formal humanities education, as well as citizenship and visits to museums and sites of commemoration have an essential role in developing critical thinking among young people.

“We have to be able to learn from the past,” Costa told EURACTIV.

“When we are talking about very timely topics like media literacy, financial literacy, human rights, gender equality we can see that in many periods of history, those issues were already there,” he said.

In the modern debates on inclusion and equality, “we can see that the arguments against inclusion are exactly the same as those that were used to exclude black or Jewish people,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have also contributed to a steady recent rise in fake news and the return of old stereotypes and tropes, particularly on social media.

Costa contends that fake news and propaganda have always been present in society but warns that “we see anti-Semitism growing again in Europe.”

“There are some states in the EU where anti-Semitism is not taught and we have to be able to relate what happened back then with what is happening now.”

Costa said he also believes that history teaching and humanities are crucial in the new digital age. “Technology without content is poor,” he noted.

“History must be about facts but also about interpretation, being able to evaluate sources and the validity of information, critical thinking, and the ability to judge and to establish relations,” he said.

“Sometimes in recent times we have been afraid of the word ‘ideology’ but providing education to everyone is an ideological project,” said Costa.

Multiperspectivity

“We need history as a means to know what our common heritage is but that has to be balanced with multiperspectivity,” said Costa, explaining that policymakers should avoid treating history teaching “as a means to create a single version of facts.”

That means moving away from the days of one-sided teaching of national history, particularly around the ethnic and religious conflicts that are part of Europe’s past, and the legacy of colonialism.

“Now we are paying much more attention to multiple sides, also because we need to develop areas of the curriculum where human rights and citizenship are becoming more important,” said Costa.

At the same time, new teaching methods are important to “to break down the walls between different subjects”.

“Innovation is not a goal, it is a tool in order to promote better learning,” he says, pointing to a series of projects introduced in Portugal.

“Schools are developing several projects in which what is taught in history is connected to what is taught in geography, science, citizenship education and that’s where, I think, we have the most innovative projects.”

Costa’s government in Lisbon has developed a national plan for arts that brings artists into school, using performance arts to motivate the attention of students and encourage interest in history.

However, education policy in Europe is a national competence and there is plenty of disagreement both across Europe and within individual countries over how history should be taught.

“Within Portugal there is no agreement on the multiperspective approach to history teaching,” Costa told EURACTIV, though he added that, “I think that’s just natural, we always need debate on education”.

“What we cannot have are hidden agendas. If we want to promote democracy and peace and freedom through history teaching, then we have to be open about it,” he said.

At the same time, he is confident that standards are improving.

“History teachers complain because they think that there should be more space for history but that’s something that teachers from all areas of the curriculum. There is room for improvement but one good thing going forward is that we have highly qualified teachers and so standards are improving,” said Costa.

“It’s no longer what it what in my childhood: just a list of kings and dates to memorise.”