History curriculars, transmitting the past, writing the future

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Noise, confusion, immigration. The current logic of political debates. A summary of present times that, once again and without surprise, spread on the subject of the new history curricular. It has become impossible to speak about the latter without taking this logic as a starting point.

The history of immigrations was absent of working documents that were made public by a teacher’s union. The minister however states that it will not disappear. Meanwhile, some are utterly convinced of the contrary and again others will express during the next days they actually preferred its absence.
In any case, a strong feeling of discomfort will prevail for all those with an immigration background. As usual, all the debaters will repeat that they wished for this subject to remain a subject like any other subject-matter and that those directly concerned would not be stigmatised or left apart from the common narrative.

But the damage has already been made and once again, students, their parents and all those with this history as background find themselves objects of the political debate – reified as symbols of much larger political rifts. And by consequence, what is most urgent is to close up this debate, for the Minister to stand to his word and for the history of immigration to obviously be present in what is proclaimed our common history, shared by all students. In the current political situation and until the new history curriculums are made public, nothing proofs that this will be the case.

On this matter at least, a common front with no political twisting or instrumentalization should be built in order to impose what should no longer raise debate.

Writing curriculums to everyone’s satisfaction

Except from that, the situation is nearly conventional: the history-geography teachers (one common subject in France) are taking note of the new curriculums they will have to implement in high school classes at the start of the 2019 school year. Barely made public, they already generate – like previous changes – debates, critics and controversies amongst the educational teams of this double discipline.
Because writing curriculums that would satisfy tens of thousands of teachers with sometimes highly contradictory personalities, interests, political stands and pedagogical notions, seems to be quite an impossible undertaking. Added to this, there are the comments of scholars and historians which are just as contradictory – transposing on this question the debates happening in their intellectual and political spheres.

Therefore, there are those considering curriculums are rather “a throw-away” because too far from historiographical renewals; those who are critical of the heaviness of the “Seconde” (year 11) curriculum and the thematical approach of the “Première” (year 12) and who see in this renewal the opportunity to get back to a more classical approach, where chronology would better structure the organisation of the progression during the school year. It is said that this could even change the pedagogical practice by arbitrating more appropriately between the teacher’s speech and the active educational method. Some may even have no opinion and just wait to be presented the whole curricula for high schools, both general and technological options, including the “Terminale” (year 13), for the teaching of history, geopolitics and political science, before pointing to what they lack or, contrariwise, highlight what makes them too heavy.

Let us first take note that this debate seems to inhere in history, which indicates that geography does not interest those who initiated the discussion. These debates will also take place in all the disciplinary teams and there is good chance that in math, physical education, economic and social science, the same discrepancies will appear regarding the Superior Council for the Curricula (CSP) proposals.

But it is also quite likely for the inquiry around the CSP choices of these disciplines to remain confined to High Schools, or at best to very restricted circles.

The political and the history curricular

In contrast, one can reasonably think that after the events of 2015 the discussions on the history curricular contents would reach much larger fringes of the French society. How can one explain such an involvement from this country’s inhabitants for such technical texts? One can have a political reading of this intrusion due, on the long term, to the civic Francisation that the Third Republic, in particular, allocated to this discipline.

This purpose was reactivated in a recent past by some politicians seeking to promote a positive political reading of the national history. This temptation sadly happening in many European countries can legitimate the suspicion kept by the history-geography teachers regarding the political discourses on history.

Even if the current government seems more committed in its decisions by a sort of technocratic pragmatism than by a clearly recognisable ideology, some opportunistic, misguided public comments, on the subject, advise us to be careful. This is especially important in a context of strong pressure from both left and right chauvinistic nationalistic parties.

Society and history curricular

One can also have a less political reading to understand this global interest, tied to what our discipline represents for the inhabitants of this country. Many do not take it as a science, but as a means to reach the necessary knowledge that will help them to solve their personal questioning concerning their place in the common narrative.

Other think the place dedicated to the identities of the social, cultural, political or ethnics groups, they feel appendant to, should be recognised in the global narrative induced by these curriculars. Eventually, for numerous inhabitants of this country, consciously or not, this discipline will allow them to solve the question of the meaning of the passing of time. Are we engaged in a Hegelian prospect of human nature virtualities accomplishment, or is history sat in motion by class struggle that would allow the emancipation through revolution?

Therefore, there is an intimate but also a philosophical attraction for many of us towards history. An attraction, explaining the importance of the exchange of opinions, that some colleagues can envy, wishing they could feel for their own discipline the importance society grants to the one that for us was at first a child’s passion before becoming a research field.

These curriculars are sometimes analysed as a constraint that would rigidly hinder the good, pedagogical working order of schools. Would it be wise to recommend the elimination of curriculars, so the pedagogical freedom of the teacher can be guaranteed? – like an advent of the « school of trust », where the teachers could freely decide what is taught in their class or their school? Or at a minimum, should we consider these curriculars as a flexible frame, where teachers are allowed to pick what they are interested in, or what they think would be more useful to the students they face?
This idea is seducing teachers, susceptible to their own autonomy, often reluctant that someone else would decide for them and viewing themselves as hindered by curriculars that do not give them much latitude.

This criticism also originates from the decentralising ideology that progressively took hold in France. In addition, this ideology made the local echelon the most suitable for finding solutions to solve the various situations encountered.

Decentralisation was at first conceived through the prism of public policies that were supposed to address the fallouts of economic and social crisis. Therefore, decentralisation found a field of application in the management of schools, as soon as 1982, and convinced numerous teachers, who thought it would be efficient to take what is valid for the management of school and staff and to apply it to the teaching material. After all, aren’t the teachers the ones who are best suited to know what will be efficient for their students?

But what seems to come from common sense is sometimes full of implicit allusions, leading to everlasting identity assignments of cultural, ethnic, or social nature. What is the meaning of pedagogical freedom? Because the students would be of this or that origin, from such or such social category, would it mean to teach a specific history that is supposed to talk to students due to their skin colour, or their social status as proletarian children? This approach, full of good will, leads to break with the globalising, inclusive dimension of the historic narrative and to restricting the student’s curiosity to whatever we reduce them to.

This approach also takes for granted that our students are primarily interested in analysing the power relations and dominations to which we affiliate them. Yet, nothing confirms their special interest regarding those analyses. This whole approach could even lead to uncomfortableness of the concerned. Doesn’t it seem more likely, on the contrary, that this constant reference to a past of domination is not always the best way to avoid self-depreciation among these students?
We do not face grown-up activists seeking arguments and political framework to successfully lead struggles, but children and teenagers who feel first of all through the filter of emotion what we teach them.

I was born as a son into a family of the Italian working class. For me teaching history was my emancipation, because it built me a culture without permanently referring me back to a situation of dominance. This reality was already quite obvious to me. It was the very same historical culture, that was taught in the bourgeois school of the city centre I could never attend, that allowed me to look into the eyes of the ones that were supposed to be better born than me.

Reversely, adapting the teaching material can also lead some teachers to lose interest in whole parts of the history of the dominated, with the excuse that the latter were non-existent in their classes.
Therefore, fighting the National narrative trend does not imply to offer as a counter utopia a never-ending list in which, eventually, schools and teachers could pick the « dominated » specialisation of their choice, depending on their personal interpretation of « diversity ».

One can teach history, one cannot redo it.

One could also not give up a common history, where the question of the social, the feminist question, the racism question, would not be treated as things to be added, while one would remove the things concerning the « dominants ». Because schools and history classes are in fact a place where equality can be to learn what is the dominant’s condition.

One cannot redo history. It was Napoleon who was the emperor, it was never a woman. And it was really a conquering empire that succeeded to a revolution which dreamed of universalism, never of war and of submitting neighbouring countries to an absolutist order. There was indeed a time in Europe, when the scientific and technological advance made “Great Discoveries” of the world, and also allowed to extend in the European mind the very conception of the planet and of humanity. These explorations and breakthroughs in the knowledge of the tangible world could have been used to other means than colonising and submitting other parts of the world and their inhabitants.

Leading the fight for progressive and emancipating curriculars can also consist in simply demanding an objective approach of these great personalities and events, that includes their oppressive dimension. This watchfulness and this struggle, fought on the basis of the complete curriculars once they will be known, are not a renouncement nor a reasonable compromise solution.

But the foundation of a universal and emancipating history that would allow girls to understand why the absolute monarchs were necessarily male in their vast majority, and for the worker’s children to understand why technological progress did not abolish the exploitation, and for those with immigration backgrounds to understand why freedom of movement, that could give birth to a global and egalitarian society, since the Great Discoveries, gave birth to colonisation.

A teaching of history that gives a choice to everyone, making use of all the possibilities offered by a scholar year. It is more or less everything that is possible. And it is already huge.

A strange debate on what is missing, even though one does not know the content

The exercise is difficult, because at the present time we only know a small amount of the High School curriculars proposals. We can’t even be sure the most up to date versions will be submitted to the CSP vote. We have more or less a visibility on the year 12 and year 11 general curriculars, and some leads for year 13, but not much on technology option or speciality sections.

Thus, stating this or that part of history or geography is missing, amounts to take uncertain bets on texts not being at our disposal. The debate, therefore, focused on some key points the main players knew perfectly would generate emotion and anger, which would make the rallying easier.

But the assumptions on which this analysis of flaws is based, seems sometimes fragile. To write, for instance, that the history of women is « banished » from the high schools curriculars, is a really strange reading of the texts currently at our disposal. Indeed, female characters are to be taught compulsorily in two chapters of the year 11 curricular. And it is hard to see how a teacher could approach the question of Athenian democracy, without dealing with the place of women in Athens.

One can discuss the poor interest in starting with exceptional female characters, but one cannot say that studying the history of these exceptional female characters amounts to not dealing with history of women in general.

Moreover, in the current curriculars, the history of women’s emancipation was included into the French and 20th century framework. The study of the 20th century is now shifted to year 13, because of the high school reform. But we know this curricular’s outline and it includes the women’s struggle for emancipation.

Surely, in public debate, it is now custom, for being heard and not appear as a hidden supporter of the power in place and traitor to the cause, to scream and sweep away the gains obtained by previous struggles.

But the struggle for emancipation and inclusion, in the curriculars, that takes into account the accomplishments obtained by progressive movements, cannot be summed up by a clash between the minister and op-eds in the press. In fact, the achievements that made their ways into the curriculars, are the results of much wider collective struggles and taking hold more and more in the texts. To rely on these achievements, to acknowledge them for demanding more, while remaining cautious against the attempts to step back, implies to rally and to rally at large, notably those mistrustful of political appropriations from all sides.

Thus, it is difficult today to determine what these curriculars lack. But we can at least try to analyse them from a different angle, especially on what we do find in them. In geography, choice has been made to break with an organisation that never ceased to be criticised by the teachers that had to apply it: the teaching of French geography is concentrated in just one year, the year 12. The choice is thus to suggest, for instance, the study of three main topics in year 11, analysed at different scales and concluding by teaching the latter at the France scale.

For history, the general chronological approach has been favoured. Simply mentioning this term generates tension and misunderstanding.

Misunderstandings, because from the outside, chronology seems to have disappeared from the teaching of history up to now, which is false. And tensions, because organising the teaching of history around the unfolding time goes against thematical history inspired by Marc Bloch’s program, conceptualized after World War I, requesting to organise time around « samplings ».

Do we need to remind that today, despite being poorly democratised, teaching is however massified and very remote from the one Marc Bloch knew and was speaking of? It may even have led the author from « Apologie de l’histoire » to bring a different perspective on how to build a curricular accessible for all. References to chronology, just like references to « great » historical figures, are immediately considered old fashioned, or, at best, considered a classical thing remote from the historiography liveliness.

What means to be a history teacher?

Indeed, the reading of these new curriculars leaves the impression of a déjà-vu and they have an outdated fashion. And so, what? What is the purpose of a history curricular? All depends on the aim we assign to the teaching of history. If its purpose is to arouse the calling of historians or future teachers, I think it is deluding oneself to think that well-structured curriculars can accomplish this task.

As a child, I was definitely convinced I would be a teacher while listening to Alain Decaux telling the story of Kurt Gerstein. An extremely problematic broadcast however, since the Academician found nothing better to do, than to meet with a Holocaust denier for preparing the broadcast. If we assume that high school teaching has to awaken to historiographical renewals, what purpose do we give to preparatory class curriculars?

Personally, I always thought that the profession as a high school teacher was a means to help my students in constituting a decent culture and to initiate them to reading the past of the society we are interested in, to understanding to the best of possible the world they live in.

On that account, I do not have to think of myself as an « under-scholar » by getting my students familiar with cutting the edge methods, and contents, and other trends in historical science, even if the popularity of these breakthroughs relies on undeniable publication success.

In other words – and I don’t think I am the only one – I have no need to do connected history (quite possible in fact in the second theme of year 11 curricular, or during year 12, when broaching the issue of colonisation of the second imperialism). I also have no need for uchrony every now and then, to feel perfectly at ease in this profession and to be convinced about the usefulness of what I teach.

So, on what is based the interest of a curricular? Maybe on its ability to allow the cultural self-improvement of all, while also being intelligible to the majority. That could be a good criterion.
One can want to find pleasure in teaching, but one should not forget that our students are neither all fond of our disciplines, nor have the same skills, nor benefit from the same cultural contribution from their respective family environment. Without making of these curriculars an aseptic recitation, could they just be conceived, thanks to their chronological structure, as a means to allow the vast majority to get along? Especially for those with no one at home to discuss the most famous figures of history (who surely led many of us at younger age, to be passionate for our discipline), or to help placing the historical thematic angles in their proper timeline.

A French and European key to understand and to develop politically in French and European societies

Beyond the question of Chronology, these curriculars especially in “seconde” (year 11) and “première” (year 12) focus on a political key to understand the history of French and European society. This key to understanding also greatly helps to give this impression of classicism.

But can we honestly regret giving to our students the elements to understand, analyse and criticise the political model that makes the basis of their civic life? These elements come from antique Greco-Roman political models, from the progressive individualisation of Humans rendered possible by Renaissance and Humanism, from the secularisation of knowledge during the Age of Enlightenment, from the rejection of the absolutist political model in a vast Atlantic space, because it was against the aforementioned evolutions. These elements, nevertheless, remain essential to preserve our fundamental common good: Democracy.

How can one be convinced of the necessity of the State without studying its progressive elaboration and its long-term remit? All that in a context in which its prerogatives are endlessly cut back, to the great disarray of large part of the left.

How can we see no interest in giving to the French Revolution and to its legacies a structural frame with curriculars that would allow all students to apprehend the change it establishes, the long-term rights it creates, but also its limits and its necessary deepening, as well as its reactivation sometimes decades or centuries away?

Are we really sure that social history is excluded, despite the fact that in these curriculars we study the VA-Nus-Pied revolt, the peasant condition, and the social inequalities in the Paris of the Ancien Régime?

One cannot claim to be fond of the necessity of political education of our students and take steps back before the so-called tedious hallmark of the political history teaching.
It will be necessary, especially, to tie the question of these curriculars to the question of their implementation in the National Education framework that is currently weakened. Discussions look surrealistic inasmuch as all the teachers know that the three hours of core curriculars currently planned would transform the teaching of these difficult questions into a porrlu educational stampede for our students.

And we also know that the gaps of access to knowledge can no longer be filled by a public school that has not been given the human and material means it is in need of. The cultural and social capital inherited outside the school is more and more determinant for the student’s development.
Within this scope, in the end, when a government does not cease to nobly repeat that the school’s aim is to give everyone the awareness of a community of fate within the Republic, the end is no longer the problem. But more simply the cynicism of words that are empty without means.