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03.10.2008 | Halya Coynash

Managed memory

   

“We give you nothing. We do not give you God since you yourselves, with your own efforts, must find him in your soul. We do not give you the homeland since you must find it with the efforts of your own heart and thoughts. We do not give you love since there can be no love without forgiveness and forgiveness is effort, great effort which each person must make. We give you only one thing – longing for a better life which has not come but will one day,  longing for truth and justice. Perhaps this longing will bring you to God, the homeland and love.”    Janusz Korczak

In all the talk about historical memory, one crucial question lacks the brutality it requires.  The question “what do we remember?” is discussed in detail by those with conflicting views but considerable knowledge of the subject.  I wonder, in fact, what they remember of the Korean War.  My “memory” is based on a few lines of a history textbook given body and warmth by the characters of the US comedy “M.A.S.H”.  Closer to our lives, then family experience and sometimes the accounts of people we’ve known also add emotional colour – and judgment – to our “memories”.  They also separate us from those whose experience was quite different.  All of this is crucial to bear in mind when considering the teaching of history in schools.

  The fall of the socialist bloc marked the “End of History” one Hegelian American (briefly!) proclaimed. Scepticism was widespread, probably most so in that part of the world supposedly marching like Soviet udarniky towards an unquestionably democratic glorious future.  Yet it did seem like an end to lies, an end to propaganda. 

  Whether that was pathological naivety I will leave to others to determine.  My concern here is with one area where both pedagogical and personal experience tell me that nobody is doomed to regress and that not “all textbooks lie”.  In a free country, children are not merely the base component for concocting right-thinking and infinitely malleable citizens, and a state that seeks to create its citizens instead of serving them risks never escaping the bondage of ideology.

  For the second year running a guide for history teachers is being discussed in Russia.  The “Concept plan for contemporary Russian history in the first half of the twentieth century” has elicited outrage and devastating criticism from many people, among them teachers. The problem is that there was no less condemnation a year ago, and the book not only went through but has already been used as a base for several history textbooks.  The concessions made by the regime (and let’s not pretend, it being clear who is behind the “initiative”) – the removal of a profoundly offensive chapter on the role of Stalin – have all been reversed with this year’s guide on how to produce “right-thinking Russians”. 

  «The methodological basis for this textbook is the most recent work by Russian historians, giving relevance to the assessment of our history from the point of view of the tasks of protecting and strengthening State sovereignty and bringing up citizens – patriots of Russia.”

The work has painfully obvious ramifications for all of us with its ideological and aggressive interpretation of history.  The “problem” of the Terror which cannot by now be denied is “resolved” in fiendishly deft manner by counting only those actually condemned to death and executed as victims. The numbers are immediately less horrifying, the crimes of the regime also less and in general it can all be squeezed into the concept of Stalin’s “successful and rational management”. Famine in the USSR was caused by weather conditions. One can safely assume that the word “Holodomor” will not be used at all. 

Yet this is our history, our families, and it is bitterly hard to endure this monstrous distortion. It is also frightening.  In Soviet times, the regime’s crimes were hushed up and denied which at least enabled children to understand that there was something to be silent about and gave them the chance to discover the truth outside of school. Now it is basically not denied, rather justified. Imagine the moral atrophying of children who are told that the Katyń Massacre “was not simply a question of expediency, but also a response to the death of many (tens of) thousands of Red Army soldiers in Polish captivity after the war of the 1920s, initiated not by Soviet Russia, but by Poland”.  As in Soviet times there will be parents, grandparents or other adults who will quietly explain to children that it was all different. However there are relatively few, moreover the influence of textbooks and school lessons should not be underestimated however much kids may complain that it’s tedious and uninteresting. It will still become a part of their “memory”.

  There should also be warning bells for Ukraine.  The Institute of National Remembrance is presently creating a history textbook “in order to help bring up the younger generation in a spirit recognizing their national identity, respect and love for their homeland”. The President recently held a meeting with the Minister of Education to discuss “issues in the teaching of Ukrainian history, in particular, the objectivity of interpretations of certain historical facts in textbooks”. I will not speculate on which particular facts Mr Yushchenko had in mind. I certainly believe that (all!) historical facts should be presented as objectively as feasible, but would respectfully suggest that this is an area which should be left to historians and teachers.

  The problem is twofold. Mr Yushchenko’s views on certain historical issues are well-known and not shared by all.  He also remains a politician.  In an article published in “Holos Ukrainy” on education, as well as a dig at “the cynical selfishness and treachery of certain leaders”, i.e. his political enemies,  Mr Yushchenko writes that the priorities for schools should be to develop “… a citizen and patriot”. 

  Most of us know that what can be crammed and / or repeated parrot-fashion cannot always be said to have been learned, however the very curriculum must also be in question.  History lessons must not be about “teaching patriotism”.  The reasons are clear in any country.  If the purpose of a lesson is to instil pride in one’s country, then obviously some things will be emphasised, some quietly forgotten, played down or, God forbid, in the new Russian/Soviet mode, “rationally explained”. 

  The problem exists in every country but is especially acute in Ukraine for historical reasons and because the differences are being deliberately fuelled by those within the country and from outside who have their own reasons.  The absurd – and worrying – degree of politicization can be seen in the headlines of an article about a recent spurt of most questionable texts about Ukraine in the French press: “Yushchenko attacked from France”.  Since one of the articles mentioned, by Michael Prazan, presents an image of Ukrainians as rabid anti-Semites and Nazi supporters, I rather think that it was not only one President who was under fire.

The irony of free speech, especially when control over who calls the shots in the media is not clearly regulated, is that those who want to cause dissent and incite enmity are free to do so.  Certain Russian media outlets, copied almost verbatim in much of the Ukrainian press,  are often the first to report that schools in Ivano-Frankivsk are planning a first lesson on the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera and his role in Ukrainian history for 1 September.  And with little or no control over how news stories are presented, it is not hard to imagine how those with, shall we say, a different assessment of Bandera pass on such information.

On the other hand, how does one justify such a lesson?  If it is unacceptable in classes with people of different faiths to have a first lesson based on the Gospels, or Koran, or Torah, than surely it is equally unacceptable to foist information intended to promote a particular ideology?  I understand that Bandera is being presented as an example of a man serving his country, and not as a political leader, however there remain many who view him differently.  Since the media outlets most eager to report on all “offensives by Ukrainian nationalists” present their own bias in rather different form, there is no information as to what children in Crimean Russian-language schools leaned at their first lesson.  The general tone of the media in the Crimea gives serious grounds for believing that the views foisted would be no less offensive to many other Ukrainians.

  No solution is optimum and the views of the teachers presenting the material cannot be ignored. On the other hand, the printed word has its force, and the historical facts presented should be basically the same throughout the country and regardless of the views of politicians, teachers or anybody else.  Where the very facts are disputed, then why not leave them for higher institutes where students are better skilled in analyzing conflicting information? 

Nobody becomes a “patriot” through being fed information, true, half-true or assiduously selected and perfumed.  Nor, in my opinion, should we seek this.

  The Soviet understanding that all parts of human life are subject to control in order to create Homo Soveticus must be discarded. Freedom of speech and of the press means trusting the public to draw their own opinions from different alternatives presented.  The fact that most of them won’t, and will seek an easy “answer” or somebody who’ll tell them “the way it is”, does not absolve us from the responsibility of ensuring that they have the chance and this means intolerance of manipulation and misinformation.

  Democratic freedom – from childhood on – in precisely the same way means trusting people to choose their heroes, beliefs and convictions.  Once again this is an ideal, and lots of people prefer binary versions of reality.  Nevertheless, choice is vital and it is only threatening to those who have nothing to offer.

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