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Initiative's Statement Regarding the Withdrawal of History Textbook

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At the beginning of December 2023, the Ministry of Science and Education, led by Minister Radovan Fuchs, made a decision to withdraw the history textbook for the fourth grade of high school titled "Why is History Important?" authored by Miljenko Hajdarović, Vedran Ristić, and Nikica Torbica from the Catalog of approved textbooks. This decision was formally based on the expert opinion of the evaluators from the Agency for Education, which negatively assessed the textbook for containing inaccurate or outdated information and leading students to incorrect conclusions. However, the Ministry had previously approved this textbook on May 17, 2021, and it has been used by high school seniors in certain Croatian schools for two school years.

The known chronology of events related to the withdrawal of the textbook and its problematic nature is explained by Snježana Koren, a professor from the Department of History at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, on the portal

As she points out, the decision to withdraw a history textbook has not been recorded in Croatia for almost a quarter of a century. This inevitably brings to mind the period before 1996 when there was a monopoly of a prescribed and acceptable textbook, reflecting a time when national history was used in political battles.

However, regardless of the fact that such practice was a thing of the past, history education occasionally becomes the focus of political, academic, and broader public attention, mainly due to dissatisfaction with how the period of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the wars of the nineties, and post-war nation-building are addressed.

History textbooks serve as a kind of bestseller among historiographical publications and, for many, are the only history books they encounter during their lifetime. Their reach should, therefore, be relatively significant. However, our research on "The War-torn Nineties from the Perspective of Youth in the Republic of Croatia" has shown that for young people, history classes rank only sixth as a source of information about events during the war. Primary sources include conversations with parents and/or close family members and discussions with individuals who had direct experiences of the war, followed by organized visits to Vukovar, media, and online portals. Our extensive experience working with young people also shows that their knowledge of the nineties is extremely limited, which they attribute to the lack of coverage of that period in formal education.

Furthermore, the same research has shown that the knowledge structure about the nineties for the majority of young people aligns with the dominant official narrative defined in the parliamentary Declaration on the Homeland War from 2000. The interpretation of the war in the Declaration is incomplete, one-dimensional, exclusionary, and mono-ethnic. Considering that it is often taken as a historical source for the war period (and not the period in which it was adopted), it serves as an indicator of political manipulation in historiography, influencing historical narratives that subsequently find their way into history textbooks.

The withdrawal of the textbook, which, from the perspective of its critics, represents a distortion of the historical truth about the war, is an attempt to protect the existing narrative and its uncritical acceptance among the youth. By eliminating competition, there is an artificial and forceful attempt to create a consensus on topics from the nineties, providing apparent legitimacy and common-sense character to the existing interpretation, which is significantly flawed and does not align with known facts about the war.

As a civil society organization that examines the legacy of the wars of the nineties, the way these conflicts are officially and unofficially remembered, and that strives to create a space allowing young people to become better acquainted with this period and encourage them to think critically about the past, we provide the following basic reasons why this decision is controversial and recommendations on how history education should be aligned with contemporary teaching standards.

The harmfulness of the decision to withdraw the mentioned textbook is evident from several perspectives, including:

  1. Transitional justice perspective: Forcing a hegemonic narrative that, as mentioned, is exclusionary and mono-ethnic does not contribute to reconciliation and the guarantee of non-repetition, fundamental principles of transitional justice.

  2. Educational perspective: Withdrawing a textbook that offers alternative interpretations does not contribute to students' critical thinking, a significant feature of a democratic society, and discourages them from questioning existing canons.

  3. Social perspective: Prescribing interpretations, favoring the same, and withdrawing alternative ones with ad hominem critiques of their authors is detrimental to society as a whole, as it does not contribute to the development and maintenance of liberal democracy.

  4. Perspective of contemporary scientific methodology in history: The decision contradicts the approach of distancing from describing great historical personalities, events, and political history, emphasizing social and economic history, aiming for a more comprehensive approach.

Considering the four main reasons why this decision is problematic, we provide recommendations on how history textbooks and education should be shaped in accordance with contemporary history teaching standards and the recommendations of the Council of Europe for purposeful history learning in the 21st century:

  • School education should provide space for a critical understanding of the past, strengthening competencies for the development of a democratic culture, and teaching young people how to actively participate in society.

  • History curricula must include the experiences of minorities and/or marginalized social groups, not solely the history of the largest/dominant (ethnic) community.

  • History education should avoid othering, involving a binary division of us vs. them in which they are dehumanized, and collective guilt is imposed on them.

  • History education should not avoid controversial topics, or attempt to simplify them; instead, it should offer different, conflicting sources and interpretations, demonstrating that different events can be approached from various perspectives. This approach is beneficial for contemporary, current issues and encourages constructive dialogue.

  • History education should be part of civic education and support modern principles of education, rather than traditional ones that seek to present history unilaterally.

  • History teachers, researchers, and other stakeholders must be aware of their cognitive horizons and value systems. Criticism of different opinions should not be based on presenting one's own position as impartial and neutral, and others as ideological.

In conclusion, we must not avoid topics related to the nineties and justify it with a lack of school hours. However, it is equally crucial to advocate for a high-quality and multiperspective history education that involves both individual and collective, courageous confrontation with the darker aspects of our past, followed by open discussion - both in public and in the classroom. We support the initiation of this public debate but strongly oppose the withdrawal of textbooks, as we consider it an attempt to suppress any form of historical dialogue. Such an action prevents a departure from emotionally charged presentations of wartime events and hinders the exposure to diverse (counter)narratives.

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