Issue Story: How Do You Teach Memory?

By: Maddie Ray

In the United States, four Confederate monuments were removed from the city of New Orleans in the summer of 2017, an event that could signify a shift in the way educators teach and how further generations learn about the Civil War.

This idea is supported by New Orleans’ mayor Mitch Landrieu’s statement, “there is a difference between remembrance of history, and the reverence of it.”

Disagreements over how a nation should remember important historical events is not exclusive to the United States. The Czech Republic’s education curriculum is currently evolving, influencing public memory of the Communist era.

“Memory is critically important because it defines us,” said Dr. Janice Hume, Department Head of Journalism at the University of Georgia, whose research focuses on the creation of public memory in media history. “If you think about it, a nation’s sense of identity, grounded in history, infuses its sense of power. History influences the way we understand the world.”

Public memory is a shared collection of beliefs that a community has about its past that is reflective of what is happening in the present. This belief system is guided by monuments, museums, iconic photographs, and what is taught in history books.

Standard history books used in Czech schools.

The Museum of Communism located in Prague contributes to the public memory of the Czech Republic’s governmental regime. As described on the museum’s website, the facility offers a “concise, objective, but certainly not pro Communist” view of the Czech Republic’s recent history that provides ”a great way to get a basic understanding of how this amazing Nation lived through such difficult and totalitarian times.”

 

Some regions in the Czech Republic have a different recollection. These people remember the Communist Era as a time where they did not have to struggle to find a job or pay for their homes, according to Čeněk Pýcha, lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

These differing views of the Communist era are reflected in how society overall remembers this time, which then gets passed down to younger generations through their school’s history curriculum.

Before the fall of communism in 1989, teachers were basically “ideology providers,”  according to Kateřina Vlčková in Being a Teacher in the Czech Republic, a paper for Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. They were under the control of the state to carry out strict instructions. This caused parents to distrust teachers after communist rule had ended. Many teachers struggled because old ways of teaching were no longer acceptable and few had any democratic experience.

Today the Communist Party remains a strong force in the Czech Republic, appearing on voting ballots each year. The Communist Party promotes standards for the quality of education in schools.

The current education system is not entirely unified in regards to history education.

“It’s an interesting situation because our curriculum compared to other states in Central Europe is not so strict,” says Pýcha .

The information a student is required to know is what Pýcha considers to be broad. This encourages teachers to write their own lesson plans, follow their own curriculum, and choose the material on which they focus.

The freedom to focus on different elements of history creates a disconnect between curriculum and what is discussed in history books published by the Ministry of Education, thus giving a window to the development of different history education aids.

Filmmakers Miroslav Trejtnar and Taťána Marková contribute to the promotion of progressive education with their  film entitled  “What to tell the kids?” This film’s purpose is to share personal experiences of people during the demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution in a form that would be accessible to children through the use of toys and animations.

Trejtnar and Marková discuss on their website why they shot this film. “On TV there are always the same faces, there are also still the same archival footage, the same phrases, the same theory. The media talks about the events that we have experienced, but they gradually forget. There is a risk in replacing your memories with the general media image.”

Parents and schools in the Czech Republic have since adopted this film in their homes and classrooms to educate children and revamp public memory of the Velvet Revolution, according to Leah Gaffen, who contributed to the creation of the project.

The European Union has assisted in the production of history education supplements with the goal of helping foster accurate public memory. They co-funded the online learning environment, Socialism Realised. Socialism Realised is a project of the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Socialism Realised was launched in Fall 2016 and has since been a tool for teachers in the Czech Republic and internationally to teach about the real existence of socialism.

“We developed it to have an easy way to include the history of this region into the curriculum. For a long time, the history ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ was excluded from the general narrative of European history,” says Karina Hoření, co-author of Socialism Realised.

What children learn about their past in school has the ability to influence public memory, and in return, their perceptions of the world. Čeněk Pýcha has hope for the Czech Republic saying, “there is a lot of responsibility on teachers and schools, that’s clear, but I think that the reform of new curriculum is going in the right way.”