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  • Hungaria

    South-Eastern European Joint History Project
    Workshop I: Hungarian Legacy in South-East Europe
    Budapest, 18-19 December, 1999

    The first workshop organized by the Center of Democracy and Reconciliation in South-East Europe focused on the Hungarian legacy in South-East, a delicate task taking into account the long and intensive contacts between the countries in this region. The workshop involved the participation of scholars from Croatia (Neven Budak, Snjezana Koren), Greece (Christina Koulouri), Hungary (Peter Bihari, Joszef Laszlovsky), Romania (Codruta Matei, Mirela-Luminita Murgescu, Sorin Oane), Slovenia (Bozo Repe) and Yugoslavia (Kalman Kuntic, Srdjan Rajkovic, Biljana Simunovic, Dubravka Stojanovic).

    The discussions were prepared by the answers in a questionnaire previously distributed to the participants that aimed at reflecting both the images of the Hungarians in the schoolbooks of the surrounding countries, and the image of the Romanians, Serbians, Croatians and Slovenes in Hungarian schoolbooks. The common questions included in the questionnaire were designed to allow comparisons and to help surpassing ethnocentric perspectives. A critical perspective not only towards the others, but also towards one own' s way of conceiving and teaching history, was stimulated.

    The workshop began with a brief presentation of the current regulations and evolutions concerning history teaching and history schoolbooks in the various countries. In all participating countries except Serbia, there are several alternative history schoolbooks for each grade. In Serbia, the Ministry of Education approves just one schoolbook for each grade. In all countries except Romania, national history is included in the teaching of world history; in Romania, during some grades the pupils are taught Romanian history, and during other grades they are taught world history. These general remarks allowed a better understanding of the framework in which is included the particular information analyzed according to the questionnaire. The participants insisted that the number of pages assigned to the study of the Hungarians/Romanians/Croats/Serbians/Slovenes is relevant only if we take into consideration the way this information is displayed, and whether the other is studied as an autonomous entity, or just in relation with the author's own history. The preliminary remarks outlined that even in the cases where national histories are integrated into the general framework of world history, most of the information regarding neighboring peoples can be found in the lessons concerning national history. Or, as a participant from Croatia put it, "since Croatian and Hungarian history were closely related for centuries (...) a significant number of facts and data on Hungarian history are integrated into the lessons on Croatian history".

    The first part of the discussions was dedicated to the history teaching for minorities. The discussions showed a great variety of situations. Generally, the minorities are expected to learn history according to the same curriculum as the majority. In some countries, the schoolbooks are translated into the languages of the more important minorities, in other ones, the minorities learn in the official state language. Where there are no schoolbooks in the language of the minorities, there are attempts to use schoolbooks from the neighboring countries.

    The second part of the workshop was dedicated to discussions about the answers to the questions in the questionnaire, which regarded especially some controversial periods of the history of the various peoples concerned in the analysis. The participants outlined that despite the common syllabi, there are significant differences between various schoolbooks published in the same country for the same grade. Therefore, it is often difficult to draw general conclusions. The discussants also outlined the fact that the schoolbook authors are subject to influences not only from the scientific historiography, but also from the public opinion and various political forces; faced with the vastity of such a topic, they agreed that these complex interactions should be left for other scientific meetings.

    The concrete discussions on the schoolbooks revealed that world history is heavily Western-centered, the history of the West being considered the normal path of evolution, the standard to which are compared all other particular states or parts of the world. When referring to South-East Europe, most of the interest is devoted to the bilateral relations of the various states and/or peoples with the author's own state (people). Thus, the place assigned to the history of the neighbors depends on the intensity of bilateral relations during different periods. Quite interesting is the fact that there is more information about the neighboring peoples during the Middle Ages than for more recent times.

    With respect to the Hungarian legacy, the discussants remarked that in Romania, Serbia, Croatia and even in Slovenia, the Hungarian history receives more interest than the history of other South-Eastern and East-Central European states. The schoolbooks contain only few outright negative qualifications, but the discussants remarked that besides the text, there are also other elements (illustrations, maps, questions, homework themes, page setup etc.) which suggest some features or characterize the other.

    Conclusions and recommendations
    1. A first step might be the preparation of the public opinion to accept another discourse about history and to feel comfortable with a more balanced and serene way of treating national and world history. The discussants outlined that each society tries to instill its own vision of the world into the young generation, to educate it according to its own ideology. Of course, when a political elite tries to change this vision of the world and of its history, it can more easily change the curricula and the schoolbooks; yet, essential to the whole process remains the way history teachers really teach the pupils in their classes. If the teachers are not prepared and willing to change their teaching, then the best schoolbook will prove useless. Taking into account the fact that in all countries there is a significant resistance to the change of the traditional nationalist way of conceiving history, the discussants emphasized that historians must openly take position with respect to the most controversial issues and help thus public opinion and history teachers to accept the change in the historical discourse.

    2. The discussants stressed that teacher training is essential. Effective networks for in-service teacher training still are to be designed in all the participating countries. Such networks might work both at national and regional level, allowing history teachers to update their concrete historical knowledge, to learn new teaching methods and to discuss the practical problems raised by their teaching. The use of the existing history teacher associations as a basis for such schemes is desirable, provided that they will be willing to cooperate for the renewal of history teaching and that such a cooperation will enhance the effectiveness of teacher training.

    3. The contents' analysis of the schoolbooks must be preceded by an assessment of their place and role in history education. Is the schoolbook just an auxiliary designed to help the pupils to systematize what the teacher told them in class, or is it perceived as the final and sacred version of history, official and undisputable? Or to put it otherwise, do teachers use also other materials for preparing their lessons, or do they limit themselves to summarize the textbook? The discussants acknowledged that a general judgment might be misleading due to the great variety of concrete situations, but stated that such an assessment is still needed in order to design a coherent strategy.

    4. The participants urged to change the methods of history teaching, focusing on historical problems more than on recording long lists of historical facts and/or events. To help the pupils judge events and historical evidence, different opinions should be presented on the same historical topic, and this should be made in a balanced way in order to offer pupils a fair and autonomous choice.

    5. The discussants recommended also that the share of East-Central and South-Eastern European history in the general economy of the history schoolbooks should grow. The participants said that emphasis should be put not on dividing issues, but on what is common and/or similar in the history of these neighboring nations. Yet, this recommendation opened a controversy. How many data should be supplied to the pupils, and among these, what should be emphasized? The participants admitted that the definition of a common heritage and legacy is a very delicate task, and that there is a significant risk that the greater place given to the history of this part of Europe would mean just adding some battles and conflicts to the already existing ones. This risk is especially great, because conflicts are more present in the collective memory of the peoples in the region, and a dichotomic presentation of a heroic past is easier to be taught at school. But, as the discussions have stressed, this is a negative model, and such a self-centered temptation must be avoided. Taking into account that the political and military history of the region is particularly conflicting, the participants suggested that a greater emphasis should be put on everyday life and on cultural history, where common problems and mutual influences are easier to be found. Of course, there is a risk that the cultural themes will encourage also a self-centered vision of the past, and even that some authors and/or teachers will develop a conflicting logic in trying to show that "our" culture is "better" than "theirs", but this risk is smaller than when focusing on political issues.

    6. A very concrete problem is that of names and/or ethnic classifications. Several places have changed their names and political affiliations throughout history, and there are also a lot of historical characters who are claimed by several nations. For example, Iancu de Hunedoara (Hunyady Janos) was the son of a Romanian nobleman, but acted like a magnate of the Hungarian Kingdom, and is claimed by both the Romanians and the Hungarians. Similar is the case of the Zrinyis, nobles of Croatian descent but of Hungarian political affiliation. The participants suggested that in such cases, the complex identity of the historical characters should be presented in a balanced way, avoiding any competition in appropriating them and insisting that they are part of a truly common heritage. With respect to the names of the various places, the discussants recommended that schoolbooks should indicate and/or explain in brackets or in footnotes the alternative names. Such a method might generate public reactions accusing the excessive "concessions", but it would also signal the need for taking also into account the perspective of the other.

    7. The discussions revealed that there is a considerable span between identifying the problems and solving them. Such workshops are just a first step in a long way, and active resistances as well as social inertia are to be taken into account. Therefore, we must prepare for a long-run process. We have to fight on several fronts. We have to clarify a lot of problems at academic level, we have to introduce a more balanced picture in syllabi and schoolbooks, we have also to develop forms of in-service training for history teachers in order to help them implement an improved version of the past, despite their initial deficient training. And, of course, we must care about how we train future history teachers in our universities.

    Dr. Mirela-Luminita Murgescu
    University of Bucharest, Faculty of History
    Str. Mohorului 6, bl. 17, sc. III, ap. 42 sector 6, 77523 Bucuresti, Romania
    Phone: +40-1-769 2575
    Fax: +40-1-310 0680