History is not just a collection of names, dates, and facts. History—or rather, how we decide to look at it—deeply defines who we are and how we navigate the world, individually and as nations as well. But what happens if we let our collective historical narratives be downgraded to a catalog of horrors, as European schools (and Western ones, in general) have seemingly allowed it to? Are we ready to sacrifice objective historical knowledge for the sake of spreading arbitrary moral lessons about the present? And it is not only knowledge that we risk failing to pass on to new generations, but the very essence of national identities, which would weaken Europe as a whole as well.
The Mathias Corvinus Collegium’s recent event in Brussels shed light on the dire consequences of the left’s attempts at cancelling European history. The panel discussion took place on Wednesday and featured Dr. Joanna Williams (founder of the British think tank Cieo, author of How Woke Won, Women vs Feminism, and her recent paper, “The Politicisation of History Teaching in the EU: Exploiting the past to promote the imperative of social engineering”). During this discussion, Dr. Williams was accompanied by Thibaud Gibelin, visiting fellow at the MCC, and Professor Werner J. Patzelt, the think tank’s research director. Moderating the panel was MCC’s executive director, Professor Frank Füredi.
“Of our rich national legacies, what should we pass on to our children?” asked Füredi in his opening speech. The question might have been a simple one a few decades ago, but it is certainly not today. European history education appears to have lost its sense of clear purpose and has been undergoing a profound transformation for some time now.
Sins without Achievements
The main observation in Dr. Williams’ report is that European history teaching has adopted the broader post-war cultural context that everything that happened in the past is bad. According to her, the Council of Europe played a “terrible role” in leading the charge in this regard. From 1952 onward, the Council started reviewing history textbooks to root out bias and prejudice, to promote objectivity and democracy, and to combat general misinformation. Noble goals that undoubtedly had positive effects too. Nonetheless, the process also opened the door to a downward spiral of deepening identity crisis at the core of Europe.
Williams identified five common trends this transformation of history teaching gave birth to. The first trend can also be observed in a broader educational pattern: knowledge has been replaced by skills. While an arguably good strategy in other fields, not necessarily in history. Instead of becoming familiar with objective information about the past and being encouraged to think critically, children are being taught the “correct ways that they should feel about the past.”
The second trend Williams identified is that the “starting point” of history has changed. Whereas a couple of decades ago, history was seen as things that happened thirty years ago or more. Now everything that happened yesterday can become the subject of history class. The new starting point of history is the present, the question that drives history is what is important today, and every historical event that is being discussed is cherry-picked to support the ‘correct’ way of thinking about the era we live in.
The third trend is a consequence of the ‘cherry picking’ approach to history: children no longer appear to have a sense of the overall chronology of historical events. According to Williams, they are being taught isolated stories to justify present political positions without presenting the connections between them. But without historical evolution, there is neither social development nor a sense of achievement stemming from it.
The fourth, and one of the most worrisome trends, is that history no longer puts the emphasis on nations, but on identity groups—usually categorised as oppressed and oppressors. This facilitates polarised thinking and fractures communities rather than unifying them.
Finally, Dr. Williams’ fifth and most important observation was that education puts the emphasis on sins rather than achievements. This happens because of the present centrism outlined above and “shows what we, as a society, worry about: sovereigntism, nationalism, white supremacy. So we dwell on sins,” said Williams. She pointed out that children need to learn about slavery and genocides, but they also need a broader context to situate them alongside achievements and positive things.
“My main concern is what children are not getting from history: objectivity, critical thinking, and a sense of belonging,” Dr. Williams said. And when these are missing, identity groups are quick to fill the vacuum. However, it also works the other way around. “To me,” said Williams, “the one thing that transcends identity politics is the nation and national identity.”
Strong Nations Make a Strong Europe
Picking up the thread, Professor Patzelt summarised the three most important duties of responsible history teaching. History, if taught the correct way, facilitates social cohesion for each subsequent generation. It is, as he called it, an invaluable “bonding capital,” providing a sense of belonging and a strong national identity. Second, history is also a tool for teaching morality—that is, if we do not substitute objectivity with ideology—and guiding young people to become responsible members of society. And third, history teaching (that focuses on the achievements of the nation-state) helps the integration of newcomers and the managing of pluralistic democracies. “The nation-state is the only structure in which we have been able to create a well-functioning democracy”, Patzelt reminded the audience.
What should European history be then? After all, Europe is a patchwork of dozens of nations, each with its own historical background and no obvious structure to connect them into a single narrative. “The pseudo-solution” to this conundrum, according to Patzelt, is precisely what we see being taught in schools today. European history is simply the history of the European Union. This narrative, however, is shallow and lacks proper context. “A better solution is to turn to culture,” he said. Identifying the greatest achievements of European culture and focusing on our shared heritage—Greek philosophy, Roman law, Renaissance art, Enlightenment values—can create a flourishing European identity, but only if we recognize and appreciate our differences as well. Strong national and European identities do not exclude but strengthen each other. And the key word for preserving both is ‘pride’. Being proud of belonging to our nations and being proud of belonging to Europe. “If we want to maintain the wonderful achievement the European Union is, we need European citizens who are proud to be European. This is what European history should be.”
A World of Permanent Critique
Sharing his experience with the French educational system, Thibaud Gibelin offered little optimism about the future of history education in his country. “The education system in France is in free fall,” he said. “What is under attack is the very idea of the French nation as a source of pride.” According to him, the recent trends in academia that seek the continuous reconstruction of historical narratives contributed greatly to the general decline of national pride. “Nothing is sacred anymore, we question everything. History is not something that we regard as true, but something to be placed under constant scrutiny. We built up a world of permanent critique.”
Closing the panel, Füredi summarised the night with a couple of keen observations. “There is a tendency to read history backwards,” he said, “where we project the present onto the past to conserve the future. For lack of a better academic word, that’s called bullshit. [Audience laughs.] But what comes out of this that’s crucially important is that the idea of the ‘good old days’ has been replaced by the ‘bad old days.’ For a stronger and healthier Europe, therefore, it is the duty of all of us to educate the young ones about our shared historical achievements and make them proud again to be European.