Textbooks in Europe should be a matter of debate

“Do the textbooks we learn from in school reveal and shape national attitudes?” This was the title for the first online thematic discussion of the renewed Culture Working Group (CWG) that was held in early December 2012. Even though it was a rather cold evening, there we were ten enthusiast members to discuss the power of textbooks and to influence one another from a cultural and national point of view.

So, why focusing on such a topic? After all, textbooks are the first books that children have in their hands and that somehow shape their first perceptions of the world. Their contents are mostly decided upon by governments, who might use their influence to introduce a rather nationalistic component. As the discussion went further, we realized that this was more complicated than it seemed.

West vs. East: Do we as Europeans learn the same?

One of the things that shocked most of us immediately was that, whereas most of the Central and Eastern European countries have a wider overview on Europe’s history, Western European students tend to focus more on their area and simply forget about the East. “We only learn about the USSR, the fall of the Soviet Union, and not much more”, most of them recalled.

All the members agreed that, as Europeisation is going further, it is essential to learn more about our neighbours and try avoiding such Western-centrism. Kristóf Papp, from AEGEE-Budapest, mentioned this point as a key to strengthening a European identity. Guillermo García Tabarés, from AEGEE-Barcelona and CWG speaker, suggested that maybe “we shouldn’t go so deep into local level history, because it can promote nationalism without any based root, and go a bit more international to be able to understand our neighbours and accept them not as the traditional enemies”.

However, it’s true that it would be hard for most European countries to have the same attitude towards wars or some other recent events in our history, as Ola Zalecka, from AEGEE-Toruń, mentioned. Sebastian Hitz, from AEGEE-Heidelberg, added that “history teaching is not only about facts, but about analysis and interpretation” and that “nationalisms are shaped when history is taught in such a judging way”.

So, should we learn regional, state or international level?

In this sense, there is a strong division among countries. On the one hand, the Spanish and Italian participants that were at the discussion agreed that regional history, language and literature have a strong presence in textbooks’ contents. This can lead sometimes to a political confrontation between the centrist and nationalist parties ruling their country.

On the other hand, we learnt that other countries, such as Poland or Hungary, don’t pay extra attention to regions as much as national and international history. But we could observe some differences even in the same country, like in Italy. Alessio Caddeo from AEGEE-Venezia and Claudia Maria Scampinato from AEGEE-Catania exposed their views: whereas in Sardinia the content is more focused on Italian history, students in Sicily tend to learn more on their regional history.

With this in mind, the discussion led to two other questions. The first one was: Should Europeans learn about history focused more in a regional, national or international level, or even creating an European textbook? Even though we aim to create a European identity, we agreed that we shouldn’t keep our nations or regions aside, as Europe is based on its diversity.

We also discussed about the periods of history we should learn about. Should we focus on recent history rather than ancient one, in order to understand better our current situation? This led to a strong debate. Whereas some thought that we should indeed give more importance to contemporary history, others argued that we can learn a lot from the past, and that we often “have to go one step back in history to understand people’s behaviour”.

What can AEGEE do? 

However, we agreed that there’s still a long way to go to increase our awareness. Fortunately, we could count on some proposals for projects that could be developed within the CWG by our active members, and this was indeed very encouraging. After two hours and a half discussing we reached to the conclusion that AEGEE, as an organization concerned about European cultural awareness, plays an important and successful role.

We are on the right track since we have noticed that many of the Westerners have known and understood better the Eastern European history through other AEGEE members and the other way round.

Do you want to know more about textbooks? The following links will provide you with more information on the topic:

The Economist


A textbook for Europe? 

Written by Anna Gumbau, AEGEE-Barcelona and member of the Culture Working Group