Whose Story is History? History Education and Minority Students

Imagine a history class in a Danish gymnasium. To fulfill his mandate to teach human rights, the teacher has decided to give a lesson on the Armenian genocide. The majority of his classroom takes notes on figures and dates, but one student sits silently, struggling with himself. His Turkish family, and the media he grew up with, have told him that the event was not a genocide. Now, his teacher is asserting that the opposite is true. While his Danish classmates think about memorizing facts, he must question whether these are facts at all.

Teaching history to a multicultural classroom creates challenges that do not exist for a homogenous student group. As of 2005, Danmark Statestik records show that 10% of Danish students in grades 8-10 were of non-Western descent, and half of those had been immigrants themselves. Those numbers are even higher in urban centers like Copenhagen, and show no sign of declining in the future. Many are children of refugees or guest workers, and their relationship to modern-day global and political conflicts can clash with the narratives that are considered part of history education in the classroom.

“There’s a sense of, if I go any further I am disloyal to my own story,” explains Solvej Berlau, a Holocaust education administrator at the Danish Institute for International Studies. “In the future, educators will increasingly face classrooms with the children of both victims and perpetrators.” As minority students become aware of the way in which history education reflects on their own group, their ability to learn from a lecture becomes compromised. This conflict between history and politics is most pronounced in genocide education: teaching about the Israel-Palestine conflict with Jews and Palestinians; the Srebenica genocide with Bosnians and Serbs; the Armenian genocide with Turkish and Armenians. “Genocide education in such an environment will require careful consideration as to how to teach the history,” Berlau warns.

The politicization of minority conflict has also become a “huge issue” in Holocaust education, says Humanity in Action Senior Fellow Emilie Johansen. Johansen travels the country to give workshops on the Holocaust in elementary and high schools, and she encounters serious differences between minority and non-minority students’ approaches to her lessons. Students with Arabic backgrounds sometimes have difficulty separating the Jewish role in the Holocaust from the Jewish role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For Danish students, Johansen says, the issue is “political…[but] for Muslim kids in school, it’s religious and personal.”

In other words, the stakes are higher and the conflict of loyalties deeper when minority students encounter historical issues that hold contemporary political resonances for them. Turkish student Cagdas Citirikkaya confirms that “it’s hard to contain both” the perspectives of the classroom on the Armenian Genocide, and that of the Turkish media and populations, leaving him “caught between two extremes.”

The Center for International Holocaust Education points out that, “Students who feel that the suffering of their own people or group has not been addressed may be resistant to learning about the persecution and murder of others.” This means that students can become disengaged or antagonized because they feel their side is not being heard. But if teachers capitulate to the students’ discomfort by eliminating controversial subjects, then politicization will have silenced historical truth. If our educational mission aligns with the Danish Auschwitz Day goal “to contribute to the prevention of future genocides,” then such a scenario severely limits our ability to achieve this goal.

A Human Fix?

If the challenge is teaching students of different religions, historical identities, and political positions, then the solution may lie in bridging those differences. Johansen says that when “you have two and a half hours to go in and do something with their views [on the Holocaust]…you need to be able to find a common ground”.

One way to find Johansen’s “common ground” may be human rights education, which aims to “promote the equal treatment of all persons without discrimination” (The Danish Institute for Human Rights). Human rights-based approaches understand genocide more broadly as an example of rights violations, connecting rather than separating victim and minority groups.

The Danish Ministry of Education currently requires human rights education in its high school history and social science curricula, including “knowledge of the U.N. Human Rights Declaration and the most fundamental human rights that must be fulfilled in order to create democracy.” However, education about the specific genocides mentioned earlier is not mandatory.

Human Rights Friendly Schools, an Amnesty International project under the UN World Program for Human Rights Education, strives to integrate human rights as an overlying theme into all subjects. Currently Denmark has one school in Hilleroed, the free school KonTiki, which incorporates human rights education as much as possible. Eva Hesse, project manager at Amnesty International’s Interactive Learning Center, explains that KonTiki’s “purpose is to implement human rights in their [students’] everyday life.” By putting human rights into practice, she says, “you raise respect” which reduces bullying and discrimination. The environment might also provide a language with which to approach historical subjects that are otherwise shrouded in political connotations for minority students.

Despite the relative degree of success with this curriculum at KonTiki, its private school population “wouldn’t have an integration problem,” Hesse says. Pursuing a similar project in a diverse classroom would demand “a lot of resources.” In fact, a more consistent implementation of human rights education throughout Danish schools would require a concentrated “preparation for dealing with people from different backgrounds. There’s a huge lack [of preparation],” Johansen says. Her conviction is echoed by Danish teacher Christian Cherry at Christianshavns Skole, who says that teachers would “need upgraded courses to understand the obstacles” involved in teaching human rights and history to a multicultural classroom.

Moving Forward

The Danish school systems are beginning to recognize the special teaching needs of multicultural classrooms. Like many teachers, history and religion teacher Otto Rühl, from Helsingør Gymnasium, introduces human rights in the context of less controversial lessons on the American and French Revolutions. He has not experienced resistance to teaching the Holocaust in his multiethnic classroom.

Yet, his explanation points to the challenge of accessing the kind of human rights framework that will elevate genocide education above politics. “Students in high schools of course will be more educated than others,” he says. Because human rights education is only mandated for high schools, younger students who would benefit from this exposure will not be receiving it. Even at the high school level, Berlau points out, the schools that sign up for her program are about “eighty percent gymnasiums, and [only] a few percentages of technical, or business schools.” This suggests that the program may not yet be reaching a fully diverse population.

Human rights education is only one potential solution to the challenges of conducting genocide education in a multicultural classroom. But as educators like Johansen continue to perceive “a huge problem” in their pedagogical preparation for minority students’ politicized approach to history, and students like Citrikkaya continue to feel “caught between two extremes,” we must respond to these crises in any way possible. Danish classrooms will increasingly contain multi-ethnic students with various political affiliations, and schools must actively address the different needs of this multi-ethnic student body when teaching the history of genocide. Otherwise, we allow students to struggle silently reconciling fact with fiction, and education with ethnic loyalties, until they come away having learned about nothing but their own uncertainties.

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