Question of the Month: June

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H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue (purdue.s@husky.neu.edu) of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (help@mail.h-net.org). You can also find H-Nationalism on Twitter at @HNationalism and Simon at @simonp_92.

 

Dear subscribers,

Thank you to all who contributed to our first Question of the Month discussion. It is clear that the field of nationalism studies has a lot of room to grow and the research currently being done in the field is very promising. With this in mind we launch our second monthly question. With so much research being done, teaching inevitably follows, so we are asking:

What are some of the challenges of teaching about nationalism in the 21st Century? How should academics and teachers approach these challenges?

We look forward to reading your responses!

Best,

Simon

Dear All, 

This strikes me as a particularly multifaceted question that speaks to issues of audience, pedagogy, social and political context, and institutional support (or lack thereof).  I’ll be eager to see what others have to say, especially scholars and teachers working in disparate settings. 

I’m especially curious about the “audience” dimension at present, in part because I wonder what undergraduate students understand the term “nationalism” to refer to. The word has a long-standing association with conservatism and racism, although scholars typically use it in a broader sense to mean several different phenomenon, much as Nicholas Tackett’s comment explores with the term “nation” in his post on the previous QOTM.  Unfortunately it has been some time since I’ve been able to teach an undergraduate course devoted to nationalism—although I do usually try to unpack the topic in some of my other courses, such as an introductory course on the second half of U.S. history (1877 to the present) and courses on the U.S. Civil War and slavery and abolition. When I last taught a “Nationalism, Myth and Reality” course, I thought the subject matter was fairly straightforward for students. Since then, however, the word “nationalism” has, at least in the United States, become more narrowly associated with one part of the political spectrum through Donald Trump’s embrace of the term. So, all that is to say, one challenge facing teachers managing the imperfectly aligned popular and scholarly meanings of “nationalism” and related terms. 

Kind Regards, 

David Prior
Board Member, H-Nationalism
Assistant Professor of History, UNM
 

I have recently written about the positives in "Everyday Nationalism" found in contemporary East Asia international relations. I think some of the challenges include the realist approach that dominates international relations literature. Teachers and Academics could teach nationalism from a "soft power" approach. Think about food in "everyday nationalism", the role of Culinarydiplomacy or Gastrodiplomacy, even through pop culture. Japan in particular employs this form of "soft nationalism" very effectively.

A bit on Food and Nationalism
The consumption of food and nationalism stems from the food culture of a people, “[by food culture] we do not simply mean a particular diet, but rather the manner and methods, in which food is prepared, commodified and consumed by a particular society (Yonatan and Ronald 2014).” The food of a people allows the individual to see a reflection of identity in the state, “according to National Geographic…during the ‘Tortilla riots’ in Mexico, protestors shouted Tortillas si, Pan no!(Tortillas yes, Bread no!) (Ichijo and Ranta 2016).” Food sits between the political and mundane practices of everyday life for the individual. The past and present of the nations’ diet are reflections of the nations’ history. Food of a nation and the impact of globalization pushes the image of a nation from within towards the outside, “The national branding and labeling of food is literally found everywhere, conveying a particular image of the nation, constructing and reproducing it in our everyday lives (Ichijo and Ranta 2016).”

Dear all,

From a European perspective, I believe that one issue nowadays stems from the definitions of nation and ethnicity, which we mostly draw at the beginning of our courses, as these definitions cannot always accurately conform to each topic that we debate in the following weeks.
In previous years I got involved in nationalism courses as teaching assistant, where the professors first gave theoretical backgrounds of nationalism studies and then conceptualised ethnicity. The students were first made familiar with the approaches like the primordialist, modernist, or ethnosymbolist, and then asked to orient these approaches to their case studies. The presentations and following discussions, as planned in syllabi, evolved around the connections between nationalism, religion, and race. Scheduled presentations and debates also involved more ethnicity-oriented concepts such as diaspora and self-determination. Personally I ask myself how we can best cover these broad topics and their surrounding debates in one course, or whether we should do all of them in one course... In any case it is important not to reduce them to one narrow conception of nation. Second, if ethnicity and its debates will be added to the syllabus, its relevance to nation should be explored in the beginning.

Dear All,

I found myself wondering whether conservative nationalists around the globe haven’t taken control over the teaching of this subject, and did some browsing for op-eds, blog posts, and other short pieces to get a sense of the climate. No doubt many of you already read-up on these matters, but I wanted to share these for anyone else interested. I don’t think I’m alone in seeing this as a time of mounting pressure against scholarly approaches to teaching about nationalism, all the more so given the expulsion of the CEU from Hungary (addressed here for those unfamiliar with the development). I found each of these interesting in its own way.

Ola Cichowlas, How Russian Kids are Taught World War II

V. Geeta, Teaching the History of The Indian National Movement

Sven Saaler, Nationalism and History in Contemporary Japan

Joanna Perillo, Texas’s State Board of Education Exposes How Poorly We Teach History

Zia Weise, Turkey’s new curriculum: More Erdoğan, more Islam

Ahsan I. Butt, Teaching Nationalism in South Asia

Best wishes,

David Prior
Board Member, H-Nationalism
Assistant Professor of History, UNM

Thanks David!

Some of these resources discuss the connections between history teaching and nationalism. The critique of historiography and teaching history has been part and parcel of textbook and curricula research, but (also given the practices in contemporay politics) it is becoming increasingly vital for us to integrate these topics into nationalism courses.

In other words, teaching nationalism should be able to initiate discussions on national historiography. Not least because historiography and history teaching will remain the manipulative objects of nationalisms as long as state elites use their master narratives to justify their national policies.(1)

1. Stefan Berger, ‘Introduction: Towards a Global History of National Historiographies’, in Writing the Nation: A Global Perspective, ed. Stefan Berger (Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 16.

My work is in K-12 education, and not AP, IB, or other advanced courses--just the general education history that the vast majority of students study in elementary, middle, and high school. in those settings, nationalism pervades the curriculum, albeit in a somewhat subtle (and therefore even more effective) way: By centering the history of "the nation," conceived of as an isolated entity; by teaching about origins and "heroes"; by teaching about successes but never failures (or military interventions) unless it's a problem that's been solved or a lesson can be learned from it; by flattening the diversity of US identity. Of course these tendencies are in part the legacy of the close connections among the rise of nationalism, universal schooling, and the profession of history in the late 1800s. (As a general rule: If you got your perspective into curriculum or school structure between 1890 and 1915, it's still there; any innovation or reform originating at a later date was much harder, if not impossible, to adopt.) Nationalism as a topic of analysis hardly shows up at all--sometimes as a short section in a middle or high school unit on WWI.

I think that one of the things we have to do in order to address this is to teach students about nationalism at all levels, and in a systematic and critical way. It makes little sense to present them with a nationalism-infused curriculum and only later, briefly, give them a way of understanding why it's been shaped that way (without, however, ever addressing that connection explicitly). It would be much better to always be asking students, why do you think the people who wrote the curriculum/textbooks thought this topic (whatever you're studying) was important enough to include? Why is the story being told in this particular way, and how else could it be told? Who would have thought this was less important or would have told the story differently? What topics are crowded out when we study this topic? An example of a good book for middle or high school that could be used for this purpose is Kathy Pelta's "Discovering Columbus: How History is Invented." Although students wouldn't necessarily be studying about nationalism as a period-specific ideological movement, they would be studying the legacy of that movement and its impact on how we think about history in public settings--and hopefully imagining alternatives.

I recently gave a lecture in South Korea in which I talked about obstacles that history education (not just in the US) presents to multiculturalism, I emphasized how nationalism was typically construed in a way that emphasized national identity above all other allegiances and that portrayed nations as ethnically homogenous. Thus Koreans can think of themselves as being "all the same people" (causing problems in an increasingly diverse society), even though people in the peninsula 200 years ago would not have thought of themselves this way. This erasure of diversity/creation of uniformity, of course, was a characteristic of nationalist movements in many locations and still influences how people view the past. Only if we help students see how current historical origin myths were created (and the purposes they served) can we help them move beyond them.

Dear All, 

We currently have a query with several comments over at H-Black-Europe about integrating Black European History in an AP European History course that might relate to this discussion. You can find it here.

Best, 

Tiffany Florvil

Assistant Professor of History

University of New Mexico

Dear all,

Thank you for your input on this question. It is clear that nationalism presents a range of challenges to teachers both at the secondary and tertiary levels, and there is no easy way to deal with the question of nationalism when teaching history or related subjects. Through our discussion we have established that nationalism pervades the dominant historical narrative to the point that it can be quite difficult to disrupt accepted 'historical truths' in the classroom. The nation and the national origin story have become the frameworks through which we discuss the past and present, and this greatly influences the ways in which we teach. However if we can critically address the question of nationalism itself, asking what the nation means and who it includes (and of course, excludes), we can begin to disrupt the simplistic hegemonic national narrative and unpack the many layers of history, politics and identity that lie beneath. Critically addressing nationalism, and studying the theoretical groundwork that underpins it, can open up new possibilities and new avenues for discussion in the classroom, from the graduate level through to K-12.

For anyone who wishes to add their own comments to the discussion, there is still time. Our next Question of the Month will be launching next Monday, so if you want to offer your insights into the pedagogical challenges that nationalism presents, please do so within the next week.

Thank you all again for contributing, and we look forward to hearing more insights from you all as we grow the QOTM series.

Best,

Simon

Thanks to Dave for his post and to other contributors for their insights.

These examples reflect the continuing controversy surrounding the teaching and reception of nationalism. It is important to distinguish the challenge to teaching nationalism in contested situations (where pressure from political authorities or social media can impact on an individual’s personal career prospects) and the professional commitment that academics bring to their writing and teaching. As Simon notes in his recent blog it can be very difficult to disrupt or indeed seriously question widespread and popular historical narratives. Nationalists in many parts of the world reject uncomfortable new interpretations with appeals to national memories as authentic reflections of history.
The controversy over the United Kingdom leaving the European Union (Brexit) raises some important questions and challenges in this respect. Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters provides an insight into how a teacher of European Studies/European Politics sees the challenge:

https://mybisapgn.wordpress.com/bisa-pgn-teaching-blog/10-teaching-europ...

What is missing from this is a reflection on how nationalism interacts with the Brexit debate. This possibly reflects the nature of European Studies and European Integration, which is often conceptualised within a post-nationalist methodology.

There is a deeper issue here also. Many courses on nationalism do not engage with the European Union or how European integration impacts on existing views of the nation, national identity and nationalism. Likewise many who teach on the European Union and European integration have little regard for the large body of work in nationalism that impacts on Europe. This is partly about compartmentalisation (and understandably so) but it deprives both sets of teachers and students of alternative insights into important contemporary phenomena.

Brexit however provides an opportunity to rethink how we might think about the British state and the political union of the United Kingdom. It can prompt a debate about the nature of Britishness as an identity, but it can also probe the different responses to Brexit from the different nationalities in the UK. It also depends on who the audience is for teaching. I have offered a number of classes to adults in Scotland on Brexit since 2016 and the response has been revealing. Scotland voted to remain in the EU In the referendum, so for many the reasons to leave are spurious. This reflects a wider Scottish consensus that Scotland is different from the rest of Britain and England in particular. In these circumstances I have to be especially careful to provide a balanced assessment of both sides of the question, while retaining a critical engagement in respect of the issue. Because it is an active political issue, I am asked for my own opinion on the matter. The question I might ask others is how one negotiates this while retaining intellectual and academic credibility.

This problem is also present in undergraduate teaching as most students are pro-remain/EU, even outside of Scotland. Thus there is a danger of group think when thinking about the implications of Brexit and the views of the majority who voted to leave can easily be ignored. At a time of deepening controversy and division in the society teachers might be accused of promoting one side of a volatile political position over the other. What is does do is provide an opportunity to access the literature on nationalism and apply it to a contemporary issue that is also very controversial. Not all contributions to the study of nationalism are relevant here but debates about post-nationalism, globalisation, the ethnic origins of nationalism and secession all have their place.

A final point based on personal experience. Much of my writing has been on the political history of Ireland in the twentieth century and one of my objectives has been to challenge the self-image of Irish nationalism. While teaching and supervising students in the past, it has been difficult to challenge those who take for granted the traditional history of Ireland. Perhaps the most difficult one for those studying Ireland in the twentieth century is the question of partition. Irish nationalists believe that the nation includes all those who live on the island of Ireland and that partition was an injustice. Even among very intelligent students this can be a blind spot and challenging it can create tensions between the teacher/supervisor and the student. Also recall that at this time people were killing and dying with the aim of undoing partition or reinforcing it.

Even more seriously the Irish Supreme Court has declared that reunification is a political imperative that should be actively pursued. Articles 2&3 of the Irish constitution claim the territory of Northern Ireland on irredentist grounds (though modified as a consequence of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement). I have argued that partition in Ireland may well have been the most realistic outcome to the conflict between nationalists and unionists in the 1920s (as it may well have been in India and Palestine). While never a panacea, it roughly recognised the incommensurable nature of the conflict and the impossibility of reconciling the two sides. I would add that a much smaller Northern Ireland would have been a more just outcome, as would the willingness of the Unionist majority there to address issues of discrimination.

Unlike some of the cases cited by Dave Prior in his contribution, a strong tradition of academic freedom in Ireland provided a space to question and challenge received wisdom. There was a very vigorous debate about the nature of history writing and teaching in the context of colonialism, historical memory and ethnicity (the so called revisionist debates). Notwithstanding this, traditional and irredentist views remain widespread and to actively promote partition within the nationalist tradition can be difficult. Though this comment reflects a period in the 1980s and 1990s when history was at times a political battlefield, the context is one that confronts any historian or social scientist grappling with how to teach nationalism both generally and in specific situations.