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How Should a Nation Teach History?

Education policy in times of conflict has been center-stage in our course. Through case studies, we tried to understand the role played by education in conflict and post-conflict zones. A common thread amongst our case studies was how the conflict was taught in schools ten, twenty, and even fifty years after its conclusion. What parts did the country choose to show? How deep and multifaceted was the history curriculum when discussing important historic moments?

Most state-designed curricula are focused on presenting a history that induces patriotism. The goal behind teaching history in schools, then, is not to learn from it and familiarize the student with what came before them. Instead, such curricula are designed to avoid dissent. Their goal is to create a society based on an understanding of history void of critical thinking. The most common way of doing that is by thinking of the nation state, and the identity brought upon the individual through their connection to this nation state, as superior to any cultural, religious, or even personal identity. If you are in Pakistan, you are a Pakistani first, and any other thing second. If you are in France, you are French and nothing else. Most of the times, it even results in parts of history being completely removed from textbooks. Thanksgiving celebrations ignore the Native American bloodshed that took place and Pakistani textbooks never discuss the war crimes of the army during Bengal's separation. These are just two of countless examples signifying the state knowingly omitting historical facts to avoid dissent and induce patriotism.

Of course, the intent behind such a policy may not always be as malicious. Rwanda, in its post-genocide education plan, chose to prioritize the Rwandan identity over being a Hutu or a Tutsi. The goal was to create unity under the Rwandan name. While there hasn’t been an outbreak since, the presence of the generation which saw the genocide occur makes it harder to see beyond the differences between the two ethnicities. The genocide may not be repeated again, but there remains a dangerous undercurrent caused directly because of decisions made concerning education.

The problem with such an approach is manifold. Apart from the obvious widespread misinformation it induces within the nation, it also puts a very thin, translucent blanket over the multicultural nature of modern nation-states. Pakistan consists of hundreds of ethnicities, and all of them have a right to self-actualization. A right that is taken away from them by shrouding their cultural roots with the relatively new concept of the Pakistani state.

Instead of homogenizing the history taught in schools, policymakers need to explore the differences present within the classroom. Only through an acknowledgment of these differences, can true unity be created.

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