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History Education And Nation Building: A Case Study In Lebanon

January 25, 2007

Upper-level undergraduates and graduate students in history are normally made aware of history’s uses with regard to nation building. I’m guessing that most graduate students, at least, have been made aware of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism(1983).

With that subject in mind, I want to depart from this site’s normal run of U.S.-based topics to one that underscores the educational usages of history. I forward for your examination a recent New York Times article on Lebanon. Written by Hassan M. Fattah and titled “A Nation With a Long Memory, but a Truncated History,” here are some excerpts:

– “History classes across the globe serve two purposes — they educate the young and they shape national identity. They also often sidestep controversy to avoid offense. It is the same here [in Lebanon] as elsewhere, but the controversy being avoided is the vicious, 15-year civil war that started in 1975. . . . The bizarre results are evident in any schoolbook here — history seems simply to come to a halt in the early 1970s, Lebanon’s heyday. With sectarian tensions once again boiling here, some educators fear that the failure to forge a common version of the events is dooming the young to repeat the past, with most of them learning contemporary history from their families, on the streets or from political leaders who may have their own agendas.”
– ” ‘America used the school to create a melting pot; we used it to reinforce sectarian identity at the expense of the national identity,’ said Nemer Frayha, the former director of the Education Center for Research and Development, a research organization that develops Lebanon’s curriculum. ‘From the start, I am forming the student as a sectarian person, not as a citizen. And what’s worse is that the people who are encouraging this are the intellectuals themselves.’ “
– “Students are frustrated by the omissions, knowing they are getting a distorted view of the past. ‘We keep asking them when we’re going to learn the real history,’ said Fatima Taha, a ninth grader at Hara International College, a secondary school in Beirut’s southern suburbs. ‘The history just suddenly stops.’ “
– “Private schools, which educate about half the country’s one million or so students, teach history based on books of their choosing, but approved by the Ministry of Education; public schools teach about two hours per week of history, based on textbooks virtually unchanged since they were written in the 1960s and 1970s.”
– “In one textbook, the students get to know the Ottomans as occupiers; in another, they read about them as administrators. In some, they study the French as colonialists; in others, they study them as a examples to emulate. In some Christian schools, history starts with the ancient Phoenicians, whom many Christians believe are their original ancestors, and the dawn of Christianity. In many Muslim schools, the Phoenicians are glossed over and emphasis is placed on Arab history and the arrival of Islam.”
– ” ‘If they would just give us a national history, this country’s entire outlook would change,’ said Jawad al Haj, Hara’s principal. . . . ‘The kids need realities, a history they can believe in,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, they will never learn the meaning of citizenship.’ “
– “Under the 1989 Taif accords that ended the civil war, Lebanon was supposed to unify its history and civics curriculums with the hope of building a national consensus and a more solid national identity. Nearly two decades later, however, the history and civics curriculums are the only subjects that have not been revamped, still seen as the third rail of Lebanese politics.”
– ” ‘Typically the victor writes the history,’ said Milhem Chaoul, a professor of sociology at the University of Lebanon. ‘The problem with the civil war was that nobody won, and you still can’t write its history because we are still not at peace.’ “

Do check out the article if you can (it’s already defaulted to abstract form). There’s much more in it on the various, recent committees and efforts in Lebanon that have made attempts to arrive at a common history.

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One of the things that intrigued me about the article was a corollary: Because of Lebanese history’s lack of common ground, they subsequently are unable to foster good citizenship. But why is history under pressure, seemingly by itself, to perform that education funcation in Lebanon? Can’t citizenship also be fostered in political science and literature courses? Don’t ethics and philosophy also help?

Isn’t the fear of a lack of common ground analogous to complaints in the U.S. about the devolution of generalized “U.S. history,” in the late 1960s, into ethnic racial studies? Many feared that citizenship would suffer. But that “devolution” hasn’t resulted in the complete and total fragmentation of U.S. society. In some ways the intensity of citizenship has increased. Of course many pre-existing tenets for common ground preceded fragmentation here – even if some of those tenets came from falsely-hyped, overinflated, and in some cases repressive commonalities of the 1950s. In many ways the moderate fragmentation that took place here in the 1970s was necessary. It forced U.S. citizens to come to terms with neglected interests, with whitewashed, ugly truths about the reality of life here for non-white males.

These questions aside I felt the NYT piece articulated well, by way of analogy, the uses of history – and the problems of using history – in nation-building projects. – TL

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