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Withdrawn textbooks or how the history of the Balkans is being learnt

13 January 2012 / 14:01:44  GRReporter
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Anastasia Balezdrova

Was there or was there not a monastery school during the Ottoman rule? How should historical events established in human consciousness be presented when in the new historiography they are nothing more than myths? And most importantly, how should history books be written and is there a perfect book?

Bickering and disputes over the content of history teaching aids are more or less known in all countries and especially in the Balkans. Several years ago the famous contemporary British historian Mark Mazower had declared that "history is a mirror”. "It seems, however, that not everyone sees their reflection in the same way. This is normal when we talk about history and the way it is taught in schools. In Greece, since the creation of the modern state, historical perception of events such as the revolution in 1821 and the national disasters in the 20th century, have always been presented in an emotionally charged manner and with the intent to maintain the so-called "sanctuaries" of the nation," points out Christina Koulouri, new and contemporary history teacher at Pandio University in Athens.

She and two of her colleagues undertook the difficult task of participating in a public discussion for the "cut" history textbooks. Only five years ago, the Greek Ministry of Education was forced to withdraw a sixth grade history textbook, because of public reactions, which were caused by the presentation of some events in it, including the fact that the writers of the textbook used the phrase "Greeks gathered at the port of Smyrna," to describe the events and burning down of the city in 1922. The book was withdrawn after continuous media hysteria for weeks, news and television discussions, which were turned into reality shows, and even protests organized by patriotic organizations.

According to the teacher at the Ionian University, Costas Angelakos the withdrawal of textbooks based on political and ideological reasons is not so new. In retrospect, he said that history textbooks in Greece have been changed many times in different periods. "It is noteworthy that for decades in the early 20th century there was no controversy against the textbooks. The reason is probably the fact that they were all written by the same couple of writers, who managed to publish an amazing number of 42 textbooks." In the early 60s a very advanced for its time textbook was issued, which was rejected because of its title. The author had the imprudence to use the term "medieval" instead of "Byzantine" history. In 1985 "The history of mankind" was destroyed because it had been perceived as relating to Darwin's theory on human origin, which apparently angered the ruling Orthodox Church.

Experts say the content of textbooks has been influenced mostly by the political leadership of Greece and of the era. During the military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 the biggest enemy of the country was communism, therefore all teaching aids were reviewed meticulously for statements, "that could change the minds of students”.

That the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc greatly changed historiography is the consensus of historians. This does not mean that communities are ready for years of imposed national myths in history. Such is the experience of Romania with a 12th grade history textbook from 1999. As Mirela - Luminita Murgesku, history professor at the University of Bucharest, says the issue in Romania reached political levels, and debate committees in both chambers of the Romanian Parliament were even created. The reason? That 12 pages were devoted to the communist past of the country, whereas only a few lines were devoted to the national hero Michael Viteazul. The issue was raised by a local member of parliament and famous director Sergiu Nicolaescu, one of whose epic films was dedicated precisely to the legendary ruler. Subsequently other "irregularities" were found, such as the section on the formation of the Romanian nation and small details on the relations with its neighbourHungary. "During this period everyone across the country was talking about this book. The media, people on the streets and in public transportation. The author was subjected to great pressure, he even became a target. At the same time debates were taking place among historians. After the book was withdrawn a new one had to be written and this happened within six months, which is an extremely short period of time for such a task. We got to the point where we decided to stop studying the modern history of the country until the early 90s, because it was clear that any new government could claim the content of textbooks and try to change it."

In current textbooks there is no hint of disagreement among historians and deviation from accepted positions for years and history teachers are more like performers and do not help develop critical thinking in students. "The book is only a guide. I believe it is completely wrong to impose a state-recognized textbook, without taking into account scientific advice, which exposes dozens of myths imposed over the years," said Christina Koulouri. "There have been cases that maps have been subjected to criticism because they were viewed from today’s standpoint and not from the standpoint of the particular historical epoch. It is time to get rid of these remnants" was the opinion of her colleague Costas Angelakos.

Tags: Society history textbooks patriotism historiography Balkan
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