It was the American writer James Baldwin who once remarked that “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
The Council of Europe has challenged consistently the consequences that might follow from believing that we are the prisoners of our personal, community, national and ethnic histories.
This conviction drives forward the organisation’s intercultural dialogue programmes and is hardwired into the Council of Europe’s approach to history teaching.
The classroom experience of history once centred on division and conflict. This approach with its crude stereotypes, its jingoism and its rejection of others, reached a terrifying nadir during the Second World War and the Jewish Holocaust.
The Council of Europe, which emerged in the aftermath of this mid-century plunge into darkness, has succeeded as an assembly for reconciliation and human rights defence because it encourages understanding and positive engagement from the classroom to the political podium.
Yet, more than 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the rise in extremism noted by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance’ shows that this task is far from completion.
”Behind the terror of the Kristallnacht, behind the brutal violence by storm troopers in the street, was a still greater terror, one that paralysed the capacity for action, prevented neighbours from reacting, friends from feeling, let alone expressing the slightest concern,” Terry Davis, the former Council of Europe Secretary General, said in 2009.
“A terror that passed a sentence of solitude. First there was isolation. Then came discrimination – and finally came violence.”
The project report, published last September, builds on the 1954 Cultural Convention and encourages new skills for history teaching in multi-cultural Europe, emphasising the value of a “comparative approach” and a “pluralistic vision of history.”
It adds: “Teachers can no longer rely in their professional practice on the methods they knew during their own schooling.
“We are witnessing the emergence of a new profession of history teacher, or that at least this is something to which we can aspire if we really wish to take up all the intercultural challenges of contemporary society.”
In an interview with humanrightseurope, Arild Thorbjørnsen, a teacher who rose to become Norway’s former deputy minister of education, gives his views on the project. The Oslo-based education consultant also discusses the response of Norwegian parents and teachers to the Council of Europe’s approach to history education.
CoE Background: The Image of the Other in History Teaching
Audio Interview: Arild Thorbjørnsen