Coping with Ethnocentrism During History Teaching

Nationalism is probably one of the most “international” worldviews. It is the main paradigm in all nation-states and it is shared by billions. In spite of special local characteristics the case of Greece and Turkey is not an isolated and a unique one and its study may prove useful.

I had the opportunity to teach Greek and Turkish history in various Turkish and Greek universities respectively for about ten years and mostly in a context of bilateral relations. The main difficulty in dealing with nationalist prejudices, stereotypes and myths, in short, with nationalist historiography, was not the absence of an alternative historical discourse. The big obstacle was the resistance of the students to a new interpretation of the past. When they sensed that what they had already learned as history and on which they had based their national identity was disputed, they felt challenged and threatened. History for them was not a story of the past; it was the story on which they constructed their beings. Their reaction was similar to the opposition of the conservative circles in Greece who defied the anti-nationalist textbooks. They either voiced their objection—“what you say makes no sense!”—or simply stopped communicating in class.

Both Greek and Turkish history education is characterized with some principles and beliefs which are not plainly stated but rather inferred. The uniqueness of “our nation”, its centuries-long existence, its superiority, its past grandeur, as well as of its enemies, the “other”, are some points of a black-and-white narration. I knew from the outset that unless I coped with this national “philosophy of history”, the best that I could manage was to enforce my students to memorize and repeat what I taught as curriculum but not being able to secure a change in their deeply believed myths.

Having been brought up as a minority member in a “different” dominant cultural and political environment, a Greek in Turkey, I had developed a defensive attitude finding secured techniques in voicing sensitive topics. I built on this a special approach to communicate with my students. It proved very productive. In a very short time my students, not only understood my points, but much more importantly they accepted and internalized my critical interpretation of the past—of their past. Here I summarize the main principles that I followed in my history classes.4

In class there was not the slightest effort or intention of avoiding crucial and sensitive topics of the past. The attitude usually expressed as “let’s forget the unpleasant incidents of the past!” is neither possible (somebody will bring the matter up) nor desirable (history is a source of precious experience). On the contrary, self-censorship may provoke the national sentiments of people who feel proud of the deeds, sacrifices, and sufferings of their ancestors and who have been victims of the “other side”. Furthermore, the effort of “forgetting”, infers a past that cannot be rationally explained or justified; it is as if one confesses that one is unable to deal with the past of his ancestors or cope with the deeds of his neighbors. Escaping to oblivion may give also the impression of a guilt of the “other” which is pardoned in a hurry and prior to an apology.

Whenever history was on the agenda, “change” was the key word. It was always reminded that people, nations and their worldviews, national ideals and targets, ideologies, attitudes, understandings, interpretations, daily life, and social values and even racial compositions of ethnic groups change continuously while the nationalistic historiography in Turkey and Greece (and this is not special for these countries only) has undertaken a missionary role of stressing the “continuity of our nation”. As each nation established this ideal of “continuity” together with the national characteristics which reach back to thousands of years, it automatically establishes the same criteria for the neighboring nation too: any act of the “other side” can henceforth be explained on the basis of its permanent national characteristics. This understanding leads to racist evaluations. We tried to avoid talking about “the Turks” or “the Greeks” but of Turks and Greeks of a specific time and geography. Presenting the other nation as “always positive” is as bothering as condemning it in general.

I tried to communicate the understanding that things as well as human beings can be classified in almost infinitely different ways. Individuals for instance can be grouped according for instance to sex, age, profession, education, mental capabilities, industriousness, marital status, language, religion, birth place, political preference, favorite ideology, hobbies, preference in arts and philosophy, national identity, health, complexion (race). The preference in giving precedence to national identity is because in our times nationalism is a dominant understanding. It was not so in the past, for example, when religion was the dominant ideology, and probably it will not be exactly so in the future. Also Turks and Greeks not only change as nations within time but the nations are not composed stereotypically of people of the same understanding either. We tried to look at people through other perspectives than their ethnicity. These other perspectives presented striking similarities among members of different ethnic groups.

The relativity and subjectivity of our own personal judgments and values and the influence of prejudices on our actions were discussed. Subjectivity was not conceived as a weakness and a source of doubt and skepticism which could cause reluctance when action was needed. On the contrary, it was presented as a mechanism of an extra check on our values and feelings before a decisive act is taken and which renders confidence and greater assurance. The socially established images, (of them and of ourselves), the harm done due to these images to our capacity of thinking were discussed. Prejudice is as harmful as ignorance; ignoring the existence of probable prejudice is worst of all.

A tolerant and open approach to all ideas, beliefs, and ideologies was advocated. Tolerance toward the “others” does not only make the life of others easier (and consequently “ours” too, by lessening tension in general) but, much more importantly, it opens the way to sympathize with the other side. Intolerance means refusal to communicate and the end of dialogue. And there should be almost no limit to tolerance. Even the worst act and the cruelest decision in history can be analyzed and the “reason” (historical or personal) could or should be estimated. Then the “reasons” (actually the “conjuncture” and contingencies) can be condemned but not the individuals who were bound to act unavoidably in socially dictated directions. We tried to understand the motives of the people in the past. We mostly agreed that we in our times—with our present values—would have acted differently. Tolerance also means respect to others, to their ideals, needs, fears, sensitivities, dreams, aspirations, weaknesses; respect to all these, especially if they do not directly harm us. We made some jokes with some national “sensitivities” but we were not ironical or cynical about them.

The higher one’s self-esteem is—or to put it differently, the more positive the self-image is relative to the negative image the other has for him/her—the more one gets frustrated when he is criticized by the other side. The more a self-image is balanced, the better. We found quite a number of wrongs in “our” history, so we became more tolerant and we understand the other side and ourselves better, too. We learned—in class—to feel even more proud and superior, personally and as a nation, having been able to accept some of “our” faults and deficiencies. Self-criticism was turned to a means for self-esteem. I spent more time discussing all these matters than speaking about what happened in the past.

Finally—and I think this was the most decisive approach in dealing with national prejudices and teaching nationalism as a historical paradigm—it was the use of the “other” as a historical example that proved very rewarding. I explained the nation-building of the Greeks to the Turks; and the nationbuilding of the Turks to the Greeks. After a while some students in class would comment: “doesn’t this resemble to our case, sir?” So the message was passed without having to demonstrate that all secret and taboo beliefs of the participants were historical constructions and hence ephemeral. My students were not “challenged” vis-a-vis their beliefs. There were no attempts to demonstrate how one’s identity was a historical construction: this would have been perceived as an offense and would have triggered reactions. They found this out by themselves by studying the “other”. This heuristic approach proved very efficient.

In short we tried in class: not to avoid any issue, to challenge the “discontinuity” of the nations, to pay attention to differences rather than the stereotypes within a nation, to remind the prejudices and the tricks they play on us, to praise relativism and tolerance which reinforces understanding, to bring to consciousness that no nation is flawless, and to use the other as an example. This effort is one of understanding our environment in which we are brought up, hence of cognition. We studied in class the textbook the parents of students had studied once so that they knew in what kind of a home they were brought up and we discussed what the novels in each country “teach”. I did not feel any opposition from my students.

A prerequisite for applying the above is of course a multi-dimensional knowledge of the history of both countries. This “knowledge” should also include all cultural and ideological sensitivities, fears, aspirations of the two nations in order to succeed in drafting or presenting a “history” accepted by both sides— and some basics of physiology. Once a nationalist paradigm is decomposed this is valid for the entire world. What I learned from my teaching is that there is a way of transcending nationalist myths in class. Changing text book in a country is much more difficult.

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