The teaching of history in countries in transition, more specifically in North Macedonia, acts like the country’s transition itself. There is a need for change, but that change takes place over a long period of time and even when it happens, it goes in the wrong direction. Change is expected to bring improvement, but that doesn’t come about. I will try to explain this statement through these few pages of text, to find the answer to the question: why this is so.
As a historian, I have to explain this process in chronological order, explaining the reasons and circumstances that led to it. At the same time, I would list the wrong paths we have taken, and we are still taking today.
The disintegration of former Yugoslavia is the starting point of my analysis. But first we must understand how the education system of former Yugoslavia functioned. In essence, it’s was based on the determination of the state policy of the federal government to establish so-called “Brotherhood-Unity”, which could be read as today’s motto of the European Union — “United in diversity”. The goal was to achieve a “permanent reconciliation” of the largest and most numerous nations in Yugoslavia, which according to the Yugoslav constitution were the bearers of its statehood: Slovenians, Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosnians, and Macedonians. These nations have had numerous disagreements and conflicts in their history, on a national but also a religious basis. In order to achieve permanent reconciliation, education was used — especially history teaching. Long-term results were expected as, for the first time in the area, education was compulsory for all. Thus, an opportunity had been created to influence the view on history, and in a systematic and organized way. If we add to that the authoritarianism and repressiveness of the Yugoslav regime, it seemed that this [permanent reconciliation] was achievable in the long run.
In such an atmosphere, each of the 6 republics had their own education systems and their own history curricula, but at the same time all curricula had to include the study of the most significant national history of other “fraternal” nations. Simultaneously, controversial and sensitive topics that could confront some of the “fraternal” nations were avoided, and some topics were forbidden.
During this time, students were told in class that there was only one truth and that it was not questionable. Classes were held on the principle, “listen, read, and remember”. This was exactly what the entire politics in society and the ruling political elite was about.
Then came the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. With its disintegration, new states were created and each of them sought its own path to the future. There was a period of transition from one political and economic system to another. The transition also took place in education, and in the field of history teaching it was very delicate. Changing the view and way of studying history in a society that views history egocentrically, very emotionally, and accustomed to “one truth”, it was to be very challenging.
Curriculum and Textbooks
Macedonia itself was (and is) a multi-ethnic society in which there was no clear vision of how to make a change in history teaching. Political parties in Macedonia were (and still are) organized on a national basis, and thus nationally opposed to each other. Their power is very concrete and reaches even the smallest pores of a highly politicized society.
Macedonia, as Slovenia, was not affected by the bloody wars of the 1990s. Macedonia was assessed by the international community as an “oasis of peace” and pursued a policy of equidistance towards its neighbours. This equidistance is also seen in the history curriculum. Namely, the curriculum has been changed on 3 occasions: 1992, 1995 and 2005.
The 1992 curriculum was changed so that in addition to the history of the former Yugoslav Republics, it included the study of the history of other Balkan states such as Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Romania, which wasn’t the case before. However, the narrative in the textbooks changed very little. As if there was a fear of a return to the previous ideology and no real awareness of the need for change in the approach to the study of history. “Listen, read, and remember” remained the dominant and recommended method of work. At the same time, the style of writing textbooks remained the same, as the authors of the textbooks hadn’t changed either. The ideological narrative remained predominant as a legacy of communism. Textbooks were still centralized, so there was still a monopoly on textbook publishing and there was only one textbook per generation. There was no talk or thought about introducing a “free market” for textbooks. Basically, everything remained the same!
Working with sources? Source analysis? Active teaching? Independent work? Project activities? It was all one BIG unknown! And we were afraid of the unknown. Fear kept us away from change. History teaching continued to deal exclusively with political and military history. Economic, social, and cultural history as well as the history of people’s daily lives remained outside the curriculum. We changed the political system, but we did not change education. The approach to the past remained chronological, and the study of history remained cyclical: the same content was taught in primary and secondary schools, with the latter being taught in more detail (except in vocational schools where less history is taught). That same approach is still favoured today!
Faced with deep economic problems, as well as the problems of international recognition of the state and the dispute with our southern neighbour, it seemed that education, and especially history teaching, would not be on the agenda for a long time. It did not appear on the agenda until 1995, when only small “surface changes” were made in the curriculum, and in the textbooks. The possibility of having several textbooks per generation was introduced and free market was created. However, the changes came down to the fact that the curriculum remained exactly the same and that the textbooks were given more illustrations, this time in colour. Didactically, they still remained the same as before!
Changes in the text was mainly seen in the omission of words and expressions that were until then acceptable and are now assessed as offensive and inappropriate, e.g. “Turkish slavery”, “fascist beasts”, etc. The narrative of glorifying the role of the Communist Party and its progressive role in history, as well as the importance of the workers’ movements and their glorification, were also dropped. There was some change after 3 years of independence, albeit insufficient. It was not a big step forward.
The change in the curriculum in 2005 is a direct consequence of the conflict in Macedonia in 2001 and the signing of the so-called “Ohrid Agreement”. The Ohrid Agreement brought significant changes in the internal organization of society, but also in the teaching of history. The 2001 amendments to the constitution, as an obligation arising from the Ohrid Agreement, transformed Macedonian society into a multicultural society where, in addition to the majority of Macedonians, (64.18%), there are also Albanians (25.17%), Turks (3.85%), Romanies (2.66%), Serbs (1.78%), Bosnians (0.84%), Vlachs (0.48%), and others (data from the last 2002 census).
During this time, new teaching content was introduced, now in the direction of increasing the amount of content related to the history of Albanians, the largest minority group in Macedonia.
However, the curriculum is based on the principle of a clear division of national history into Macedonian and Albanian history. In doing so, there are no situations where these histories intertwine. Although the curriculum has remained centralized and applies to all schools in the country, it still seems completely “bi-national”. Why? Because the content is divided according to the following principle: “Macedonia in the First World War” (talking only about Macedonians), then “Albanians in the First World War” (talking only about Albanians). The same is repeated throughout all the historical periods and events being studied. The coexistence of these nations in the same area and at the same time is not recognizable at all. It is as if they never lived together.
The mentioned constitution from 2001 opened the so-called “Language-divided schools”, where classes are held in only one language under the rationale of creating opportunities for everyone to learn in their mother tongue. At the same time, this has led to segregated education, thus students of different nationalities study in different schools.
Curriculum content has remained concentrated on political and military history. Of the titles in the curriculum, “WAR” is most the commonly used word. You get the impression that the history of the world is only wars.
Visibly divided curriculum
The biggest mistake of the curriculum from 2005, which is still in force today, was opening the possibility of “not teaching” 5 to 10% of the curriculum content. This is explained by its volume, but at the same time no “mandatory content” is indicated. Thus, in practice, teachers have the opportunity to completely exclude from teaching entire periods of history, e.g. “World War II”. However, in practice, the following happens: Teachers who teach in Macedonian do not teach content related to Albanian history (or teach it to a small extent), while history teachers who teach in Albanian do the same with the history of Macedonians. All this, with the support of curriculum instructions which allow it. This leads to a renewed and even deeper division between “we” and “they”, and this visibly reflects on the general state of society. From all the above, I draw the conclusion that this curriculum from 2005 is more bi-national than national. Instead of being conceived on the principle of studying common history and what brings us closer and makes us one, it puts students in a position of viewing the pasts of the two largest ethnic groups in Macedonia as two parallel processes, and the current common society as an undesirable and imposed situation. This is certainly not the means of creating a promising future for the country and the coexistence of people in Macedonia. It should also be noted that smaller ethnic communities are also looking for more space in history education for themselves. Integrated education, especially in history teaching, seems like a distant dream for now.
At the same time, the free market for history textbooks has been partially closed by the fact that the new textbooks that emerged from the 2005 curriculum are now limited to 2 per generation and are still in use today.
What is especially worrying throughout the existence of the independent state of Macedonia is the fact that there is a lack of public debate on the curriculum and the quality of textbooks. This process seems to be “trapped” in narrow academic and closed circles, whose visible conformism evidently stems from its closeness to the ruling political parties, without which no change is possible. In essence, the “tradition” of making important decisions in a strictly closed circle, and without debate, has been continued as before the independence of the state. Some habits are hard to change. Earlier it was often said that decisions were made “from above”, referring to the political elite. Today the same term “from above” is used. It looks like changes bypassed us.
The multi-perspectival approach in the curriculum is not visibly recommended and is only mentioned. The same goes for work with sources. Questioning historical interpretations is not mentioned and does not seem to be advised. The “one truth’’ approach is still dominant. The critical mind of students is not stimulated, and therefore there is a lack of critical thinking. The textbooks are reduced to the author’s viewpoint, which is very instructive.
History teaching in the classroom
Despite everything, teaching in the classroom gives some hope, although it is not the result of a systematic approach. The Ministry of Education, primarily through the Bureau for the Development of Education, does not organize the training of history teachers, despite the statutory commitment to do so. On the fingers of one hand, you can enumerate the number of teacher courses, which have been implemented in the last 25 years. If courses are held, they are not about the issues of teaching history. These issues are only dealt with in connection to other subjects, even thought the subject of history teaching has its own specifications. It seems that the role of training history teachers has been left to non-governmental national and international organizations. This gives a glimmer of hope that change can still take place. I must also mention the enthusiastic spirit of many teachers who show a high level of social responsibility. Innovative history teaching in Macedonian schools is the result of purely individual desire and the willpower of teachers. Such enthusiasm needs to be used to catch up with modern trends in history teaching now that the country is on the path to joining the European Union.
A good guideline for future development could be an analysis of the situation in the field of history teaching in Macedonia from 2012, titled “A key to unlock the past”, which is wholeheartedly supported by EuroClio and foreign experts. Among other things, this analysis was submitted to the Ministry. However, it seems that its existence has been forgotten by the competent institutions in the ministry. It is a very relevant analysis, which emerged from a study that included about 120 teachers and 20 researchers from two faculties of history (in Macedonian and Albanian), as well as two institutes of history (Macedonian and Albanian).
Why is all this so?
Politics, conformism, fear of change, the quality of people in important positions in education… These are, in my opinion, the main reasons for the current situation.
The country’s political elite has always used history as a “weapon” to achieve their goals, which were most often achievable for them through divisions of ethnic groups, and history allowed many opportunities for this to be done. As Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, a respected colleague from the Netherlands, once said: “Unable to offer a better future, they offer the glory of the past.” That, in my opinion, is a very good explanation for the state of things. Instead of using history teaching as a “tool” for cooperation, they use it as a “weapon” for seduction and incitement to nationalism. And all that in the time of globalization and the unification of European nations on the principle of “united in diversity”.
The second reason is the already mentioned: conformism, which is very visible in the academic public that has always been inactive and servile to politics. The academic public is used to reacting only when it receives positive political signals. I can’t remember a time when it initiated changes in history teaching or a public debate on that topic, on its own initiative. Such activities are more the work of teachers themselves, but they have never been involved in curriculum creation activities or determining the course of change in education.
The professional quality of people in positions of responsibility destined to be agents of change and progress in education is highly questionable. In the atmosphere of a very politicized society, it is almost impossible to advance professionally in your career and reach significant positions that enable you to work for change without political support. This has already become part of our “culture” and such a part of everyday life that people have lightly accepted it as a normal state. This certainly cannot lead to positioning people with visions, knowledge, and desire for change in places from which they would implement it.
Fear of change is the general situation in the country. I believe that fear stems from the ignorance I mentioned before. Although many initiatives come from the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the Western Balkans Platform on Education and Training, the OSCE, and other relevant organizations, a serious initiative for change is still not coming.
Now that we see the reasons for the division of society and the role of education in this process, and especially the role of teaching history, then the solution to this situation is visible. In my opinion, the solution lies in integrated education, and above all in the integrated curriculum on the principle of “We All”, as opposed to the current “We and They”.
Opening a public debate about the need for changes in history teaching. Involving as many teachers and historians as possible in the process. Following the recommendations of the already mentioned international organizations. Introducing curriculum changes with a focus on encouraging mutual understanding, multiculturalism, encouraging critical thinking, and students’ skills in general. Raising the quality of textbooks and publishing, additional teaching materials, and resources. Improving and introducing systemic teacher training at the state level.
All of these are activities that need to be carried out as soon as possible in order for history teaching to finally cease to be a “weapon” of discord and grow into a “tool” of cooperation, mutual understanding, peace and tolerance. All for the benefit of the country and future generations!
Foto: Samoil’s Fortress in Ohrid, Republic of North Macedonia. By Diego Delso, via Wikimedia Commons.