Thursday, July 15, 2010

History teaching in the g/c community of Cyprus - intervention in the historians forum (POST RI) in the buffer zone

Gregoris Ioannou

In 2003 I had finised by undergraduate studies on International History at the LSE in the UK and came back to Cyprus to submit my degree to the RoC in order to apply for a history teaching position at secondary education. There I was informed that I couldn't and that I needed to equate (eksomioso) my degree from the University of London with that issued by the University of Cyprus.
What do you mean? I asked the middle aged civil servant.
Well she said, how can you teach history if you don't know the Greek language?
But I know the Greek language I responded, it is my first language.
Yes, but you studied in England. You need to take lessons in modern and classical Greek and Latin at the University of Cyprus.
But I am not applying to teach modern nor classical Greek nor Latin, I responded. I am applying to teach history, that is my subject.There is no such thing she responded. You need to become a philologist. Then you will be teaching all the philological subjects.
I refused and applied instead to post graduate and later on PhD studies in Political Sociology again in the UK.

OK. Having established that I am not officially speaking a historian, barred that is from teaching history, I can start my presentation in which I will discuss the political and sociological implications of ethnocentrism in the g/c educational system in general and history teaching in particular and the continuing struggle to overcome it in the interests of modernisation, social progress and peace. This, as you can already sense, will not be merely an academic, but also and more importantly, a political and an activist presentation.

A. Ethnocentrism at the centre of history teaching

The fact that history is not treated as a fully autonomous science but subsumed within greek studies/philology, constitutes in my opinion the structural basis of ethnocentrism in the g/c educational system as a whole. Today, this is essentially a phenomenon of the greek-speaking world as in most countries language and literature studies are clearly separated from the study of history. And although the implications of this fusion of two separate disciplines/academic fields are more severe in the primary and secondary education in the sense that the past is examined, understood and narrated through a national lense, the roots of the problem lie to be honest in the greek speaking academia. Despite their minor differences, the University of Cyprus follows the pattern of Greek Universities of demanding from history undergraduate students to take up a number of modern and classical Greek as well as Latin courses as part of the curriculum. At the same time it demands from Modern Greek and Classic students to take up of history cources as part of their curriculum. And at the end of the day it issues to all the same degree – Greek Philology. Although some sort of specialisation does take place this is not necessarily and not usually taken account of later on when these philologists are appointed to teach Greek or History according not to their personal specialisation in terms of their major direction at undergraduate studies, but according to the general needs of the g/c secondary education system.

When I raised this issue in a conference about the process of educational reform in 2008, I got the response by a secondary school teacher that “philologists are historians and that historians are philologists” while the political academics (those involved in the educational reform) remained silent. It seems that this fusion of greek literature and history passes more or less as a self evident fact of life, and has never seriously being questioned, not even by that relatively radical manifesto for educational reform of 2004 adopted by Papadopoulos' government and supposedly in the process of implementation by the current Christofias' government. Now why do I insist on this? Because this subsumption of history under Greek studies has ontological, epistemological and political implications. It automatically places the idea of the Greek world at the centre of the historical stage viewing in other words broader global and regional historical developments only or primarily in relation to “Hellenism”. From an epistemological perspective this narrows the field of study making it monothematic and one-dimensional and most importantly ignoring the specific methodologies of the science of history such as multiple sources and rigorous analysis which are reduced to some classic texts and their literary discussion. Finally from a political perspective this leads to a conscious as well as unconscious confusion between national myths with historical facts and reproduces an inability to think beyond the terms of “National History”, that state building ideology of the 19th Century Europe. The subsumption of history within the domain of the national culture facilitates the incorporation of mythical elements in the historical narrative often in an “innocent”, almost automatic manner through literary licence and ingenious linguistic forms.

Now moving from the intellectual basis to the ontological essence of ethnocentrism, we encounter the old, a bit more than a century old that it is, political presupposition of g/c nationalism – that Cyprus has been, is and must continue to be Greek. Many researchers have analysed the phenomenon of nationalism in general and g/c nationalism in particular in various ways and forms. What I want to point out here is that Mavratsas' 1998 claim that nationalism in the g/c community defines the parameters of political orthodoxy and therefore the exposition of nationalist ideology constitutes an act of social critique, continues to hold today as well. A brief examination of the syllabus and textbooks of “history” in the g/c schools immediately strikes one as being primarily “a history of Greece” and secondarily “a history of Cyprus” which in any case in seen as Greece's extension. Papadakis' PRIO Report of 2008 analyses and explains the basic schema still in use today in the g/c schools and identifies its basic political implications – that is the identification of the concepts of “Greek” and “Cypriot” and hence the exclusion of the t/c from Cypriotness, through either the denial of their ethnic identity (seen as really being Greeks in need of assimiliation) or their essentiallization and demonization as the national Other that is “Turks”. Some of my 20 year old students last year thought that Turkish Cypriots were Turks that came to Cyprus after 1974 and that they should go back to Turkey. I hope of course that this current misconception does not acquire the status of a de facto reality in the coming decades. To be sure political reality and the officially stated goal of the establishment of a bizonal bicommunal federal republic is at variance with g/c nationalist ideology and attempts to bridge them by pragmatic and otherwise liberal politicians and intellectuals lead to incoherence, arbitrariness and blatant contradictions.

The political implications of the continuing hegemony of nationalism in the g/c community in general and history education in particular are three fold. Firstly the elite strategy of constructing and maintaing “national unity” is implemented through the official national historical narrative. This process consists of inventing traditions in Hobsbawm's famous term and constructing factoids to back them up (the secret school in Turkokratia, the raising of the flag in Ayia Lavra on 25th March of 1821, the demanding of enosis in the archbishop's welcoming address to the British in 1878). This is of course a process of distortion of the actual historical developments, nevertheless its systematic repetition especially in primary education instills them in young people's consciousness and it needs years of study and questioning at university level to actually manage to see through them. Secondly the Turkish Cypriots are seen as a minority with weaker historical and political rights in comparison to the Greek Cypriots on the present and future of Cyprus, thus making them unwilling to support or even merely accept a power-sharing agreement in a future federal context. Thirdly g/c students become unaccustomed to think outside the national frame thus weakening their capacity for critical thought, multi-perspectivity and multi-dimensionality of analysis and historical dialogue.

B. The effort for educational reform away from ethnocentrism 2004-2010

Ok. The Turkish Cypriot revolt in 2002, the opening of the checkpoints in 2003 and the entry into the EU in 2004 had created new facts on the ground and raised again the stakes of the on-going contestation concerning the history of Cyprus. As the possibility for a new future opened up, there was new impetus to re-think both our past and re-orient the educational process as a whole towards the vision of the future. In this context, the committee of the seven academics produced its manifesto for a thorough and structural reform of the educational system. The most radical element of that document was the attack on ethnocentrism which was seen as dominant, culturally monolithic and narrowing the ideological and political frame of Cypriot education. It conceptualised Cyprus as being autonomous and European and it put forward the idea of taking seriously into account the realities of bi-communalism and multi-culturalism and incorporating them in the educational system. The importance of that proposal lies not so much on its actual influence in the process that followed it but more on its pushing the acceptable limits of the public debate on education in general and history teaching in particular. What was more or less censored before as unpatriotic and traitorous, was now coming out from the mouth of experts appointed to consult the state.

The change of the t/c history books in 2004 which was hailed by progressives in the South and it armed us with an additional argument about the need to reciprocate in the context of the on-going reunification process. Nevertheless the more general climate during the rest of Papadopoulos term, especially after the death of the reformer Minister of Education, Pefkios Georgiades was such that did not allow much hope for such an ambitious educational reform. It was only in 2008, after the election of Hristofias that the possibility of implementing the changes suggested re-opened. The new minister, Andreas Demetriou seemed prepared to move on and spoke a new language in his original circulars. He talked negatively of nationalist g/c and t/c para-military groups in the era 1963-1974, he questioned the need of militarised school parades, he said that our models and heroes should not only be dead teenagers and he talked about the need to democratise our schools. He also proclaimed the 2008-2009 academic year, the year of “cultivating the culture of peaceful coexistence” and he left open the possibility of contacts between g/c and t/c students. But the nationalist hysteria that was unleashed in the last two years, spearheaded by the Archbishop, the leaderships of the POED and OELMEK as well as from politicians from all parties except AKEL did not leave much prospects for significant changes to be allowed or even tolerated. (Ekpedeftiki Allagi and Kalemi)

The attack against the efforts for educational reform in general focused on the subject of history. AKEL was accused of trying to “instrumentalise history” and “ideologise its teaching”. So effectively the conservative nationalist camp employed the liberal rhetoric of a “value-free education” putting forward the idea that there was no ideology now in the educational system and that AKEL was trying to put one in. Even Persianis' last book (2010) about the politics of education in Cyprus which otherwise acknowledges the inextricable link between politics and education at some point (p. 113) criticises the attempt for educational reform as being politically and not pedagogically motivated. This rhetoric was articulated from a system's perspective, from the perspective of the current hegemonic socio-economic bloc, that considers its own ideology as the reality, its own view as not being political but the framework of permissible politics. Needless to say that in order construct this one “objective truth”, the basis that is of the official history, there has to be censorship of other, alternative voices, themes and phenomena as Panayiotou (2009) notes: the lower class political culture and class conflict are two such examples.

AKEL's response was mild in the sense that it refrained from a head-on collision with the forces of nationalism and tried to moderate its position in order to achieve some sort of a consensus. This proved wholly elusive as the conservative nationalists stood firm in their positions – the teachers unions' officially abstaining from the preparatory committees and the political parties not voting the budget in the parliament. The academic history committee was appointed with a view to reflect the general balance in this public debate. Eventually it split into two – a majority proposal (3) and a minority proposal (2). The majority proposal was published two months ago in the webpage of the Ministry of Education and it is considered to be the official, while the minority one is yet unpublished.

The majority proposal is really unacceptable. The “new” analytic programme is essentially a copy-paste of the old/existing ethnocentric analytic programme with some minor insertions on the specificity of Cyprus and one single reference in the skills section “to the ability to evaluate and comment upon sources and accept possible multiple interpretations of the historical fact or phenomenon to which they refer” (p.25). However this allusion to multiplicity of interpretation is really rhetorical as one reads the whole thematic and analytical framework proposed. The narrative is still focused on Hellenism and Cyprus is still considered to be unquestionably fully encompassed within it. The students are for example asked to debate for and against Kapodistrias' policy, for and against Trikoupis' policy and for and against the Megali Idea. The alleged multi-perspectivity is squarely situated within the frame of the nation. Multiple perspectives are allowed only within Hellenism not in relation to it. And certainly not even within the g/c community where despite the references to the two poles (AKEL and Ethnarchy p.55) the students are not asked for example to debate for and against Enosis or for and against EOKA.

Overall the proposal for the primary education is far worse than that of the secondary education. In the primary education history which is much more brief, the Ottoman period in Cyprus is not examined autonomously like the Western (Frankish and Venetian) period but subsumed in three sections entitled “The Greek world from the Fall (of Constantinople that is) until the revolution of 1821”, “The preparation and the turning points of the Greek Revolution of 1821” and “Cyprus in the last period of Ottoman rule 1830-1878” where supposedly the enosist movement appeared. In the primary education general aims there is a direct reference to the students' “historical and national identity” which history education “will allow them to gain”. The idea is the progressive gaining of knowledge about “the history of Cyprus and the Greek world and then also of the various at different periods co-habiting religious and national groups of the island.” In the secondary education the general aims and the framework is more or less the same but because the syllabus is much more extensive there is some more detail about the Ottoman, British and independence periods.

The minority proposal is not a radical alternative one. It does however constitute a moderate reform of the philosophical orientation of history teaching and a relative progress because of three reasons:
a) it does approach the history of Cyprus autonomously, primarily linked but not subsumed to Greek history, and related also with the history of the Mediterranean civilisations, European and global history. In this context there is no reference in the general aims to the students' developing a “national identity” but a more general and potentially inclusive “love of their country” by “knowing the conditions of its creation, independence, liberties and rights of its people”. Hence both themetically and analytically Cyprus becomes the centre the story and “National History” is approached separately and in contradistinction to the “Science of History”.
b) it does not link the Greek Revolution of 1821 with the Fall of Constaninople in the Tourkokratia frame but to the French Revolution of 1789 and the onset of modernity. In this context the French Revolution has shaped global history whereas the Greek Revolution has shaped regional (that is Ottoman and Mediterranean) history. Upon this almost internationalist perspective the minority proposal also places more emphasis to modern and world historical events like colonization and decolonization, the Russian Revolution etc.
c) it proposes for the last two years, independent bibliographical research by the students under their teachers' supervision on a variety of generalised themes in a comparative manner such as:
the origins and development of Christianity and Islam,
the political and economic context of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires,
the industrial revolution and historical capitalism,
the construction of the greek and the turkish nations and states,
the United Nations and the European Union,
immigration, multiculturalism and civil society.

C. Resisting ethnocentrism in practice

Ok I am not going to speak any more about the minority proposal. Let it be published (most propably by its authors rather than by the Ministry of Education) and then hopefully we can debate on it. On the level of political analysis however, one thing seems obvious. That up to this moment, after 6 years the attempt of the state to reform history teaching away from ethnocentrism has failed dismally. So let us see what we can do at the level of civil society. If there is one thing clear by now is that moderating our positions and expectations, and waiting from the state itself to proceed to changes in school history has proven to be naive. Ethnocentrism is still dominant in society and more so in the state mechanism which rules it and this cannot change from “above”. Nationalism is a hegemonic social force, inscribed in the public sphere and discourse and rooted in the educational system. Our strategy for the future must be more pragmatist and simultaneously more offensive. That is we should focus our energies and efforts to countering specific aspects of the “official history” in alternative publications that could be used in the classroom as well. That is rather than attempting to construct history textbooks we should be aiming for history teaching supplements. And of course not expect the state to authorise their use (like the Association for Historical Dialogue does – or at least did in the past) simply because it will not; unless there is an agreement for reunification the two regimes are unlikely to change their basic conceptual schema about the past. As Kizilgurek noted in 2007 (POST) “history is dealing with the future not with the past” therefore unless the possibility of a different future opens up, the g/c history teaching seems unlikely to change.

This of course begs the question. How can the possibility for a different future open up in the context of a nationalist educational system? This is a political and practical not an academic and theoretical question. Therefore to sum up in a nutshell the suggestion is this: resisting ethnocentrism through alternative sources and interpretations and telling different histories. Creating internet thematic archives, in audiovisual as well as print form and disseminating the information among the teachers and the students through unofficial and informal networks. Bringing sufficiently in the international and local histories, focusing on the social dimension, employing oral history and independent student research. Unearthing the hidden stories and breaking the silences and the censorship both about the historical porousness of Cypriot ethno-religious identities as well as about the recent dark moments of ethnic conflict. Really exploring the idea of multi-perspectivity and multiple interpretations both within and without the ethnic and communal group. And finally promoting bi-communalism as the Cypriot way to multiculturalism through encouraging and organising contacts between g/c and t/c teachers and students. A more ambitious plan already discussed by the Teachers Platform “United Cyprus” is the creation of an autonomous bi-communal school, first on a part time basis and if possible in the future on a full time basis in the dead zone. In the current circumstances, there does not seem to be another way out.


Ekpedeftiki Allagi, organ of the Secondary Education Teachers Association “Allagi” (main group within OELMEK affiliated to DISI), Issues 5 and 6, February and May 2009

Hobsbawm Eric and Ranger Terence, The invention of tradition, Cambridge, 1983

Mavratas Ceasar, Faces of greek nationalism in Cyprus, Athens, 1998

Ministry of Education RoC (Pedagogical Institute), Analytical programme for the teaching of the subject of History in primary and secondary education, 2010 (published majority proposal and unpublished minority proposal)

Panayiotou Andreas, Lower class political culture and mechanisms/apparatuses setting the parameters of permissible public discourse, PRIO Conference 2009

Papadakis Yiannis, History Education in divided Cyprus: a comparison of G/C and T/C schoolbook on the “History of Cyprus”, PRIO Report 2/2008

Persianis Panayiotis, The politics of education in Cyprus 1812-2009, University of Nicosia, 2010

POST, Education for Peace II, Comparative analysis of the Old and the New History Textbooks, 2007

To Kalemi, Greek Cypiot section of the bi-communal Teachers Platform United Cyprus, All Issues especially September 2009

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