In deeply divided societies, contending groups' historical narratives are intimately connected to their identities and sense of victimization. How can they teach history to avoid future cycles of violence?


  • In deeply divided societies, contending groups' historical narratives—especially the official versions presented most often in state-run schools—are intimately connected to the groups' identities and sense of victimization. Such narratives are often contradictory and controversial. History taught in schools is highly susceptible to simplified and biased presentations, and this is even more likely after conflicts, such as the war in Bosnia, that end through international intervention. How schools navigate and promote historical narratives through history education partly determines the roles they and those who control the schools play in promoting conflict or social reconstruction.
  • Immediately after widespread violent conflict, some societies suspend the teaching of history because they cannot achieve consensus on how and what to teach. Instead they may concentrate on improving civics or human rights education. It may take a decade or more to reform history curricula, and the assistance of "outsiders" can be vital in such efforts.
  • Pedagogy—the way teachers teach—is critically important to reform efforts. Approaches that emphasize students' critical thinking skills and expose them to multiple historical narratives can reinforce democratic and peaceful tendencies in transitional societies emerging from violent conflict. Often pedagogy is inseparable from content in history education reform, but pedagogy sometimes receives less attention than curriculum. Especially in resource-poor settings, helping history teachers promote critical inquiry may be more urgent than reforming history textbooks.
  • Structural issues in the education system—such as funding, ethnic segregation, issues of access and equity, the choice of languages to teach in ethnically divided societies, the system of national examinations, and the relative value accorded history education compared to other subjects—are crucial in determining education's role in post-conflict social reconstruction.
  • History education after violent conflict is burdened with many expectations, including political and social goals articulated by various stakeholders but rarely examined for factual contradictions or tested against reality. Outside reformers often unrealistically expect history teachers to serve as social change agents, despite overwhelming pressure for them to conform to existing social and political norms. Politics frequently determines how and what history is taught.
  • Outsiders of many kinds—such as peacekeepers, international organizations, and NGOs—play an increasingly large role in post-conflict reconstruction related to education, but their attention to and impact on education reform vary.
  • History education should be understood as an integral but underutilized part of transitional justice and social reconstruction. It can support or undermine the goals of tribunals, truth commissions and memorials, and other transitional justice mechanisms.


In societies recovering from violent conflict, questions of how to deal with the past are acute, especially when the past involves memories of victimization, death, and destruction so widespread that a high percentage of the population is affected. Immediately after violence, political leaders and others often seem to prefer social amnesia as they try to "move on" and promote stability. In some countries, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, teaching about the country's immediate past has been partly or wholly suspended in public schools because of unwillingness or inability to devise acceptable approaches to teaching this controversial subject. In other countries, such as Guatemala, attempts to reform history teaching focus on introducing new curricula on civics or citizenship instead of revising history education. Transitional justice processes, such as the establishment of truth commissions and legal tribunals, may be implemented to help a country try to construct new historical narratives. Those who establish these processes, however, generally pay little or no attention to whether or how history is being taught in schools. Nor do they plan to allot sufficient resources to implementing curricular and pedagogical reforms when these new historical narratives are formulated and need to be publicized. Re-establishment of security, constitutional reform, elections, and transformation of judicial and political institutions tend to take precedence. Transitional justice processes, such as the establishment of truth commissions and legal tribunals, may be implemented--often to help a country construct new historical narratives. But usually they show little or no regard to whether or how history is actually taught in schools or to devoting significant resources to implement curricular and pedagogical reforms. To explore these issues, the Institute's conference focused on the following questions:

  • History, Identity, and Education: What is the relationship between education, historical memories of violence, and the formation of cultural and national identity? What can and should history education try to achieve in deeply damaged societies to foster moral and civic development in young people and transformation of attitudes toward former enemies? Can the teaching of history help transitional societies become more democratic? In societies in which some groups were targeted for marginalization and disenfranchisement, can it contribute to development of empathy for, or even social cohesion among, former enemies? Can history teaching reinforce other transitional justice processes, such as truth telling and legal accountability for crimes committed? Can it promote belief in the rule of law, resistance to a culture of impunity, and greater trust in public institutions, including schools themselves?
  • Post-Conflict Reconstruction and History Education: Where does the reform of history and civics curricula intersect with the work of those planning reconstruction and reform of the larger educational system, including nationwide exams or financing of public education? How has integrating segregated schools or classrooms been handled, and to what effect? How should officials make decisions about whose languages are used in school systems? What relationship, if any, exists between educational reform and other transitional justice mechanisms, such as truth commissions, tribunals, lustration, and commemoration? What is the optimal timing and sequencing of different transitional justice processes and educational reform?
  • The Content of Post-Conflict History Education: What problems arise in developing and adopting new history curricula? Among those who experienced the violence directly (generally during the first two decades after major violence ends), who decides what version(s) of history will be taught? What impact do those choices have on promoting stable, cohesive, and tolerant societies? What is the relationship between the (re)writing of history by academic historians and the development of secondary-school history textbooks? What impact do transitional justice processes have on the development of new secondary-school history textbooks and the way history is actually taught in schools?
  • Pedagogic Challenges: What challenges do teachers face in the classroom when addressing controversial historical subjects, and what are some of the different approaches they use? How can teachers be trained or prepared to address these subjects, and how can they be supported and protected in environments where disagreements over history might give rise to violence? Given limited resources, should teacher training take priority over curricular reform?
  • Evaluation: What is the best way to evaluate the impact of curricular reform and history teaching on individual students and the broader society? Which forces other than formal education--such as the media, religious institutions, popular culture, and stories conveyed through families and local communities--influence how schoolchildren think about themselves and their country's history? How do we account for context--the immense differences between types of conflicts, the cultural settings in which they took place, and the methods by which conflict was reduced--while recognizing the practical and ethical need to assess what methods work and how best to use scarce resources? What do we currently know about what "works" in history education and what approaches might even be harmful?

In addition to the above themes, we posed the following crosscutting questions: What are the appropriate roles of "insiders" (locals) and "outsiders" (people from outside the country)? What are the specific ethical and practical pitfalls facing outsiders? How do insiders and outsiders negotiate the process of establishing and sustaining relationships? How can outsiders help introduce changes that insiders otherwise find difficult or impossible to make on their own? What are the limits to and constraints on the involvement of outsiders?


  • There is an urgent need for a meta-analysis or grand literature review of the current state of interdisciplinary knowledge about history teaching and learning. Scholars should share their research findings with policymakers and practitioners actively engaged in history education reform in post-conflict societies. In addition, further research is needed to delve into the differences and similarities among history education, social studies, civics, and other courses designed to promote democracy, human rights, and peace education--educational categories that are often confounded. Are they trying to achieve the same or similar goals, and which educational models are most effective in promoting social reconstruction?
  • In societies afflicted by, or emerging from, violent conflict, teachers use a wide variety of techniques to teach history and related subjects. To identify teaching methods that are most successful in promoting empathy, moral development, social agency, and other possible goals of history education, more research should focus on what is going on in history classrooms and how teachers and their students interpret the sources of violence in their societies.
  • Teachers do not receive sufficient support to address controversial subjects or deal with traumatized students. Significantly more investment is necessary to train history teachers in new ways to address difficult subjects in their classrooms, especially in countries where political tensions still run high.
  • Post-conflict history education reform is frequently discussed and implemented without adequate reference to the developmental stages that affect children's intellectual and emotional development or the cultural factors that influence teaching and learning in different settings. History education reformers should take these factors into account. They also should investigate what impact personal exposure to violence has on students and their teachers, and how psychological trauma affects students and teachers engaging in discussions of history.
  • More research should focus on:
    1. What and how much students retain from their history classes;
    2. The role that other classes (such as religion) play in forming students' historical understanding;
    3. How schools' "hidden agendas" and structural features (such as ethnic segregation) affect student attitudes and identities; and
    4. What influences outside schools (such as the media, popular culture, family influences, and broader political processes) influence students' knowledge and interpretations of history.
    Researchers should share their findings on these questions with practitioners and policymakers.
  • Local and international scholars, policymakers, and practitioners inadequately understand and exploit the connections between teaching history and transitional justice processes. More research is needed on the design and impact of educational initiatives growing out of truth commissions. Moreover, transitional justice experts should address how future interventions might be designed to mesh more effectively with educational systems. In addition, international donors interested in promoting transitional justice should put educational reform on their funding agenda.
  • Outsiders should carefully design their interventions to "do no harm." Given that learning and teaching are long-term and complex processes, outsiders should extend their project timelines and funding commitments.

About the Report

In November 2005, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), with assistance from the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs (CCEIA), hosted a three-day conference, “Unite or Divide? The Challenges of Teaching History in Societies Emerging from Violent Conflict.” Participants included 28 teachers, education ministry officials, academic historians, transitional justice experts, and social scientists from around the world; approximately one-third are current or former Institute grantees.

The conference explored how divided societies recovering from violent conflict can teach the conflict’s history, so as not to re-ignite it or contribute to future cycles of violence and to participate in a larger process of social reconstruction and reconciliation. Organizers included Judy Barsalou (vice president of USIP’s Grants and Fellowships program) and Elizabeth A. Cole (assistant director of TeachAsia at the Asia Society and former director of the History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program at CCEIA).

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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