“Society needs to have a minimum of shared norms which public education has to transmit”

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In the midst of the current discussion about history no longer being a compulsory subject for high school students, the historian and Doctor in History at the Colegio de México talks about the subject’s relevance to help us understand our past and our future as a society, and how its obligatory and thorough teaching in the public education system helps to build a more democratic and less hegemonic understanding.

By Jennifer Abate and Evelyn Erlij

On May 15th the National Education Council, an autonomous institution, announced a change in the curriculum that affected the non-compulsory subjects in high school, which would be implemented through a plan of modification presented by the Ministry of Education on April 10th. Among the changes to the curriculum for the Common Plan of General Education in all the distinctions (artistic, science/humanities, and professional/technical) it was decided that history would no longer be one of the six core subjects in the common plan, meaning that in scientific-humanities colleges it would become a non-compulsory subject. Pedro Montt, President of the National Council of Education, confirmed that scientific-humanities colleges would be free to teach the subject or not, and that professional-technical colleges would no longer be able to. He argued that the content of the subject would not actually be lost as part of it would be absorbed into the curriculum for an earlier year of high school and part of it would be included in a new subject, Civic Education, which would be compulsory in the following high school year.

What do you think of this decision and how do you think it will affect future generations?

History’s status of being an optional subject goes hand-in-hand with a more comprehensive way of looking at what the curriculum proposes. The increased flexibility is noteworthy, and making it optional seems to be an interesting alternative in order to encourage greater depth in content in high school to open up other lines of teaching. Politics and Society, Economics, and Heritage are already optional subjects that could absorb and address the content of History. But making it optional does raise other issues, which are addressed in these documents; what, for example, happens in schools that don’t have the resources and staff to offer this spectrum of optional subjects? What happens if in Civic Education or in one of the other subjects –compulsory or not– the specificity of what History offers, which is so much more than mere content, is not investigated and taught? The answers that have been given, which suggest that the teaching of History will focus on the transmission of material, are complex and dangerous if it means emphasising that History can be “taught”.

In this sense are you emphasising that History, rather than being a means to “implant” information into students, is a way of understanding the world?

In the historiographic debate in social sciences, not recently but rather in the second half of the 20th century, part of the premise is that History is, at its origins, associated with power and the construction of an official narrative, wherever that is situated on the political spectrum. I’m not saying that there’s a left-wing or a right-wing History, but rather that History as a way of constructing a narrative and common elements for a group leans almost naturally towards the official because it constructs an official version of events. This has been countered through debate and a lot of hard work put in not only by historians but also History teachers, everyday citizens interested in history, and in the world of publishing. History is a polemical and disputed field; it isn’t just an accumulation of knowledge. It has an inherent disciplinary specificity that needs to be elaborated, but in terms of teaching, History is a context for the construction of subjects. It is a space for the development of thinking and the articulation of opinion.

Certain historians consider that it is important for History to be taught in schools because it imparts the version of facts that will remain in the minds of future citizens. It’s taken for granted, for example, that the Mapuche are a brave fighting peoples; or a certain superiority of Chileans compared to their neighbours is imparted. Why do you think that it’s important for History to be taught in schools?

It is fundamental because it produces a sense of community. But the challenge not only lies in how History is taught but also in how this space of historical reflection can be opened up to all. If it is going to become, as happened with religious education, a dogma that can be taught in which one version of history can be replaced with another, then we’re just going to continue replicating the negative consequences of the way History has been taught which ends up in a homogenization, an erasing of differences, as well as with the installation of complex ideas that contravene human rights, that encourage a chauvinistic version of patriotism that doesn’t allow for discussion. This is absolutely crucial. If the first tenet of education is to configure citizens who are capable and autonomous, then History teaching has to contribute to this, and not the other way around. So, as well as thinking about how the subject should be characterised, it is also imperative to think about what place certain practices vital to History have, such as questioning, contrasting a variety of sources, investigating oneself, and constructing a narrative.

History is a disputed terrain where a common vision of certain facts is imposed. It’s a difficult question because you don’t teach at schools, but probably as a historian you share this concern: How should history be taught in schools? How can a common truth be found?

What happens in the classroom is anchored in the potentialities and the educative environments, as well as in the teachers who are, in the end, those who can transmit the material or not. There are textbooks that are diametrically opposed to what was published 20 years ago or in the 80s; there have been substantive changes, but that doesn’t mean that the teachers can, in the specific context of their work, follow entirely the route-map offered by the textbooks. There must be a different way of approaching the debate about “the common”, which isn’t from the perspective of truth or lies, the correct or the incorrect. We should at least be able to put on the table the discussion about how the official version of events is constructed, or how counter-history is constructed, and what is marginalised. We should be able to speak about historiography, to compare different authors, to contrast Sergio Villalobos with Gabriel Salazar or María Angélica Illanes, to question Jorge Baradit. In terms of forming part of the material for a class, this is dependent on a series of factors, which brings us back to questions of inequality: who has the better conditions to construct this ideal world. I believe that the right tools exist, and that there are teachers who are absolutely committed to this vision and to these challenges, but whether the teachers can rise to these challenges depends on their individual capability rather than because the institutional conditions are in place to ensure that they can. It’s a question of access to books, to training schemes. For example, in public schools it’s a bureaucratic nightmare for teachers to get permission to take their students out of the classroom.

Since the Pinochet dictatorship the teaching of History has been problematic: during the 90s and the first years of 2000s various textbooks used in Chilean schools to teach the History of Chile only got to 1973, and in many cases the dictatorship was referred to as “the military regime”. It’s as though there’s no history after 1973, although this did change progressively after 1996 when the content of the curriculum was gradually updated to today. How can the narrative of recent history, that continues to arouse such passion in a society that is built on forced reconciliation as the Chilean society is, be constructed?

Here we have to go into local details and discuss how complicated it is even to have this conversation because of the pacts of the transition period, which even have an impact on what can be named or not. Even nowadays people ask whether Pinochet was President or not, whether one should say “civilian-military dictatorship” or “coup”. For example, not long ago I saw the minutes from the Interior Ministry in which the coup is decreed. And if we’re being strict about it we should say “coup” because that’s what the document says. But the point is that the mediation between what most people know about history and what happens on a day-to-day basis, is filtered through school teachers. And here I come back to what I said earlier: what are the chances of teachers in a public school being able to achieve this in a classroom? They have some tools, such as the internet where a lot of information is available, along with examples of good practice, but this can’t be at the mercy of the individual creativity of a teacher; there must be a fundamental basis of shared norms. And that’s where the process of making a subject not-compulsory should be questioned.

In essence, this debate includes the definition of what public education should be like. What characteristics do you think should be inherent in the education that is, by definition, aimed at all the children of Chile?

The first is that it is a right. While we have arrived at a certain agreement concerning the public, which is embodied in the state now, I do believe that we have to continue defending and protecting what is public as a right. We have the Law of Obligatory Infant Education, which was a great project and was supported by all sectors across the country in 1920, and which isn’t even 100 years old. We have to be capable, as a society, of agreeing on the basic common norms. Educating people is living in community; we can’t live in isolation, we need a society in order to survive, and that society has to be based on the basic norms that education has to impart.

History as a subject should be part of that structure of basic norms, not because we need to agree on how to relate it, but because we can’t perceive of ourselves, nor educate ourselves in a collective project, without looking at what we have done, at the mistakes and successes that we have made together. We continue to say that there is a public education system, and we have to defend that because we can’t leave it to the mercy of the free market or the big economic interests, even less so when there is such inequality in the distribution of the symbolic wealth. What capacity do we all have for thinking and deciding? Some people have never had the right to this, and public education is the only space in which they can acquire it.

At the beginning of the year an exhibition on women in the public eye was opened at the Sala Museo in the Casa Central of the Universidad de Chile, with the aim of showing the role of women in the development of the lesser-known history of the country, as another way of incorporating them into a more institutionalised line of knowledge. Where did the idea for this exhibition come from?

The focus of the exhibition is what is “public”. This exhibition is based on a project developed by the Vice-rector’s Office for Outreach and Communication, in partnership with the Andrés Bello Central Archive which provided content. It has to do with how to debate questions of the present and the possible from the perspective of heritage, which is understood as a series of objects that can trigger a discussion. The exhibition “Public Women” takes the public word as a disputed territory and space. It begins with the dictionary definition from the 19th century that a “public woman” means a prostitute, while a “public man” is a statesman and is honourable. The presence of women in the public space means having authority and power, because while women have obviously existed in the public sphere it’s not the same being a street-seller as having a position that brings remuneration and respect, or the possibility of taking decisions. It’s important to discuss this in the sphere of public education because that is where these sorts of debates can take place.

This interview is dated 31st May 2019, and was recorded for the radio show Palabra Pública, de Radio Universidad de Chile, 102.5.

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