Simple history

History, truth, myths, nationalism, violence, what to teach the children. It comes up a lot, that set of issues.

These days, Irish history lessons are more sophisticated. They deal happily with facts that have no place in a plain tale of heroes and tyrants…Why the change? First because in the 1980s, some people in Ireland became uneasy about the fact that a crude view of their national history was fuelling a conflict in the north of the island. Then came a fall in the influence of the Catholic church, whose authority had rested on a deft fusion between religion and patriotism. Also at work was an even broader shift: a state that was rich, confident and cosmopolitan saw less need to drum simple ideas into its youth, especially if those ideas risked encouraging violence.

A shift from nationalist religio-patriotic simple ideas to something better; excellent; here’s hoping the rest of the world can make the same trip.

In modern Turkey, classrooms have always been seen as a battleground for young hearts. Every day, children start the day by chanting: “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am industrious”…In such a climate, it is inevitable that “history is considered a sensitive matter, to be managed by the state,” says Taner Akcam, a Turkish-born historian, whose frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 have exposed him to harassment by Turkish nationalists…

And Hrant Dink’s frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 exposed him to being murdered.

Greece’s Orthodox leaders, like Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, are putting up a harder fight to preserve the nationalist spirit…Meanwhile some Greeks retort that 11 or 12 is too young to go looking for facts. In a web-discussion of the new Greek textbook, one participant thunders: “At university, the goal of historical research is the discovery of truth. But in primary schools history teaching has an entirely different aim—to form historical consciousness and social identity!”

Oh right! Good thinking! The discovery of truth is reserved for people who go to university, and has to be postponed; what the people as a whole must have as children is identity-shaping mythology. Great. That’s been doing great things for Japan and India lately…

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