Workshop Report: “Mediterranean Perspectives in School History Teaching”
by Leyla Dakhli and Romain Faure
The Explorative Workshop „Mediterranean Perspectives in School History Teaching“ took place on June 26–27, 2017 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. It was convened by Romain Faure (FU Berlin) and Leyla Dakhli (Centre Marc Bloch) and part of the strategic cooperation between the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland.
Starting with the topic of the Mediterranean in history teaching, the workshop brought about high-level and heated debates on the role of historical research and history education in today’s rapidly changing world, in which the geographical, political, and cultural positions of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are being fundamentally redefined. Drawing on the diverse horizons of its participants, it clearly exemplified the powerful heuristic potential of a Mediterranean dialogue on history teaching. Historians from Berlin, Cairo, Istanbul, The Hague, Paris, Tel Aviv, Rabat, Skopje, Tunis, and elsewhere had accepted the invitation from Romain Faure and Leyla Dakhli to discuss the possibilities of integrating Mediterranean perspectives in school history teaching.
The starting point of the workshop was a current paradox: on the one hand, historical research on the modern and contemporary history of the Mediterranean is vivid and deals with a range of issues of great public interest, like the unfolding and aftermath of colonialism and decolonization, the Ottoman hegemony and legacy in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, in countries from both north and south of the Mediterranean, the teaching of 19th- and 20th-century history in school is often silent about these topics and hardly refers to the history of social, cultural, religious, political, and economic connections in the Mediterranean. This appears to be a serious shortcoming, since history is key to understanding the major conflicts and migrations currently affecting the countries on the Mediterranean shores and well beyond. History teaching remains parochial within the boundaries of national or culturalistic frames. The workshop, held within the series of explorative workshops offered by the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung, was deliberately explorative in its setting, bringing together people with different professional backgrounds: historians (with focuses on Europe, the national state, the Ottoman Empire, etc.), pedagogues, and textbook researchers, but also members of EUROCLIO, the European Association of History Educators. It aimed to lay the foundation for a first network of scholars and practitioners and to develop ideas for future projects.
While all the participants were favorably disposed to the idea of challenging exclusive national or culturalistic worldviews in history teaching, they did not necessarily share a common definition of the problem at stake, nor did they have the same assumptions about what answer to give. The workshop brought some clarifications. The first of these clarifications pertained to the very concept of the Mediterranean. It was stressed (and agreed upon) that, no less than the notions of “nation” or “Europe”, the Mediterranean is a historical construction and by no means a “natural” framework of history teaching (I. Gershoni). “Mediterranean” has been given very different meanings in the countries bordering it, though the concept has been most elaborated by nations endeavoring to control it, like France and Italy (E. Eldem). Part of the teaching of Mediterranean history should therefore address the intellectual and imaginary construction of this space, for example by examining how the landscape, a core and in fact very “unnatural” feature of the Mediterranean construction, was reinvented in the colonial context (C. Fredj).
Second, it became manifest during the workshop that the nature and degree of biases in school history narratives vary greatly among the different countries of the Mediterranean and therefore call for different counter-narratives. Elaborating a common historical discourse on the Mediterranean that could be used to challenge equally the different existing nationalistic/culturalistic worldviews is nothing but an illusion. To give an example, while a reassessment of Ottoman history seems to be a promising avenue for breaking with Eurocentrism in teaching in France or Germany (M. Oualdi, J. Vogel), it may easily be appropriated for nationalist purposes in Turkey (E. Eldem). The necessity for a Mediterranean dialogue on history teaching emerged, but the problems encountered in Egypt, France, Tunisia, or Macedonia remain specific and cannot be roughly symmetrized.
The Mediterranean in School Teaching: Possible Approaches
Alongside these discussions, the participants debated possible approaches to integrating Mediterranean perspectives in school narratives. A first range of propositions referred to the wide field of teaching methods. It was argued that history teaching should make room for biographical and small-scale perspectives. Historical actors have always crossed the borders drawn by politics and society and retrospectively by historians. In the Mediterranean region, these border-crossers have built networks that challenge our view of clearly defined and homogeneous national/imperial entities (C. Fredj, M. Oualdi, J. Vogel). This type of small-scale approach almost naturally calls for a thematic focus on mobilities, an essential topic of current research, but one that historians should be careful not to overstress. Even in the quite mobile Mediterranean societies of the 19th and 20th centuries, sedentary populations were the majority (E. Eldem). Some participants recommended strongly integrating Mediterranean multiperspectivity in historical narratives (E. François, K. Gürsoy, M. Hassani-Idrissi, R. Spielhaus). Teaching World War One history is a good example in this respect: students should be made familiar with the decisive, yet very different legacies of the war in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (I. Kąkolewski). All the participants stressed that history teaching should present a wide range of primary sources. They are largely absent in teaching materials in a country like Egypt (F. Makar). But even in Germany, where they play an important role in teaching, they convey an extremely Eurocentric bias, nearly completely leaving aside non-European documents. The situation mirrors that of scholarship, where translations of historical sources, for example from Arabic to German, remain scarce (B. Schäbler).
A second range of propositions referred to some important issues and topics in history teaching that could gain from treatment from a renewed Mediterranean perspective. For example, to foster a historically informed understanding of major current political conflicts, conventional history narratives of the 19th and 20th century should take into account the long, entangled history of political ideologies in the Mediterranean – be it with a focus on nationalism, communism, liberalism, Islamism, or fascism (B. Schäbler). Another example is the history of Southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa in the 19th century, which could be better understood if teaching would focus more strongly on the tense coexistence and interaction between the Ottoman and European imperial enterprises, not only on a political but also on a cultural and social level (E. Eldem). In the same vein, the history of colonialism in the Mediterranean should refrain from presenting a schematic view of colonized populations, examining them only in terms of their relations to European hegemonic powers; it should take into consideration the vivid and long-lasting networks between the colonized population and the rest of the Ottoman or Muslim world before and throughout the colonial era (M. Oualdi).
One of the aims of the workshop was to discuss ideas for future projects. Not all the participants considered school history teaching to be the most relevant or promising place to challenge traditional historical narratives. Some doubted that there is any chance to amend school curricula and textbooks, the actors determining this field being all too conservative and political (K. Bendana, E. Eldem). Others questioned the actual role of school in forming the historical consciousness of societies (K. Bendana, F. Makar). Accordingly, the long-term elaboration of recommendations for curricula amendments appeared to be a meaningful aim for future projects only in certain national contexts like Germany – whereas it was considered rather inauspicious in other countries. The participants supported the idea of creating a collaborative website or a blog, this kind of platform allowing for the co-creation and diffusion of various teaching materials, from sources to entire teaching and learning modules (M. Mladenovski, J. Stoop). Carrying out more-detailed comparisons between hegemonic historical narratives in different Mediterranean countries was seen as an essential step for future endeavors.
The workshop demonstrated that bringing together historians from different horizons and different fields of expertise who normally do not interact with each other could be extremely thought-provoking and fruitful. The participants unanimously underlined that it is critical to continue to cooperate on a transregional, Mediterranean basis. The network established in Berlin calls for extension to other researchers, and the dialogue that was started at the Forum Transregionale Studien proved to have the potential to lead to a profound reevaluation of well-established didactic and historiographical positions.
Further contributions on this workshop:
Citation: Leyla Dakhli and Romain Faure, Workshop Report: “Mediterranean Perspectives in School History Teaching”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.12.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8658.