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Teaching History: Sensitive Issues and the formation of identity in France.
Abstract.The author focuses attention on the particular traits of teaching history in France as part of secondary education. The point of focus are the "sensitive issues" of the history of the Fifth Republic which affect the formation of national identity of students, one way or another. These aspects of French history often spark social debate, which don't often end in agreement. The goal of this article is to analyze the didactic practices of the major actors in education - the teachers whose pedagogical practices are often limited by official instructions, curriculums, and the reactions of their students and their parents.
During the study, the author used the ideographical method, basing on empirical data received during a specific sociological study. The study itself and the diligent interpretation of its statistical spread allowed the author to define a broad spectrum of the narratives which are the most "traumatizing" to the identity of young French citizens. The continuum of such problems includes scenarios that do not have definitive interpretations in the context of the Fifth Republic's history. The issues studied in this article aren't yet studied thoroughly enough in French social anthropology and political science, and Russian science still haven't made them an object of targeted research.
Keywords: geopolitical choices, historical discourse, social debates, identity building, history teaching, social effect, France, actors of education, history, construction of identity
Article was received:03-03-2018
History is not a simple school subject. History teaching has many social missions. Identity building, referring to history, is built on the frontier between “us” and “the other”. History teaching is inevitably relating to sensitive issues, issues debated by scholars and dividing society.
The social effect of the treatment or avoidance of these questions is very important: identity tensions or radicalization may result. The focus on teachers' practices is guided first of all by the political stakes inherent in the construction of identity through the education system [1, p. 4]. This political dimension is partly due to the fact that it is an important subject of public policy, educational policy and political debate, and is an issue of particular importance.
The analysis also responds to cognitive and theoretical issues that aim to apprehend the actors - the history teachers - and the social conditions of teaching sensitive sensations and the social effects of its assimilation.
The state is a powerful "identity maker" because it has the material and symbolic resources that enable it to impose categories of identification on the nation. An identity discourse conveyed by a strong institution and endowed with quasi-monopolized resources, such as the State, through powerful instruments of inculcation [2, 298 p.], such as the education system, a true "identity factory [3, 272 p.]" has a high social effectiveness. An immense educational industry works relentlessly to force the younger generation to assimilate the message about history and identity [4, 123 p.].
The way in which teachers deal with sensitive and identity issues depends largely on their own identity, their background, their motivation, their training, their professional autonomy.
The issues experienced as sensitive.
The questionnaire invited teachers to identify issues that were sensitive in their teaching practice. Among the sensitive questions spontaneously mentioned by the teachers, the first place (47% of the answers) goes to religion in all its complexity: history of the religions, crusades, Islamic state, secularism, caricatures of the prophet, veil, question of origins of (18%), immigration (12%), the Shoah (17%), the Armenian genocide (11%) are identified as sensitive subjects by teachers. Teachers' responses refer to questions not only foreseen in the curriculum, but the subjects mentioned refer to the "hidden curriculum" (Audigiez, F. Tutiaux-Guillon, N. (ed) 2008) are the subject of debate in society.
The aspects of civic education (Falaise, B. Heimberg, Ch., Oliver Loubes, 2013) were also emphasized by 45% of teachers: "Discrimination and respect for differences", "Freedom of expression, critical thinking" , "To feel citizen, go to vote", "freedom of expression following the attacks of January 7", "democracy, political systems".
The problems of building of citizenship in a democracy are highlighted by the teachers: "Students do not feel that they belong to a citizens’ community, which explains their demotivation", “Some of the pupils think that politicians are all corrupted.” The term “conspiracy” is cited by 7% of teachers in the answers about the reasons for the sensitivity: "Some students have a family belonging to Salafist movements, some students see plots everywhere."
Among the questions concerning the political and civic aspects, the problem of equality between men and women was mentioned by 17% of respondents. Teachers stressed the difficult construction of the "gender" component of personal identity that emerged during teaching and debates around issues related to the place of women in society, abortion, homosexuality. "The issue of sexual freedom is very often a problem because many people openly express homophobia, regardless of their social or religious origin."
Numerous subjects were cited by teachers on a statistically marginal basis (less than one percent of responses): new conflicts, rurality, social action in France, the power of the United States, the Resistance during the Second world war. Yet these examples show the very broad spectrum and the degree of difficulty of the questions addressed in the course of history: questions related to the past, to everyday experience, to major political and geostrategic questions. The social mission of the history teachers is very complex: they must master vast and complex issues.
The questionnaire proposed to reflect on the teaching practices of three sensitive subjects: colonial history, World War II, immigration. The results are presented in Table №1.
Question: To what extent have you experienced the issue as sensitive in your own teaching practice?
According to the qualification "The question is very sensitive", the most problematic themes for teachers are those of immigration and colonial history. The Second World War is not considered as particularly sensitive. The three subjects identified as sensitive by the questionnaire are regularly taught by the majority of respondents (85%).
The questionnaire proposed to teachers to relate their perception of the difficulty of teaching colonial history, World War II and immigration with colleagues' vision. The results are presented in Table 2.
The appreciation of the difficulty of teaching the three questions and the colleagues' appreciation of the difficulty converge. The responses identify the Second World War as not sensitive for colleagues, while immigration and colonial history are difficult for a large number of colleagues.
Immigration is not only an object taught, it is also experienced by teachers who have immigrant students in their classes, as shown in Table №3.
The question on forgotten / politically discouraged subjects has divided teachers, and Table 4 shows this.
In your opinion: is there any important issue in French history that is forgotten, neglected in the curriculum or politically discouraged?
The question "In your opinion: is there any important issue in French history that is forgotten, neglected in the curriculum or politically discouraged?" was followed by the open question "If yes, please name the question and explain why."
26% of teachers did not mention forgotten, neglected or politically discouraged issues. Social and economic history as an unjustly neglected subject is cited by 8% of teachers. "Economic history is forgotten, as well as the crisis of 1929, which is very important for understanding Nazism." Teachers criticize the fact that "history and some questions are artificially inflated and instrumentalized, hat is done to the detriment of other questions which are neglected : "We reduce the history of revolutions and the French Revolution, we never study the Paris Commune, we discard all modern history even teach clichés ".
Teachers point out changes in curricula that are detrimental to the quality of education: "The program changes according to political tendencies and options, the time devoted to the Revolution, the major workers' movements of the 19th century, the crisis of 1929, 'development of technology, questions of colonial repentance, and there is no longer any logic from didactical point of view and from the point of view of the content of history teaching'.
The methodological and didactical aspects suffering from political injunctions are also criticized by the teachers:
"There are many methodological problems, there no a chronological progression, but a fragmented vision of history. "Now we must teach a history that is close to academic and historiographic debates, I’m not sure it’s very positive) "; "The teaching of historical facts, is now replaced by improbable discussions around documents". The problem of "developing a true critical reflexion with regard to sources" is also mentioned.
Other "obliterated" subjects are cited: "the political uses of history" (7%), "the place of the political extremes parties" (3%), "too little time for the Second World War" (4%) , Colonization (3%) "," French crimes in Algeria "," history of the state, link between religion and politics "," World War I " , "Genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda" (1%).
Some teachers complain about that lack time to teach sensitive issues : "I believe, despite the recurring and massively discussed be the mass media debates about the loss of a national history in France, there is not enough time for teaching a more open history about other civilizations, a connected, global history ". Other teachers denounce "too busy curricula" and " too little attention to the history of France because of the opening of curricula and inclusion of other civilizations".
Reasons for sensitivity.
The teachers were asked to identify the reasons for the sensitivity and of the difficulty of teaching these questions.
Reasons for sensitivity are primarily related to students' religion (24%), ethnic origin (15%), beliefs (32%), and history and memory (Tutiaux - Guillon, N. 2002) transmitted by the family (9%). Teachers testify that "it is difficult to teach the Armenian genocide for students of Turkish origin," it is difficult to teach decolonization, when "my grandfather was at Algerian war." The family's experience and memory have a great influence on the students, "the actors and their descendants still have living memory about different events". The strength of the students' convictions is a factor that makes the teaching of sensitive questions difficult: "These questions were sensitive to the pupils, who did not want to hear any word contrary to their convictions", the teachers point out: “Every word of the teacher is contested even before I can open my mouth ". Teachers are aware that the age of pupils is an important element, it’s the age when the person's identity is constructed (Ericson, E. 1959), when "pupils wonder about good and evil". "Some sensitive issues ask students about their own identity and "it is an element that complicates the" teacher-student "relationship. Some questions are complicated and depressing for students, as they "force them to take responsibility for their place in society, in the world that some do not want to see".
When rational reflection is rejected, its place is taken by the affects and emotions of the pupils who complicate the work of the teacher (7%): "too much of emotion and of sensitivity and not enough reflexion". For the very delicate issue of respecting religious beliefs: "It is complicated, and the pupils are quick to ignite, so it is important to organize the debate, to lay down rules and laws, and to be able to discuss."
Personal students’ convictions become an obstacle to teaching and learning: "the tensions often come from a lack of knowledge of the issue and the strength of clichés. Racism and the lack of tolerance of pupils as an obstacle are cited by 6% of teachers: "racism towards different peoples, the idea of Europeans’ superiority for pupils", "racism, lack of tolerance, xenophobia", "Fairly lively between pupils, those from immigration and those impregnated by populist and even frankly racist speeches ".
The conspiracy theses and mistrust of the official discourse and of curricula, of textbooks and of teachers by the students are emphasized by 11% of teachers.
The difficulty of dissociating the discourse and personal religious experience is also emphasized. The personal experience of the pupils and the their families’ experience are cited as the origin of the difficulty of teaching certain questions: "The tensions often come from a lack of knowledge of the subject and of the issue and the force of clichés ...".
Pupil’s “saturation by history” is also cited by teachers, so we will see later that teachers' opinions are divided as to the pupils' contacts with history outside the education system: 56% support the idea that pupils have 'many contacts' with history outside of school, while 44% think that students “do not have enough contact” with history outside the school. It is interesting to note the "force of inertia" evoked by the teachers. Inertia can be a brake on sensitive issues teaching, because teaching sensitive issues requires time to search documents, for reliable sources, to have arguments to discuss with students. To teach sensitive issues demand the courage to face the reactions of the students, which can be hostile.
23% of teachers declare that they do not avoid sensitive subjects. "I do not avoid any subject by principle." "I do not avoid any subject, I approach them by a “dissection” of notions and vocabulary, which makes it possible to found a solid ground, to take at the root the explanation, to enter into knowledge in order to stimulate a try discussion and to reject the simplistic conclusions, which block students in primary emotional reactions." "I do not have taboos, on the contrary, to discuss sensitive issues it is a possibility of undoing prejudices "," No sensitive subject is avoided at my classes; " "I do not avoid sensitive issues, I hope to approach them with the necessary tact", "with respect towards to the pupils, I feel able to teach any issue and to conduct any pedagogical activity".
One of the most important results of the survey is the fact that 77% of teachers avoid sensitive questions, which means that sensitive issues - “the time bombs” are not defused.
Among the reasons for avoidance of sensitive issues, 12% of teachers reported on religious aspects, 6% on the origins and family of pupils, 6% on lack of information on topics, especially concerning genocide, colonial history / decolonization, war of Algeria 11%, immigration 5%.
"I felt obliged to make and up-date, to read publications, to look for didactic and pedagogical material to know how to approach the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish question in class.”
3% of teachers indicate the students' emotions as an obstacle. 2% of the teachers emphasize the difficulty "to approach certain subjects without giving their point of view on the question".
The open-ended question was followed by a series of questions devoted to the reason for the sensitivity of the mentioned issues. The results are presented in the table №5.
Table №5. Reasons for sensitivity
Table № 6.
The global approach to sensitive issues.
The table №6 shows the answers to the question on the general assessment of sensitive issues and their place in society indicates that the majority of respondents consider that there are sensitive issues in France (only 3% consider that there are none). Sensitive issues are a matter of discord and 90% believe there is no academic consensus on sensitive issues and 89% feel there are no clear guidelines from the authorities. 85% of respondents believe that the "strictly academic basis" is not a solution in dealing with sensitive issues.
It is interesting to compare the perception of mastering of sensitive issues by the teachers: 40% say they have good arguments for discussing with students, 33% feel that their knowledge of sensitive issues is sufficient, 31% say they have a clear view of these issues, 26% master the appropriate teaching methods and 25% think they have sufficient teaching materials.
The percentage of positive perception of mastering sensitive issues decreases when the formulation of questions go from abstract perception (having good arguments and good knowledge 30-40%) to practical and concrete elements as methods and material (25-26%).
The classical hiatus between practices and perceptions of practices can be one element that explains the difficulty of teaching sensitive questions. Teachers believe that they can deal with sensitive issues, but do they really care about everyday practices do they have an in-depth reflexion about effective methods of teaching sensitive questions and answering students' difficult questions?
Methods of teaching sensitive issues.
Questions about the methods used and their effectiveness gave the possibility to identify the methods used and the most efficient (results reflected in the table №7).
Among the methods used and judged effective by teachers, the documentary film and the analysis of conflicting historical sources come first (56%), followed by visits to museums, historical sites and the invitation of specialists (47%), work on written or audio testimony (46%), invitation of the witnesses (42%).
The reference to conflicting sources, educational films, historical sites and external experts can be interpreted as the will to objectify learning, to provide evidence and arguments with objective scientific solidity necessary to deal with sensitive issues, where the major obstacle for sensitive issues teaching are subjective personal perception, emotions and beliefs. This is why external experts are more valued compared to witnesses, where the narration of the experience can be corrupted by the subjective elements. Written or audio testimony is more effective than direct discussion with witnesses, because it is less subject to the subjective influence of an oral exchange. Research projects carried out by pupils benefit from a 42% positive assessment and the use of family history by 35%, which can be linked to the difficulty of take off the emotional charge of the research work, the weight of convictions of the students and their families.
The methods described as ineffective are the reading and summary of the manual (effectiveness judged at 18%), reading in class (33%) and literary fiction (26%), use of resources contradicting the textbook (21%).
The textbook appears to be a poorly credible and ineffective source of knowledge, while using contradictory historical sources is one of the most effective methods.
Regarding written sources, their effectiveness (reading in class is appreciated by 33% of teachers) depends on their status: literary fiction is a valid source for 26% of respondents, whereas historical sources (documentaries are part of it) are considered as effective at 56%. Role-playing (22%), such as "court" or debate (19%), is not very effective, as far as the game gives more room to the feelings and judgments of the students to the detriment of the objective arguments.
Teachers were invited to express their opinion on the students' contacts with history outside the school. Table №8 shows the results.
Table №8. Student contacts with history outside of school
It is interesting to compare the answer to the question about the importance to address sensitive issues in school. Although opinions are divided, the majority of teachers believe that there is an "overdose of sensitive issues outside the school".
The table №9 presents the answers of the teachers about the place of the teachers' personal opinion in the classroom.
Table №9. What do you think about revealing your personal opinion in the classroom?
The answers to the question on the place of the personal opinion of the teacher in the class are quite surprising. If the teacher's political preference should not be revealed for 78% of respondents, only 46% think there is no room for the teacher's opinion on emotionally sensitive issues and 45% on politically sensitive issues. This means that more than half of teachers find justification for the presence of the teacher's personal opinion in the classroom. If the biggest difficulty of teaching sensitive questions is to come over personal opinions and emotions, which are the main obstacles for learning and the sources of hostility and the rejection of divergent opinions, in order to have scientific and calm debates, the personal teacher’s opinion is an element that can complicate the teaching of these questions.
The table № 10 presents the opinion of the teachers about history facts, trough and interpretations.
Personal opinions and preferences are considered as incompatible with historical truth by 99% of teachers, and only 46% consider that the teacher's personal opinion has no place in the classroom, as shown in the previous question, which is a paradox.
Similarly, the vast majority (99%) consider that historical facts do not speak for themselves and require interpretation, and 17% think that interpretations are not equal in terms of validity. 24% of respondents affirm the link between historical truth and perspective. Once again, the pitfall between the perception of practices and practices is revealed. Personal opinions are obstacles to historical truth, but are not really discarded from practices.
The most important goals to be achieved in history teaching (Tutiaux-Guillon, N. 2008) are the ability to criticize sources (81%) and critical thinking (Rober, A. Garnier, B. 2005) (67%), acquiring knowledge (60%), learning from the past (47%), becoming better citizens (40%). There is therefore a convergence between the importance of methods of critical analysis of historical sources, the development of critical thinking and argumentation, and the contribution of thought and becoming an enlightened citizen of democratic values.
Objectives that are of minor importance to teachers are patriotism (6%), development of moral virtues (14%), development of personal identity and national identity, and interest in history (30%). A paradoxical situation emerges once again. Without direct automatic link, the teaching of history activates reflection on issues that are the basis of personal and national identity construction. To avoid mentioning the construction of identity as the objective of education Is it a matter of avoiding debates about identity ? Or is it a strategy of avoidance, of refusing to recognize the teaching of history as a formative element of identity building (Nabli, B. 2016)? Is this fact related to the difficulty of teaching sensitive issues?
The most surprising finding is the lack of willing to transmit the passion or failing, the interest in the story. How a teacher, who normally should interested if not found of by her/his subject, does not aspire to share his/her interest in this discipline. Is this the result of the difficult conditions in which teachers practice their profession (Lantheaume, F. 2008)? Is it lassitude provoked by student’s reactions when the teacher is challenged and mistrusted before he or she can speak? The result is linked to another surprising answer to the question on professional identification (Dubar, C. 2004): "To what extent do you feel as a history teacher?".
The response "I only teach history" which reflects the minimum degree of identification with the profession has collected 8% of the answers and joins the paradox of lack of interest with the history subject and the professional disengagement (Kagan, DM 1992).
The table №11 shows teachers' professional identity.
The professional identity of teachers.
The fact that 21% of teachers do not wish to take any training on sensitive issues complements the analysis of the paradoxical situation: the teachers are mostly aware of the difficulties of teaching the sensitive questions but not considering training as an appropriate mean to improve their teaching practices. This passive attitude is it a matter of lassitude? Or the lack of confidence in training as a solution? Is there a preference for self-training? The certainty of having all the necessary tools to deal with sensitive issues (Meirieu, P. 2001)?
If the religious fact comes at the head of sensitive subjects cited spontaneously in the first question (47%), only 5% of the teachers want training on these questions.
The most demanding training (10%) is linked to the up-date of the epistemological and didactical knowledge, the recent scientific findings on the sensitive subjects.
4% would like to be trained in how to respond to conspiracy theories, 3% want to deepen their knowledge about immigration. Only 3% of respondents want to learn more about managing the emotional aspects of teaching sensitive issues, while the fear that "discussion with students may become too emotional" is quoted as a factor in avoiding sensitive issues by 64% of teachers and emotions are repeatedly cited as a real obstacle to teaching and learning.
The questionnaire invited teachers to describe a lesson on sensitive issues that was a pedagogical success. The subjects described by the teachers include colonial history / decolonization / the Algerian war (30%), followed by conflicts in the Middle East (23%); 16% described a lesson about the Armenian Genocide, 14% spoke about immigration, and 4% talked about religion.
Among the most widely used methods are work on documents (27%), discussion-argumentation (14%), use of witnesses and testimonies (20%), and 11% refer to visits to historic sites. The use of films is cited by 10% of teachers, 6% of teachers use comparative tables, maps, chronologies, 3% organize group work.
Of the respondents, both men and women had a comparable proportion, with a slightly higher percentage of women, as shown in the table № 12.
The sex of the respondents.
We asked for the respondents' teaching experience. The results are presented in the table № 13.
Table 13. Respondents' teaching experience.
Although we have the answers of beginning teachers and teachers with significant teaching experience, the vast majority of respondents are those who have more than 11 years of career as history teachers.
67% of teachers left a comment on the questionnaire, 45% stressed the importance of conducting research on the issues treated in the questionnaire. Some comments deserve to be published.
"It seems to me that some students in my private college have a deplorable state of mind regarding genocide and sensitive issues, and I rely on observations during projections of documentary films. I have reported extremely racist remarks of the students, but the hierarchy does not want to confront families that are disrespectful to teachers. We are facing families that sabotage our beautiful mission of history teaching. "
"Experience is a valuable asset in defusing certain students' reactions but does not do everything ... What happens outside school and on the Internet makes our task more difficult. Most respondents are very experienced teachers. The objective of freeing the debate from the grip of emotions is the first objective to be able to address sensitive issues by the teachers.
"The very heavy programs do not usually allow a critical sprinkling, the risk is often to simplify and caricature to finish the program. This is only a varnish"
Sensitive questions are real "time bombs" (Kaufmann, JC, 2014).
The question raised is very relevant: are there suitable conditions for teaching sensitive issues? Are overburdened programs and teachers, teachers under pressure from the hierarchy, parents, society, unmotivated, and without proper training on sensitive issues, able to defuse bombs (Sainsaulieu, R. 1977)?
"Speaking seriously with all the necessary humour, patiently constructing explanations for everything that is launched and always going to the end of ideas by bringing in the solid clues and knowledge allow you to deal with any audience. Is an exciting work. "
For the first time, humour is mentioned in the margin of the questionnaire. Teaching teachers to the subtleties of the emotional regime (Mackie, D.M. 2009) to humour and other methods and tools to deconstruct irrational, emotional-based hostilities would be a necessity.
The results of the survey reveal the difficulties faced by teachers in teaching sensitive issues - lack of training, lack of time, different pressures to which they are exposed - explain the poor handling of socially vivid questions - "time bombs".
The questionnaire gave the possibility to identify the complexity and wide range of sensitive issues addressed in history: from religion to sexuality. The responses showed a gap between the perception of practices and the practices themselves. Religion was identified by 47% of teachers as a sensitive subject. On the other hand, no one cited religious issues as the subject of specific training that could strengthen their teaching practices. 21% of respondents do not want to receive any training on sensitive subjects, while all teachers are confronted with dealing with these issues, and the majority feel in an uncomfortable situation, which may be related to the lack of refined tools, innovative and effective. 77% of teachers bypass sensitive subjects, so the majority of "time bombs" are not defused within the education system. The effect of teaching socially sensitive issues on civic education issues is spontaneously emphasized by teachers and, despite the awareness of the direct link between sensitive issues and the political socialization of young citizens, teachers remove sensitive issues.