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Between “Our” History and “Their” History: Openness and Ethnocentrism

My analysis of the curricula showed some ambiguities. The contents of the socle commun des connaissance et des competences (common base of knowledge and competences), compulsory for schools since 2006, seems to prioritize World and Europe above France. The prescribed attitudes are set in the field of universality, open minded to any culture. The abilities do not focus on any cultural, historical or geographical area. In the detailed knowledge prescriptions, a frequent phrasing is “France, Europe and World”, and the cultural references are both European and Global. If the history of France has to be known, then the same goes for the history of the European Union. It cannot be said that such aims, prescribed for primary and lower secondary school, are focused on national identity. This is the result of French tradition, of European integration and of globalization. These developments do not mean that school history in secondary education does not take the national history into account at all: the curricula are a compromise between different actors and tendencies, often contradictory (De Cock & Picard, 2009; Legris, 2014). In the detailed prescription for college (50 pages), published in 2008, the “histoire nationale” is mentioned less than 10 times and mostly to characterize what the students have learned in primary school. The contents in secondary school are explicitly presented as enlarging the scope. They deal mostly with European/Western history (24 topics), and present fewer national history topics (10) and still fewer non-Western history topics (5). The time prescribed for history lessons might roughly be divided into 20 % history of France (mostly political history), 26 % topics that deal both with France and Europe, 26 % history of Europe or Western countries without mentioning France, and 17 % non-Western history. At first sight, the curriculum is really open to the history of others. Yet a more attentive analysis shows another unobtrusive intention: taking into account the titles, subtitles and prescribed examples, “France” appears 19 times in the chapters focused on European/Western history. If we add every part focused on the study of topics explicitly mentioning France, the total is close to half of the school history hours. Furthermore, the 57 dates that a student must know for the final exam (Brevet) enlist 30 French dates and 11 which are part of French history. This is close to 72%. The tale of progress is not mainly national. But in secondary school curricula, political progress is treated largely referring to France, and cultural, scientific and economic progress in reference to Europe. A close analysis of the textbooks would probably increase the weight of France, not only in the contents but even more so in the source documents.

The issue of the documents proposed in the textbooks and used in the classrooms also disturbs the idea of a curriculum open to others. For example, in the second grade of college the students have to learn about the history of SubSaharan Africa. Yet most texts are not from African sources (partly due to the overestimated lack of written sources); they are European, as are some pictures of African kings or a frequent print of a razzia. Some photographs seem to come from a tourist booklet rather than from scientific references. If we look at the chapters addressing medieval Islamic civilization, textbooks focus on the knowledge and techniques that the Western Christian civilization had drawn from exchanges with Muslims. Furthermore, the presentation of this civilization emphasizes techniques, medicine and science, the achievements known to converge with the common meaning of progress in the present Western society. On the other hand, poetry, law, and philosophy—of core importance in the Islamic culture—are at most briefly mentioned. The point of view in the textbooks is clearly Eurocentric (Baques & Tutiaux-Guillon, 2008). This means that there is often a lapse from past civilizations to present society. And this lapse might as well stress the supposedly “foreign” character of some people from non-Western civilizations (Bonafous et al., 2007). Furthermore, the public controversy about the place allotted to the history of non-Westerners (a debate in which this place is greatly exaggerated by those opposing the inclusion of non-Western history) and the use of the same arguments for decades (“our children don’t know our history anymore”; see Mycock, in this volume) might reduce the effective teaching of such topics.

In fact, the issue of “opening up to others” is neither simple nor unequivocal. Defining who we will consider as “others” in the curricula and courses would be a first step—and suggests the first difficulties. Would it mean those other than French? Then any topic about European history or Western history has to be taken into account. This option is not really convincing. In the first place, since the nineties, the ministries of education in the European Union have stressed the importance of teaching a European history as the “own” history for new European generations. Even though in some states such a supranational frame means exceeding national history (Fernandez Bittencourt, 2007), the focus is on an expanded “us”. Secondly, France has taken an active part in what might be called the European political, cultural and economic history, and for some period in Western history as well. Teaching about Europe— or about Western history—is also teaching about France. Thirdly, Europe is not a reality but a social construct, as was the nation; its history recycles former canons.

If we consider “others” to be non-Western, then they were introduced in the secondary history curricula during the sixties as an innovation for the final grade. They have been sporadically present in different curricula ever since (De Cock & Picard, 2009). The Chinese and African civilizations, for example, had been prescribed contents for the first grade of lycee from 1976 to 1985 and are now prescribed for first and second grades of college. In the present curricula for college, the part of non-Western history represents 17 % of the time and 15 % of the topics. But when colonization is at issue, must we take it as Western or nonWestern? An example of the new contents for the first grade of lycee demonstrates this ambiguity: the topic “enlarging the [European] world, fifteenth-sixteenth centuries” articulates a European navigator, a European port, Constantinople- Istanbul, a pre-Columbian city facing colonization, and Peking. Now is the case of Istanbul and of the American city focused on “others” or on the European merchants or soldiers? Only a close study of the textbooks or of the effective teaching would allow one to decide whether the focus is on “them” or on “us”. Other analyses of recent textbooks show that, in the chapters addressing colonial conquests and colonial societies, only the Europeans have agency: the local people are just victims and anonymous, stripped from their own culture and social organization that are not mentioned (Tutiaux-Guillon, 2006).

Furthermore, some topics correspond to a projection on the past of present issues in French society. The main example is the Islamic civilization. Since 1977, Islam is a topic of the second grade of college curriculum, firstly focused on the political aspects of the Muslim and Arab Medieval age, then on the civilization. The parallel with the importance of a so-called Muslim immigration in France is clear: between 1962 and 1982, the migrant population coming from North Africa grew from 407,000 to 1,430,000, partly due to the demand for industry workers and partly to the option of accepting also the workers’ families. Currently, Islam is the second religion in France. From 1995 until 2009, French pupils in primary school, in the second grade of college and the fist grade of lycee had to study the medieval Islam, including a historical narrative of religious development; presently, this is still studied in the second grade of college, and in the first grade of lycee they study Istanbul. In 1995, the Koran became a “heritage document” that all students had to know as a historical source and as meaningful for humanity. Its study is still prescribed in the 2008 curricula. The date of the Hegira is compulsory knowledge. Yet most textbooks of the 1990s and 2000s selected documents on Jihad,4 sometimes on Sharia and on women’s status. These aspects of Islamic civilization are much debated in French society and emphasize other?ness (Baques & Tutiaux-Guillon, 2008). On the other hand, teachers seemed to avoid what could stir cultural conflicts in the classroom and chose a consensual content—omitting the sensitive issues. Here the main perspective is also that of progress, tolerance and human rights. The teachers’ interpretation and implementation of the curricula might be truer to the spirit than to the letter.

Another key concern for school history is to foster social cohesion, and this concern has been increasing since the nineties (Tutiaux-Guillon, 2007). Young people have to be educated as members of the same society and the same political community, sharing cultural references, values and interpretations of the past—useful for living together, important for understanding each other, and necessary for understanding present times and imagining a future. Ten history teachers who were interviewed in 2003 unanimously declared that their objective was to integrate everyone, especially the children of migrants, into one common culture. Some identified this common culture as French, while others opted for European or even Mediterranean. All of them wanted to provide the pupils with intellectual resources to understand present French society. But even though they favored national identity over sub-cultural community identities, they rated individual identity higher than national identity (Tutiaux-Guillon et al., 2004). It is intended now that youths learn how to make sense of their own history (Delacroix & Garcia, 1998). Fostering social cohesion also means—for policy makers and often for teachers—providing the youth with non-European ancestry some glimpses at their supposed cultural roots. This raises questions about both the young people’s identities and the educators’ representation of these identities.

 
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