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`Hopes of our shared history'

How best to teach the events of a past riddled with upheaval, conflict and questions of national identity is preoccupying educationists all over Europe, especially those in the formerly Soviet-controlled countries. They recently gathered to consider solutions in Prague, a city which is no stranger to cultural and political turning points.

Frances Rafferty reports.

Wenceslas Square, focal point of the overthrow of the communist regime in the Czech Republic's Velvet Revolution, was the venue for a rather more ragged gathering under national flags at the end of last month.

The red, white and blue standards were hoisted in celebration of the anniversary of the first Czech republic in 1918. A motley group of nationalists paraded past the McDonald's burger joint and other fast food outlets that now occupy the city centre.

As a former communist state, the Czech republic is attempting to reclaim its history. But, under V clav Klaus, its thrusting prime minister, a fan of Margaret Thatcher, the new nation also looks forward and is one of the first in the queue to join the European Union.

The country has often found itself at the epicentre of the major upheavals in the history of Europe, making it an ideal venue for the Council of Europe's symposium on "Mutual Understanding and Teaching of European History: challenges, problems and approaches".

This is the last in a series of wide-ranging symposia convened to prepare a declaration on history teaching for the standing conference of European education ministers, to be held in Norway in 1997.

Maitland Stobart, the council's deputy director of education, culture and sport, said: "It is very fitting indeed that we should meet in Prague because the city and the Czech lands symbolise - in a very special way - the positive mutual influences and the torments, the disappointments and hopes of our shared history."

But later in the week Mr Stobart, who explores the importance of sensitive handling of national identity issues on the facing page, was forced to consider the less positive side of life in Prague: assaults on gypsies by skinheads and attacks on a synagogue.

There are 47 countries taking part in the Council of Europe's education programme, including the newly-independent countries of the former Soviet empire. The organisation is best known for its work on human rights and the raison d'etre of the education programme is to promote understanding between nations and within nations.

The question of national identity was taken up by Susan Bennett, professional officer for history for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, who reported on a conference held in York on the subject.

Careful not to directly contradict Nick Tate, her boss at SCAA, who was lionised by the majority of the British press for stressing the importance of British children learning about their national heroes, Ms Bennett said the issue was more complex and Dr Tate's view was not necessarily the consensus of the conference.

She asked the Prague symposium: "Whose history is identified in national curricula? The history of the politically successful - kings, queens, prime ministers or the history of ordinary people? Is it a history of battles, wars, revolutions or the fight against poverty, disease and the improvement of wages and living conditions?

"The choice creates in pupils' minds an image of what is significant. A curriculum framework which mentions not one significant woman may be historically correct, since women did not always play a role in 'great events', but it presents a subconscious image to pupils and neglects the complexity of the historical past."

She said the problem for teachers who favour the critical, multi-perspective view of history is that they will find a gulf between them and a more nationalist approach favoured by parents, the press and certain politicians.

She said the danger of an uncritical approach to history was clearly illustrated by delegates from the new member states where history teaching has been pure propaganda. In Romania, schoolchildren were forced to learn from books written by the dictator Ceausescu who discovered he had a vocation for history.

She said teachers were also caught in tensions created by the historical past constructed by rival communities. "Those who try to cross the divide in Northern Ireland and help pupils to understand the different interpretations face the possibility that the criticism of their activities by Catholic or Protestant paramilitary groups could be violent and physical."

The representatives, teachers, advisers, inspectors and education ministry staff divided into workshops to pick up themes from the conference. They looked at ways to teach sensitive and controversial issues in history: the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, imperialism and the treatment of ethnic minorities.

It soon became clear that the north European countries had formed a consensus. Children should be taught to interpret a variety of historical sources and be taught the different sides of a conflict. But others argued it is impossible to present a value-free history. "Can you give children the option to decide whether Hitler was good or evil?" asked one representative.

But it was not only recent events that sparked discussion and disagreement. One workshop was almost forced to disband over arguments about Czech history and, even more bizarrely, over Napoleon, until it was saved by the shuttle diplomacy of Mr Stobart.

Others, particularly from the newly-formed democracies, had other priorities. While some countries have worked quickly to write new curricula and give history teachers new freedom, others are casualties of a more volatile political situation. In Belarus, for example, with the communists back in favour, the original history reforms are already looking out of date.

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