The Brief, powered by Goldman Sachs – How Europe teaches its past

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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It is hard to remember a time in Europe’s recent past when conspiracy theories and disinformation were so popular and scapegoating of communities so prevalent. Aside from the health crisis, the COVID pandemic has brought with it distant echoes of the darker moments in Europe’s last century.

That underscores just how important the way we teach our past is to understanding and avoiding future crises.

“Some say history rhymes, but I would say it is more like a kaleidoscope. History is pattern recognition,” Niall Ferguson said last week at the annual conference of the Observatory on History Teaching in Europe (OHTE).

“Historians engage in very difficult forms of data to read, to reconstitute past thoughts, to understand our own times and anticipate our potential futures,” added Ferguson.

It seems evident that for our institutions and democracy to function correctly, we, and particularly young people, must be armed with knowledge.

Yet, several European countries are still often reluctant to address the most controversial legacies of their past. Colonialism, civil wars and ethnic conflicts are the most obvious.

This reporter’s experience of schooling in the UK was that the less savoury parts of Britain’s past – slavery, colonialism and concentration camps, to name but three – were barely addressed, if at all.

The UK is not unique in being squeamish about addressing the dark recesses of its past. Belgium has only recently started to confront the truth that the horrors of King Leopold’s butchery in the Congo are a source of shame, not pride.

Europe’s former colonial powers have complicated relationships in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The sensitivity on migration in many European states is also in large part the product of colonialism.

Elsewhere, democracy is only a few decades old, and the legacy of civil war and ethnic conflict is still fresh and painful in the minds of millions of Europeans. That is without recognising that key events in history are explained very differently across the countries involved and invariably with the tinge of national bias.

This anxiety about discussing painful truths is heightened by social divides and pejorative phrases like ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’.

A recent survey by UNESCO and Education International found that 40% out of 60,000 teachers did not feel able to teach about racism in the classroom.

This stuff is painful and, often, personal. But if we are not taught the truth about our past and given the skills to think critically and reflectively, it is fanciful to imagine that we can understand where we came from and where we are headed.

How we teach our history matters.


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The Roundup

EU leaders agreed on Thursday to coordinate with allies over potential sanctions against Russia in the event of further military aggression on Ukraine. The issue remains to define what level of escalation would trigger what sort of response.

Talks between European Union country leaders on energy policy ended with no agreement on Thursday as states squabbled over how to respond to record-high carbon prices and upcoming green investment rules.

The coalition agreement of the new Dutch government under Prime Minister Mark Rutte foresees more spending on childcare, teacher salaries, and environmental issues, showing the increased influence of the centre-left, liberal party D66.

In a rare move, the Maltese government sent letters to Members of the European Parliament one week before a crucial EU negotiation in an attempt to persuade them to support a controversial gas pipeline connecting the Mediterranean island to Italy’s gas network.

EU lawmakers discussed on Thursday “modern slavery” in Serbia, notably the reports about forced labour in the Chinese Linglong tyre factory in the city of Zrenjanin. A resolution denouncing Chinese influence was passed, with the support of all major political groups. The resolution, passed with 586 votes in favour and 53 against, expresses concern over China’s growing influence in Serbia and across the Western Balkans.

During his first Agrifish EU council, new German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir presented himself as an advocate of climate protection and animal welfare as the ministers discussed measures against deforestation.

On Wednesday, MEPs discussed the EU’s response to the pandemic of COVID-19 and the new variants. Most of the MEPs highlighted the rise of disinformation and the need to vaccinate populations outside of Europe.

Deliberative democracy processes are more democratic than general elections or surveys, according to Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) participants and experts of the second panel on democracy gathered in Florence last weekend.

As the EU increasingly turns its focus to media funding, ensuring that the goal is long-term sustainability, rather than short-term investment, will be key to ensuring success, those working in the sector have said.

Don’t forget to check out our Digital Brief for a roundup of weekly news.

Look out for…

  • Last College meeting on 22 December.
  • Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders holds videoconference call with Helen McEntee, Irish minister of justice, on 22 December.

Views are the author’s.

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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