Tea­ching history in coun­tri­es in transition

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.

Wor­king with sour­ces? Sour­ce ana­ly­sis? Acti­ve tea­ching? Inde­pen­dent work? Pro­ject acti­vi­ties? It was all one BIG unknown!

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!

1995 cur­ri­culum

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.

2005 cur­ri­culum

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.


Mire Mla­denovski is a history tea­cher in Macedo­ni­an secon­dary school and a for­mer mem­ber of the board of Euroclio.

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