Teaching History for Universalistic Values

As in many Western countries, French school history has been subject to ideological and pedagogical criticism since the 1970s (De Cock & Picard, 2009). The nationalist historical narrative especially has been condemned as historically obsolete, politically irrelevant and ethically harmful. This critical discourse is far more relevant for primary school than for secondary school history. The French history curriculum in secondary education has several official goals: promoting political and cultural collective identity, encouraging social cohesion, fostering citizenship and developing intellectual abilities. The latter particularly concerns critical thinking, and more recently, personal blossoming. A core aim is fostering adherence to universal values such as Human Rights, democracy, justice, solidarity, tolerance, and so on, besides the French republican values of Liberte, Egalite, and Laicite (Liberty, Equality, and Secularism). These values are part of the legitimate culture, particularly of the political one, and are also reputed to provide a sound basis for social and political judgments. Such principles show a clear tendency toward critical rationality rooted in Enlightenment (Carretero, Rosa, & Gonzalez, 2007b) and in Auguste Comte’s positivism. The key reference is French citizenship, defined during the Third Republic (1871-1940) as overcoming any particularism. This is an idea not so far from the “constitutional patriotism” that Lopez Facal (2001) sees as a possible base for linking together people attached to different symbols. Of course, universalism has been a part of the French intellectual and political tradition since the Enlightenment. But also in the curricula, since 1890, the priority has been explicitly the greater good of humanity over the greater good of France. Even in the ministerial prescriptions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for secondary school, universalism prevailed over French identity. It is well known also that the French curricula included, since 1902, a very large part of European history and even some glimpses to Russia and to America (not only the United States) (De Cock & Picard, 2009; Garcia & Leduc, 2003). The grand narrative of an organically growing nation has been very important (and renewed in 2008) in primary school but is weaker and discreet in secondary school curricula. This might be partly explained by the fact that, during the first half of the twentieth century, secondary school addressed only to the children of the social elite, when primary school intended to make French republican citizens from the common people (including immigrants).

The emphasis on Human Rights has increased over the past decades. Let us consider some examples. The black slave trade has been taught for decades, focusing on the sufferings of the slaves and on the inhumanity of the trade; in some French cities enriched by the trade, this is explicitly linked with local history. For perhaps 50 years, the nationalistic narrative regarding colonization has disappeared. For the past 30 years, teachings on French or European colonization are accompanied by documents and information presenting its negative effects, and the present textbooks emphasize the exploitation of colonized people through the written contents and through sources. Since the seventies, the textbooks mention that the French army used torture in dealing with Algerian patriots/rebels. The post-colonial point of view is obvious (see Mycock, in this volume). The same goes for other dark pages of French history such as the Dreyfus Affair, the Collaboration in 1940-44 and the Shoah.1 And for a long time, the Discoveries of the sixteenth century are studied as sources of exploitation, massacres and fatal deceases (Paez, Bobowik & Liu, in this volume). The lessons on all these topics focus on the crimes and on the French social minority that defended human rights: Montaigne, the drey- fusards, the intellectual demonstrating against torture during the 1950s, the righteous among nations, and so on. In such a narrative, the positive reference is no longer France as a state, but the imaginary native country of Human Rights (Lantheaume, 2009). Of course, this evolution of contents is linked with political changes—not as drastic as in several other countries (Carretero et al., 2007a), but still important: the end of colonial empire, the confrontation with the recent past (the Vichy regime, responsibility in genocides, the Algerian war) and the rise of conflicting memories in public space. The key idea is nevertheless to support trust in democratic values and thus in a satisfactory future.

The tendency to select history contents that support universal values explains how the issues of past crimes, even committed by the French, and of victims can be integrated in school history. Specific histories of minorities can be inserted in the school narrative when they are told from this universal perspective. Teaching about the suffering of a particular community in the past is not fostering communautarisme (in France, this means a threat to political unity and a promotion of politically irrelevant private interests) but is working for Human Rights. All victims, outcasts, dominated or oppressed people (medieval peasants, poor Tiers Etat—Third Estate in the late eighteenth century, industrial workers and slaves) are considered in French classrooms as the People. Thus they are made part of the “us” group, an attitude which Von Borries evaluated as historically and politically positive (Von Borries, 2006). However, this inclusive approach, obvious in the classrooms, is not explicit in the official prescriptions. In the latter, inclusion is based on citizenship and not on victimization and common sufferings.

The French Republican citizenship is based on the transcendence of any specific interest in favor of the common interest and of private matters in favor of the public ones. The French citizen is somehow an “abstract” being, free from any distinctive identity, such as religion, gender, ethnicity or class, who bases his or her political judgments and actions on reason and on universal values. Thus, even if citizenship and nationality are legally bound together, citizenship is not explicitly rooted in a national heritage. Of course, the focus on French political history conveyed a perspective that fostered nationalism and ethnocentrism. At the same time, as stated above, it aimed at extending the universal values of progress, Human Rights and democracy. And presently, these components are far more relevant and legitimate for teachers and for students than any nationalism.

When asked about the purpose of school history, 80 % of high-school teachers affirmed the civic function of history (Lautier, 1997; Tutiaux-Guillon, 2004). They believe that understanding history would “naturally” evolve into the development of positive attitudes to politics, culture, “otherness” and human rights. Their main attempt is to foster citizenship and critical thinking (Bonafous, De Cock-Pierrepont, & Falaize, 2007; Lantheaume, 2009; Lautier, 1997; Tutiaux-Guillon, Boyer, Ogier, & Vercueil-Simion, 2004). Identity comes far behind citizenship in the teachers’ preoccupation (Lautier, 2001; Tutiaux-Guillon et al., 2004). Usually, most teachers give priority to topics that aim at tolerance and social harmony. For example, when studying the medieval Mediterranean area, they emphasize Al Andalus and the Sicily ruled by Roger II rather than the crusades.2 Thereby they hope to provide examples of people from different religions living peacefully and even fruitfully together. Individually and collectively, they discuss, criticize or possibly reject some explicit or presumed political demands for school history if they judge these aims opposed to Human Rights and to historical truth.3 For example, in 2005-2006, there was a huge and strong protest against a legal obligation to teach “the positive effects of colonization”, in which not only historians associations and the Human Rights League but also history teachers and their inspectors took an active part (the incriminating paragraph of the law was abrogated by the French president one year later). The same vigilance is the focus of some professional websites such as Aggiornamento hist-geo (http://aggiorna- mento.hypotheses.org). The teachers might even decide to teach about some issues that are not prescribed. Before 1962, some taught about France during the German occupation (1940-1944) and collaboration, when the curricula ended before the Second World War. Some have taught colonization and slavery in French colonies before the recent curriculum prescriptions. During the 1990s, some engaged pedagogical works on the students’ family memories (De Cock & Picard, 2009). Generally, there is no discussion about the consensual historical narrative, the tale of the progress and achievements of humanity (at least of Western humanity).

 
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