The selection unmasks the person who selects, and distorts and ignores the complexity of the past.
In the past decade, I have had the privilege of teaching an introductory course on European history at University College Tilburg. Over the years, the course ‘European History: Politics and Culture’ has introduced hundreds of first year Liberal Arts and Sciences students to a series of past events, ideas, and historical figures. The topics range from the rise of democracy in Periclean Athens to the introduction of the Roman Empire under emperor Augustus, the Investiture Controversy, the Reformation, the French Revolution and the two World Wars. The teaching team selected these topics because of their significant impact on the course of European history.1 In discussing these topics, the course provides students with a historical reference frame to build upon in their further university education.
Recently, however, the canon of historical events has been under scrutiny and called into question. Within the public and academic debate, we distinguish at least two trends. The first trend is a reappreciation of the national past and inclination to zoom in on historical events close to home. The other trend challenges the Eurocentric perspective of history and suggests to include non-European and minority perspectives. “Traditional European history is said to be Eurocentric, partial, incomplete and inadequate to the complexity of historical globalization,” Duve (2013) writes. These paradoxical trends are in fact two sides of the same coin. In an era of cultural globalization, superdiversity and increased intercultural contact, there is an interest to explore and value other cultures, but also to fold back on the own national identity and past.2
These trends challenge the status quo within history education, so that a number of interesting questions have regained urgency: “Why do we teach certain historical topics, while we leave out others?”; “What are the criteria to base our selection on?”; “Who has the prerogative to make this selection?”, and, ultimately, “What is the function of history education?”. This essay will ponder upon these questions by taking the Liberal Arts and Sciences course on European history as a case study and imagine an educational utopia, in which history professors and students collectively reflect upon these fundamental questions and engage in a respectful discussion on history education.3
In 19th Century Europe, Romanticism and nationalism triggered the construction of heroic, nationalist narratives: “The Netherlands has its glory days in the Dutch Revolt and the seventeenth century, the Golden Age. In […] Belgium, […] Ambiorix, the leader of the Eburones, a Belgian tribe, who led a rebellion against Caesar, assumes mythical proportions. With his historical novel The Lion of Flanders on the Battle of the Golden Spurs of 1302, Hendrik Conscience (pp. 1812-1883) – unintentionally – gave the Flemish people its past and identity”, Lesaffer (2009, § 414) writes. After the 19th Century nationalist hurricane had passed, it took historians more than a century to deconstruct nationalist narratives and undo some historical events of their mythical proportions (Leerssen, 2020).
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, after decades of seeming retreat, nationalism and, in its wake, an interest for national history have re-emerged (Mylonas & Tudor, 2021). In 2006, the Netherlands have introduced a historical canon of the Netherlands for educational purposes. Since its revision in 2020, the canon aims to be more balanced in terms of multiperspectivity, gender, diversity, internationalism, and geographical diversification (Rapport, 2020, pp. 19-20). The canon lists fifty events and historical figures that are said to have shaped Dutch history. The canon starts with Trijntje, who lived around 5.500 BC as hunter-gatherer and whose skeleton has been found intact, and ends with the so-called “Oranjegevoel”, which seems to be characteristic for the contemporary, Dutch society: “When Dutch sportsmen, individually or in team, excel at the highest level, the orange feeling rises: streets are decorated in orange and people wear the weirdest orange gears” (Het Oranjegevoel - Canon van Nederland).
The Dutch initiative to construct a historical canon has spilled over to Flanders. At the instigation of the Flemish nationalist political party N-VA and with the support of the Flemish government, an independent committee of experts is preparing the publication of a canon of Flemish history for the purpose of education and integration of immigrants. According to the N-VA minister of education, the canon will be “an open offer to all residents of our society to learn more about Flanders, who we are and where we come from” (De Lobel, 2022). Of old, national history has served as “identity factory” (Aerts, 2022, pp. 16-17). National history aims to educate its citizens on the great, national events and figures to construct a shared identity. In the political context of Belgium, which unites two different linguistic, cultural and political communities, the initiative to form a Flemish canon has sparked discussion and controversy. In a pamphlet of over eighty pages, prominent Flemish historians have criticized the concept of a national canon for Flanders (Tollebeek et al., 2022). They condemn the interference of politics with the academic field of history and the political instrumentalization of history education to create a Flemish identity, instill feelings of national pride, loyalty for and identification with the nation(state). In their view, the nationalization of the past creates a tunnel vision on history. The simplified character of a canon disregards the complexity of history and might even translate into a narrow world view.
Nationalism is a multidimensional phenomenon, which has inspired self-determination movements and enabled the realization of liberal democracies in the 18th and 19th centuries, but has also endorsed authoritarian regimes, resulted in the marginalization of minorities, and even led to warfare (Mylonas & Tudor, 2021). No wonder that historians are vigilant and genuinely concerned when history is being instrumentalized for the consolidation of a Flemish identity within the federal state of Belgium. Although national history should not become the Cinderella of the history discipline, it is to be presented with caution and integrity, eschewing its political instrumentalization. Equally important is the recognition that the history of a nation is inextricably linked to international events. No nation stands alone.
The course on European history aims to acquaint international students with the history of Europe, rather than the history of the Netherlands, and does so through a cosmopolitan lens. This academic year, at the instigation of students, the prominent place of Christianity in medieval European history has been under consideration. For years, Christianity has been a cornerstone of the lectures on medieval Europe. In the Middle Ages, theology, politics and culture are closely intertwined. Christianity penetrates every aspect of life and scholarship, so that the prominent position of Christianity in European medieval history is sensible and valid. Nonetheless, in the past years, a number of students suggested to widen the course’s perspective and include a more diverse range of topics.
At multiple occasions, the teaching staff discussed the question whether the course’s focus on Western Christianity and the Latin West was perhaps too restricted. It was suggested that the Early Middle Ages have given rise to Islam, one of the five, contemporary world religions. Via the Arab, Muslim-ruled states, the Islamic world has supplied medieval Europe with ideas and knowledge, so that a place for Islam in a course on European history would be legitimate. The discussions, within which the teaching team participated with proper academic arguments and courtesy, resulted in a shift in focus. Rather than focusing solely on the Latin West and the role of Western Christianity in the Middle Ages, also the Byzantine Empire, which saw the emergence of orthodox Christianity, and the Islamic world have become part of the course description of 2022. For this purpose, the course builds upon Rosenwein’s A Short History of the Middle Ages, which “covers not just Europe (though the focus increasingly moves there) but also the Byzantine and Islamic worlds” (Rosenwein, 2018, p. 16). The author has “tried to make “Europe” more than the history of France, England, and Germany, so often the focus of books like this” (Rosenwein, 2018, p. 16).
There are historically valid reasons to introduce the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world into a course on European history, although there might be another, more implicit reason for this shift in focus. One of the arguments that was not explicitly mentioned in the discussion with the teaching staff but might have influenced its outcome is the European process of de-Christianization and the contemporary relevance of Islam in Europe. There is a growing Muslim population in European countries (Hackett et al., 2017). Islam has become the second largest religion in the Netherlands after Christianity, and, for a variety of reasons, the coexistence between non-Muslim and Muslim communities in Europe has been challenging (Veldhuis & Bakker, 2009). This contemporary phenomenon has provided us with a lens through which to examine and discuss history. The introduction of Islam in a course on European history might be the expression of an underlying wish for an inclusive, open-minded and cosmopolitan society, which appreciates Muslims’ place in European history and acquaints students with Islam. According to Aerts (2022, pp. 16-21), “enlightened cosmopolitism” is one of the functions of history. By orchestrating meetings with other cultures and value systems, history may serve to promote curiosity and empathy for others and turn citizens into cosmopolitans who are equipped to navigate a globalizing world. That is particularly relevant in a Liberal Arts and Sciences program.
The selection of topics in the course on European history gave rise to another student suggestion. In November 2020, a German student sent an e-mail to the teacher team and suggested “to go more into Europe’s history concerning imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and genocide”. Although the student overlooked the syllabus, which announced that a lecture on 19th Century new imperialism and colonialism was forthcoming, her e-mail illustrates the student’s engagement with the course content. According to the student, “the seminars could be a great place to discuss how to deal with the horrible, but often overlooked heritage that was placed on our shoulders”. In formulating her suggestion, she represents a general, and relatively recent trend in contemporary, western societies to engage with the black pages of the own past, actively reflect upon their role in that past and coming to terms with it.4
According to Aerts (2022, pp. 17-19), history may function as “national group therapy” for nations or societal groups that have experienced disruptive events in the recent past, either as perpetrators or victims. Whereas some groups might have actively contributed as perpetrators to traumatizing events, such as colonial exploitation, warfare, genocide, etcetera, others had to endure them as victims. Historical research, truth-finding, the creation of awareness, the acknowledgement and expression of guilt and regret, and the granting of recognition to victims can bring a societal katharsis for the black pages in history and might bring reconciliation. In this case, history is a tool to deal with traumas of the past and give account for that past.
Recently, European countries are displaying a revived and revised interest in their colonial past. Rather than glorifying the economic prosperity and artistic output of the Golden Age, the Netherlands are now acknowledging that violence, suppression, slavery and racism played an undeniable role in their national history. Through a wide range of artistic output on the topic, the Dutch society is attempting to come to terms with its colonial past and grant a voice to those who have suffered from its consequences: there are exhibitions,5 podcasts,6 books,7 and more on the topic.8 In December 2022, the prime minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte made an apology on behalf of the Dutch government for its slavery past.9
Ever since the publication of David van Reybrouck’s epic history of Congo in 2010, giving a voice to everyday Congolese people in the colonial history of Belgium, the course on European history takes Congo Free State as a case study. The course discusses 19th century new imperialism, social Darwinism and colonialism. Students engage in the discussion on how to deal with a state’s contested colonial heritage. In Belgium, the myth of the visionary king Leopold II, which was constructed in the interwar period, is gradually being punctured. The public dialogue on dealing with colonial heritage has led to information panels providing (succinct) historical context to monuments (Truyts, 2016), counter-monuments (Horenbeek et al., 2020), king Philippe of Belgium, in a visit to Congo, expressing his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past” (Makumeno & Macauley, 2022), but not (yet) to a formal apology (Chini, 2022).
The student’s suggestion displays an interest for history and engagement with the course content, but also illustrates that she is a child of her time. Her suggestion is prompted by the current societal debate on colonialism and colonial heritage. Indeed, the selection of historical topics is not a value-free enterprise, but influenced by the society we live in. As a result, history is constantly in motion. Therefore, we should teach students that our values and beliefs color the selection of historical topics. History professors can only adequately do so when we, ourselves, are constantly and critically aware of our own values and beliefs. The academic discussion is an essential platform to hold a mirror to ourselves.
The above-mentioned trends illustrate that history is a living organism with many parents and parents-in-law: historians, academics, students, journalists and politicians. Although both trends have conflicting goals and suggest to either broaden the scope of history or narrow it down, they share a concern for potential lacunas in history education. The selection of topics in a history course is indeed telling: what you discuss in a history course is almost equally important as what you do not discuss. The past per se pours out an infinite mass of events, historical figures and ideas. In order to get a grip on that bulk of information and add meaning to it, the history teacher structures, selects, contextualizes, explains and evaluates historical processes and reflects on these choices. This means that the design and redesign of a history course and the selection of historical topics is not a value-free exercise, but “unmasks the person who selects and distorts and ignores the complexity of the past” (Aerts, 2020, p. 133).
When drafting a course syllabus or setting up a curriculum, there has to be selection. Selection is unavoidable. But selection also is precarious. In selecting topics, history professors show their true colors and uncover their ideas on the function of history. But how to make that selection? In my educational utopia, history professors discuss their choices, find consensus or respectfully disagree with each other. The essence of selection is the academic debate and the careful weighing of arguments. Also, students could be encouraged and intellectually prepared to meaningfully participate in that debate, as they have done for the course on European history. A precondition for that academic debate to take place, flourish and thrive is intellectual freedom. The selection of historical events is open for interpretation and change, and so it should. History professors have the responsibility to make conscious decisions, transparently argue in favor of these decisions, and change perspectives if convinced of better options. Given that our selection of historical topics has changed over time, it is likely to change again in the future. Therefore, a constant monitoring of the content of courses and the curriculum design prevents history education from rusting. The reevaluation and reimagination of the course content requires an open mind, but also time and support. Although it is important to focus on delivery, pedagogical strategies and innovative educational formats, it is equally important to reimagine the course content, for (history) education to be relevant and up-to-date. Ideally, both go hand in hand.
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Chini, M. (20 December 2022). ‘Congo Committee: Belgium Fails to Reach Agreement on Official Apology for Colonialism’. The Brussels Times: Congo Committee: Belgium fails to reach agreement on official apology for colonialism (brusselstimes.com).
Duve, T. (2013). ‘European Legal History - Global Perspectives: Working Paper for the Colloquium ‘European Normativity – Global Historical Perspectives’. Max Planck Institute for European Legal History Research Paper Series, 6.
Hackett, C., Connor, P., Stonawski, M., Potančoková, M. & Kramer, S. (2017). ‘Europe’s Growing Muslim Population: Muslims are Projected to Increase as a Share of Europe’s Population - Even with No Future Migration’. Pew Research Center.
Horenbeek, J. van, Boeck, Ann de & Gordts, P. (11 June 2020). ‘Leopold II wankelt, maar niet overal’. De Morgen.
Leerssen, J. (2020). National Thought in Europe. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
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