Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


History is bunk

As a molecular biologist I recognize that I am on shaky ground when I stray into academic territories where I don’t belong. However, like every citizen, my view of the world is shaped in many ways by the specific history curriculum I was taught at school, and by the ways in which it was delivered. What’s more, when I look at the world around me, I recognize that the different interpretations of history that prevail in different countries and societies are the cause of much strife and suffering, including wars, genocides and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. So, I shall indulge myself here by making some remarks about history and about education that real historians or educationalists amongst you are welcome to shoot down.

My own high-school education was a strange mix of ultra-traditional and ultra-progressive. I remember my first history lesson at the age of eleven, being sternly instructed by the teacher to write down his exact words. The dictation began: ‘The first Greeks were Aryans….’. At the time I little understood the use of this loaded term propagated and so misused by the Nazis; but dutifully wrote down what I was told. Two years later, a very different history teacher was dedicating an entire semester to a critical history of China from the year dot: this at a time when the Cultural Revolution was preventing Chinese kids from learning anything meaningful about their own history.

Recalling such experiences and thinking about how we might address some of the causes of national misunderstanding across the world, has led me to an idea that I have tested already on a few random people and which I would like to try out on you.

It has already been suggested by others that we could all agree, e.g. via the UN, to devise and teach a global history curriculum that at least blends together contrasting views of world history, arranged around a core of indisputable factual information. Whilst I would support this idea, I think it isn’t enough. This is because society is still organized largely on national lines, and people therefore need to understand their own country’s history, as well as how it relates to that common global story.  

So here is my proposal. Every country’s school history curriculum will be devised, and its delivery organized and monitored by the Ministry of Education of another country. Countries that have no shared history, and no very specific ideological, geopolitical, cultural or economic links, would simply pair up to do this. For example, Finland could be twinned with Burundi, New Zealand with Ecuador, Israel with Japan and so on. Some exceptions would probably have to be made for the bigger and more powerful countries that have connections, both positive and negative, with each other and with most countries in the world – perhaps they could just draw lots to pair with each other. Each pair would focus on national history of the partner country, maybe introducing some of its own story, to promote newcultural links, as well as shading it with a global dimension as it sees fit.

These partnerships could last e.g. for 10 or 15 years, after which all such links would be broken and re-established in new configurations. So, Finland’s ‘Made-in-Burundi’ history programme could be reviewed and revised by the Philippines and so on. To make it less bureaucratic, there would be no bureaucracy. The scheme would be voluntary, and non-prescriptive, and not inspected or policed by any external agency. Over many decades, I predict it could help to usher in an era of global harmony and stability.

Howy Jacobs

Howy Jacobs

Professor of Molecular Biology, Tampere University


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