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Nationalism and the School Curriculum


John Simkin
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In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler explains how much he hated his school teachers. Only his history teacher, Leonard Potsch, is singled out for praise. Hitler explains in the book how he loved Potsch’s tales of heroism from the German past. Hitler admitted that Potsch had a tremendous influence on the development of his political philosophy and these history lessons were the origins of his German nationalism. Hitler was not alone in being influenced by the nationalism of his school teachers. It was fairly common for students leaving schools thinking that they were superior to those living in other countries. That was true of students in countries all over Europe. Those living in Britain and France had similar feelings and when they the First World War started they joined the armed forces thinking that it will all be over by Christmas. You only have to read the letters written by soldiers fighting on the Western Front during the first few months of the war to see how they genuinely believed that they were members of an army that was so superior to that of enemy that the war would only last a few weeks. The truth was that they were eventually matched and they had to endure four years of slaughter.

I am an internationalist who believes that nationalism and patriotism poses a threat to world peace. For example, people in Britain tend to believe they are superior to French people. Politicians are aware of this feeling and if they are keen to get support from the general public they go in for some French bashing. Tony Blair and his government resorted to this tactic during the build up to the Iraq War. It was a successful strategy and helped to sway public opinion towards war.

Individual people will often quote events from history in order to show that the British are superior to the French. A common reference is to the French surrendering in the summer of 1940. This is compared to the unwillingness of the British people to give in to Hitler. In reality, the situation was far more complex. There is considerable evidence that the British people also wanted to surrender in 1940. The fact that this did not happen was more to do with geography than some sort of national moral character. Where, for example, was this superior moral character in 1938 when Neville Chamberlain was desperately trying to appease Hitler by giving him permission to invade Czechoslovakia?

It is of course a ridiculous idea that one country is anyway superior to any other. It is true that at different times individuals have made a significant impact on the economic, social or cultural development of the world. Britain has played its role in this. However, I would be a fool to believe that I have any right to take a nationalist pride in the achievements of people Tom Paine, Robert Owen, Charles Dickens or George Stephenson.

People should be proud of what they have achieved in their life with their own efforts. No one should try to gain credit for being born in any particular country.

Teachers play an important role in developing a pride in one’s country. I believe we should resist this pressure and instead teach internationalism. According to my dictionary, this is “an attitude that favours cooperation among nations”.

This would involve both changing what we teach and how we teach it. One obvious example of how we develop nationalistic views is the way we teach about wars. In Britain, the study of the First and Second World Wars plays a prominent role in convincing people they are superior to other nations. The military battles that enabled the growth of the British Empire also play an important role in this.

However, it is not only the way we teach history. We have to rethink other areas of the curriculum. I think we spent too much time studying the literature, the arts, music and science of our own country. Our curriculum should reflect the contribution that has been made by other countries in the development of our culture. In other words, our schools should teach internationalism, not nationalism.

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I can understand the problem with nationalistic history, but not with knowing more about your contries past. I have for several years felt that Sweden and Swedish schools is neglecting our own history.

I wrote this in a seminar about "Teaching History in Sweden" some months ago. During the last 15-20 years we have lost quite a few hours in our History courses in Sweden. Many teachers have then automatically cut down the Swedish part of their History course to a minimum which gives the students poor or hardly any knowledge about the development in our country the last 200 years. Their students become illiterate in Swedish History (but they know quite a bit about French, German and British History... )

I see a danger with this illiteracy. We have a need to understand and to feel that we are part of a society around us. If we focus to much on the International development and the International Issues we become strangers to the society around us. We feel allienated. One of the results of this allienation is a fairly common habit to devalue the nation which I don't think is better than the opposite.

I therefore wish that we put more effort into our nations history - maybe even develope another topic (a seperate course) - "Swedish History" - to be run parallell with "World History" (which is mostly "European History"). The understanding and appreciation of other cultures and other nations achievements can not be a reality unless you understand your own nations background.

This must not be mistaken for a plea for nationalistic history filled with patriotism - when you step over the line and declare that your country is better and the citizens of your nation are superior to your fellow humans you become racistic...

Another point is the one Andy brought up in the parallell discussion (students part). What do we do with our minorities? As a "Finn-Swede" I belong to a minority group who today has a need to be recognized, not because we are better or worse than any other group but so we "survive"... :blink:

Edited by Mr MacGregor-Thunell
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I am going to come over all 'liberal wishy washy' and sit right on the fence on this one. As a History teacher from Anglo-German heritage with a degree in African History, but also specialised in the English revolution and the Suffragettes, and teaches in a massively multicultural school I have experienced both sides of the argument. I believe that it is important to study some aspects of the history of the country that you live in, but this should be in conjunction with European and World history as well as a multicultural history that reflects the vast contributions that minorities have made to every country. I become concerned when the school curriculum reflects the dominant ideology and in that respect I worry that overt nationalism is a dangerous vehicle for reinforcing stereotypes and creating conflict.

One of the most fantastic things about teaching in a multicultural school is the opportunity to learn about different countries and cultures. There have been countless occasions where the experiences of students from other countries have hugely enhanced the learning that has been taking place and really widened the knowledge of all. One quick example (which also shows the benefits of teaching a curriculum which is not dogged by problems of nationalism); I teach the history of medicine at GCSE, which looks at the changes in medicine and public health over thousands of years and studies contributions form around the world. In my current year 10 class there are boys from England (white, black and asian british), Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Ireland, Eritrea, and Albania. We were discussing the Roman approach to public health and one of the students from Afghanistan related the problems faced by the Romans to the public health problems in Afghanistan. This led to a fascinating discussion comparing various experiences in an atmosphere that was very supportive. My classroom was a model of internationalism and I was proud to have been able to foster this.

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I'm not sure that teachers do teach with a national bias any more. Sure, there are text books about that contain overtly patriotic sentiments but todays teaching staff have more about them than to spout jingoistic claptrap to pupils.

In music teaching actually I find teachers tend to shy away from the English musical heritage particularly. Interestingly, Welsh and Scottish music is alive and well in schools but English folk music is much neglected. No idea why this is but Oscar Wilde may have had the answer :

"In life we should try everything once.... except perhaps incest and morris dancing "

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I'm not sure that teachers do teach with a national bias any more. Sure, there are text books about that contain overtly patriotic sentiments but todays teaching staff have more about them than to spout jingoistic claptrap to pupils.

In music teaching actually I find teachers tend to shy away from the English musical heritage particularly. Interestingly, Welsh and Scottish music is alive and well in schools but English folk music is much neglected.

I agree that things have definitely improved over the last 20 years. Some subjects have made more progress than others. It is true that music teachers appear to take a more internationalist view than most. Cynics would say that this is mainly due to the lack of British classical composers.

I think that history teachers cause most of the problems. Although the “source approach” has helped, I think that teaching certain areas of the curriculum, for example the two world wars, the British Empire and the industrial revolution, do tend to give British people a unhealthy view of themselves.

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In response to John's comments:

I am an internationalist who believes that nationalism and patriotism poses a threat to world peace.

Sorry but I think this is claptrap! How do you think the Olympic games, the rugby World Cup and other such international events would fare without some kind of 'patriotic' affiliations? I do not think anyone could say these events are a threat to world peace! Rather events that boost an attitude of healthy competition - a very natural human emotion.

It is of course a ridiculous idea that one country is anyway superior to any other.

Yes, it is. However nations have things to be proud of as well as things to be ashamed of. Surely the study of history should educate global citizens so that mistakes are not repeated?

Teachers play an important role in developing a pride in one’s country. I believe we should resist this pressure and instead teach internationalism.

No. Teachers should make sure that the history that they teach is not biased. In other words, tell the truth about the mistakes as well as the achievements.

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I do think the EU, widespread travel and the collapse of the Eastern bloc have shifted allegiances from Nationalism to other types of clannish pride; such as Religious or linguistic apartheid. Arguably, all equally threatening to world peace.

During the Falklands war, I was in Spain (being half Spanish). It was interesting how the vast majority of people there supported Argentina. This was mainly due to the simple fact that the same language is spoken, although British colonisation of Gibraltar undoubtedly influenced this. The body language, conversation, vocal intonation and behaviour of Argentinians was closer to the Spanish than the British. Shared cultures, bring countries closer together, and this is the crucial thing we should be teaching pupils in schools. An appreciation and toleration of other languages cultures and religions is the key to harmonious international relations.

In the UK, we just don't teach enough foreign languages. Many pupils in the UK therefore view other nations as completely alien and it's not an overstatement to say that xenophobia is quite common. In secondary schools, pupils are frequently disapplied from the National Curriculum usually due to staffing problems in KS4. The effect of this will be a further shortage of MFL teachers in the future. Perhaps this could be the subject of another debate though!

I'm not suggesting for a minute that the worlds' problems will be solved through teaching more languages. This is part of a range of strategies schools should use to increase cultural and linguistic awareness. Exchanges and study trips to various countries should be a curricular right. When children have a respect and understanding of other languages and cultures, pride in ones own country can do no harm. Without that respect and understanding, National pride can indeed be destructive.

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How do you think the Olympic games, the rugby World Cup and other such international events would fare without some kind of 'patriotic' affiliations?  I do not think anyone could say these events are a threat to world peace! 

As sporting occasions they would most likely be far superior than they are currently. Sporting events are just grand without foul nationalistic fervour being foisted upon them. Indeed once you introduce nationalism to a sport you are in grave danger of losing the sporting perpspective altogether. It is possible to enjoy sport for what it is and seeks to achieve - great skill and competition, but also and more importantly, respect and consideration for the opponent and consideration for the integrity of the game.

At the international level sport

is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour

of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the

spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these

absurd contests, and seriously believe--at any rate for short

periods--that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national

virtue.

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In response to John's comments:
I am an internationalist who believes that nationalism and patriotism poses a threat to world peace.

Sorry but I think this is claptrap! How do you think the Olympic games, the rugby World Cup and other such international events would fare without some kind of 'patriotic' affiliations? I do not think anyone could say these events are a threat to world peace! Rather events that boost an attitude of healthy competition - a very natural human emotion.

My dictionary tells me that claptrap means “pretentious nonsense, rubbish”. The quote “I am an internationalist who believes that nationalism and patriotism poses a threat to world peace” might well be claptrap but you have not shown that by your comments. Instead of dealing with the words you quote you go onto talk about the merits of international sporting events. That has nothing to do with my original comments about the way political leaders exploit feelings of nationalism. That is the point you have to address if you want to describe my comments as claptrap. Although I would suggest that there are better words to use if we are going to have an intellectual discussion on the merits of nationalism.

I have nothing against sporting events where individuals represent their communities. I think this is basically a healthy situation. However, I do object to the tendency of young people to adopt successful teams rather than ones that do represent their community. But this of course just reflects the desire to support and identify with what they consider to be a “superior” team. This is similar to the emotions involved in identifying with successful military forces in the past.

There can be a problem with nationalism and sport. The BBC showed an excellent documentary the other night on how fascist governments exploited their citizens' passions for football.

The tabloid press also makes strenuous efforts to develop nationalistic feelings during major sporting events. This often involves referring to past events like wars. Not surprisingly, young supporters sometimes act like warriors and end up committing acts of violence against rival fans. As George Orwell points out, on occasions like these, sport mimics warfare.

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I'm not entirely convinced that the sport analogy is exactly the same as Nationalism in the sense of having pride in one's country. When football violence occurs, it is just tribal behaviour; complete with tribal colours and tribal chants.

If we support our national tiddlywinks team, then that is displaying pride in our own nation, but when rival tiddlywinks supporters throw broken bottles at each other, there's no pride being displayed, just clan behaviour which is deeply engrained in men's psyche. Most of us manage to suppress it though.

My favourite pub; the Marble Beer House in Manchester (great for home brewed IPA, but I digress!) has got wise to clan behaviour and allows football fans in as long as they don't wear any colours.

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From the Washington Post {Reprintef in full to bypass registration}

'Greatest Generation' Struggled With History, Too

Jay Mathews Staff Writer

Mar 9 2004

When the U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2001 nearly six out of 10 high school seniors lacked even a basic knowledge of the nation's history, Bruce Cole was indignant and concerned.

"A nation that does not know why it exists, or what it stands for, cannot be expected to long endure," said Cole, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It is a sentiment repeated often, part of a torrent of distress over the state of American history education. The 2001 report said most 12th-graders did not know that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution led to the war in Vietnam. Most eighth-graders did not know why the First Continental Congress met.

Yet, according to recent papers by two researchers, it turns out Americans have been deeply ignorant of their history for a very long time, while still creating the strongest, if not the brightest, country in the world.

A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."

"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.

"Appeals to it," the article continues, "are more the stuff of national lore and wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a claim that can be anchored in the documentary record."

Richard J. Paxton, an assistant professor in the Educational Foundations Department of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a former Wineburg student, makes a similar point in the December issue of the Phi Delta Kappan. Frequent articles about historically challenged U.S. students, plus public displays of ignorance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "propagate the impression that today's students are educational midgets standing on the shoulders of giants," Paxton wrote. ". . . More important, they spread the false notion that the biggest problem facing history students today involves the retention of decontextualized historical facts."

The earliest evidence of historical cluelessness that either scholar could find was a study by J. Carleton Bell and David F. McCollum in the May 1917 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Bell and McCollum tested 1,500 students in Texas and reported these percentages of correct answers on history questions: elementary school, 16 percent; high school, 33 percent; teachers college, 42 percent; and university, 49 percent.

It was particularly troubling that many of these sons and daughters of Texas could not state the significance of the year 1846, the beginning of the Mexican-American War, and had Sam Houston marching triumphantly into Mexico City rather than beating Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto 10 years before.

The next key survey cited in both the Wineburg and Paxton studies appeared in the New York Times on April 4, 1943, under the headline "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen." Only 6 percent of the 7,000 freshmen could name the 13 original colonies. Only 13 percent identified James Madison as president during the War of 1812, and only 15 percent knew that William McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War.

Some commentators at the time blamed the results on then-controversial public school efforts to wrap history, geography, economics and civics into something called social studies.

A bicentennial survey in 1976, supervised by Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn and published in the New York Times, tested nearly 2,000 freshmen at 194 colleges. On average, the respondents got only 21 of 42 multiple-choice questions right, although Bailyn's standards appeared to be very high. Wineburg said the professor called it "absolutely shocking" that "more students believed that the Puritans guaranteed religious freedom (36 percent) than understood religious tolerance as the result of rival denominations seeking to cancel out each others' advantage (34 percent)."

Many surveys and tests in the generation since have produced similar results, with high school students getting about half of the questions right. Neither Wineburg nor Paxton says so, but Virginia recently reduced the passing score on its American history test to about 50 percent, and some other states have similar benchmarks.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress history tests in 1987, 1994 and 2001 came out about the same. Slightly less than half of high school students scored at what the test makers considered a basic knowledge of U.S. history in 2001. Younger students showed modest gains, with 67 percent of fourth-graders and 64 percent of eighth-graders scoring at at least the basic level.

When asked about the Wineburg and Paxton reports, Cole, the National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, said: "I am surprised that any professor would suggest that it doesn't matter whether students know American history."

Wineburg and Paxton said their goal is not to place less priority on historical knowledge, but rather to advocate changes in the way it is taught. Wineburg said the history standards that teachers must cover are often so detailed that the main points of the American story are lost, and few schools teach the subject well in any case. Teachers skip quickly from topic to topic, he wrote, while "the mind demands pattern and form, and both are built up slowly and require repeated passes, with each pass going deeper and probing further."

Paxton said he is also bothered by scholarly ignorance of the century-old American performance on such tests. "Historians who shout like censorious Chicken Littles that our nation is in jeopardy but do not bother to inspect the historical record are terribly poor role models," he wrote.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think that either History teaching has moved on a great deal or that I was extraordinarily lucky to have an excellent history teacher. Either way I found that the main lesson learnt from studying the world wars was empathy, both with the British at the time and with the Germans. I came out of one lesson sure that had I lived in pre WW2 Germany I would have signed up for the Hitler Youth without a second thought. Thus proving that if anything I am not superior, just lucky to have been born when and when I was. As a result of my history studies I have always tried too look at situations from all perspectives not just the British one. I would say that was the ideal result of an excellent history education.

Linguistically though, as a British person, I am challanged. In fact, I am linguistically stupid and that I can attribute to being British.

When in the post office in Kigali, Rwanda I was asked a question in French and I looked utterly perplexed. The postal worker then said 'So, you are American', I laughed and she said 'no? British'. Guilty as charged!

There is a danger when living in a supposedly 'great' country of expecting the rest of the world to want to make the effort to speak to you. Why then do so many Japanese, Germans and French speak English? I can understand why the Luxish try to learn as many different languages as possible grasping the fact that with Luxish alone they are not going to go very far, but Britain no longer has its empire and it is becoming increasingly important to be multi-lingual so why do we not begin to start learning a second language in earnest until secondary school? Because languages are still not being taken seriously enough.

I have found myself tongue tied in too many different foreign countries to mention and while I think I can be forgiven for not having a working knowledge of Xhosa or Kirundi can I realy be excused for only being able to order an icecream in French or ask directions to the Bahnhof in German!?

I think the problem can be summed up nicely when perusing advertisements for aid and development workers. A typical French, Dutch or Canadian advert will ask workers to be fluent in at least 2 languages, an American agency only asks for English even if the development worker is going to be sent to Mozambique or Congo. The attitude being that if you want our help, speak our language. Maybe we in Britain think we have that kind of power too.

Whilst in Rwanda I felt that my students would have performed far better in their Chemistry exams if that had been able to read and write better English. My Programme Director, a Canadian, disagreed. If they can't read and write the language they are studying in then they are clearly not very bright.

I guess I'd better put on my dunces cap and sit in the corner

Rowena

Edited by rownb
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