New Europe in practice

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Maitland Stobart seeks to boot prejudice out of the identity parade.

In October 1993, the first summit of the heads of state and government of the Council of Europe's member states was held in Vienna.

It proclaimed a vision of a New Europe - a vision of a continent where "all of our countries are committed to pluralist and parliamentary democracy, the indivisibility and universality of human rights, the rule of law and a common cultural heritage enriched by its diversity".

The New Europe, which now includes the formerly Soviet-controlled countries, offers a new framework, perspective and opportunities for history teachers and history teaching.

This has always occupied a special place in the Council of Europe's education programme. Our founders in 1949 saw how history had been misused to promote feelings of national antagonism and cultural and racial superiority.

The aim of our work is not to use history as propaganda for European unity but to try to eliminate the traditional mistakes and prejudices and to establish the facts.

The darker face of the New Europe - the present resurgence of racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism - was also explored in Vienna. The summit also noted an increase in acts of violence against people from migrant and minority groups, such as gypsies.

In all European countries, economic change and restructuring have been accompanied by unemployment, marginalisation and exclusion which threaten the cohesion of our societies.

In the present, volatile Europe there is a new sensitivity about national and ethnic identity: a complex concept which covers language, religion and a shared sense of history.

It is rich in symbols: heroes and battles lost and won; national anthems; songs; memorials and street names.

The council aims to look at the sorts of programmes which can eliminate prejudice in the teaching of history by emphasising the positive mutual influences between countries, religions and ideas in the historical development of Europe. A current project seeks to identify these positive influences and provide curriculum developers and teachers with practical advice.

At the Prague symposium Dr Gun Westholm gave a paper on the Hanseatic Route, a trade route stretching from the Baltic countries and Russia in the east to England, as an example of how countries in northern and parts of central Europe interacted and were influenced in the medieval period. The council will look at producing teaching packs on such pan-European themes.

In the series of symposia which concludes in Prague, we have looked at ways to promote national history that is not nationalist history and have focused on how a variety of history teaching methods can develop attitudes which are essential for citizens of pluralist democratic societies.

These include a multi-perspective approach, teaching the ability to look at the motivations of different sides in a historical event, and discussion on how countries teach about the minorities within their borders.

In 1997 the Council of Europe will start a three-year project on the teaching of 20th-century European history.

This will cover the tragic, sensitive and controversial topics in our recent history and will include a set of practical guidelines, case studies and experimental teaching units which could be tested in a network of pilot schools.

History and history teaching can be an important, even explosive force in the New Europe - a force for good or for evil.

I hope that history teachers will encourage links, field trips and joint projects between schools to foster understanding throughout the continent.

Maitland Stobart is deputy director of education, culture and sport for the Council of Europe.

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