Sunday, November 27, 2005

Historical perspectives

The Aftenposten (english edition) recently posted a story on how the Norwegian education minister wants to deemphasize modern history in high-school and focus more on earlier periods:

A key component in the draft national high school curriculum proposes replacing much Norwegian, European, world and modern history with digital presentations of the Viking age, the rise of the Roman Empire and the development of medieval China.

The new program leaves out the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and does not mention the topics of Nazism or Communism.

Its hard to tell from the article why they are doing this, and you have to take the Aftenposten with a grain of salt... their English articles are very tabloid in format and don't have anywhere near the detail of their Norwegian news.

I could be sarcastic and say the reason for this change in the history classes is that Norway doesn't have much history: The popular view is that following the christianization of Norway at the end of the Viking era, Norway went into decline and became a minor province of first the Danes and then the Swedes. Neutral during the first world war, it reappeared on the world stage following the German invasion, where it became a crucial base for German operations in the North Sea. Thus, to the outside world, Norway is Vikings and Quisling, and until the last 30 years not much else. That would be very unfair, however... Norwegian history, while not as colorful as that of Sweden or Denmark, is a big part of the history of whaling, Arctic and Antarctic exploration, the Hanseatic league, the settlement of North America, among other things. Even the Vikings themselves are given short shrift - more than just hairy barbarians, they established continent spanning trade networks that reached to the Byzantine empire and the shores of Newfoundland.

What this news article has reminded me of is just how much history... particularly European history... I was not taught in school, and how much I have learned since coming here. To take just the second world war as an example, depending upon which country I lived in either the English won the war, the Americans won the war (but the English helped), or the English won the war, but the Canadians did all the really dangerous and important work. I was aware that Norway had been invaded, but never new about the role it played in the German plans for the development of atomic weapons (or the important work of the Norwegian resistance in preventing it). Nor was I aware of the complex politics surrounding the German invasion, which saw almost as many Norwegians joining the Wermacht as joined the resistance. How many people outside of Scandinavia know of how the Danish government, while ostensibly cooperating with the Nazis, secretly smuggled their entire Jewish population to the safety of Sweden, or that neutral Sweden became a highway for the movement of German troops who officially were on vacations? In North America, we would believe that nothing much happened in Europe between the Battle of Britain and the landings on Omaha beach when in fact every European country has its own history of dealing with the German and Russian powers (the WWII history of central and eastern Europe is even more complex than that of Scandinavia).

If anything, students should be taught more history, not less... and covering a broad range of topics rather than just that of ones own country and the "classical" history of Greece and Rome. Local history is fine, but the world is an interconnected place... and only focusing on the local aspects never gives a person an idea of the larger context of events. As a youth I learned about the Vikings discovering North America and their failed attempts at settling here, but as an isolated fact, quickly passed over as we shifted to the later (successful) colonization efforts by the French, Spanish and English. Its only as an adult living in Scandinavia that I have come to see the larger context of trade networks, piracy and raiding, political rivalries and machinations, and changing cultures that resulted in the Viking settlements and their eventual failure. Its that larger context of world events that makes the history of my own country make sense... and turns an item of trivia into an interesting link of a globe-spanning chain of events with repercussions to this day.