Historian: we would lose nothing if we ceased teaching history

If we cease teaching history at school as it is taught now, we would lose nothing, expert teacher Vytautas Toleikis says. LRT.lt writes that according to him, children’s empathy is not being developed now and a perception is created for children that historical events were due to processes and not people’s choices: “The theory of two genocides is to blame for Lithuanian participation in Jewish massacres and not that people had moral problems or their personal choice was the deciding factor. Even Hitler is made out to be a process.”

Professor: we must admit that some excuse Nazi crimes

According to Vytautas Magnus University professor Šarūnas Liekis, one of the core problems of anti-Semitism in Lithuania is that our society is intolerant to otherness. According to him, a negative attitude to otherness is primarily reflected in internet portal comments, thus often you find antisemitism and other forms of discrimination there.

“People understand otherness based on their historical knowledge of otherness. The ones who differed the most were the Jews. The less the society was tolerant of otherness, the more it is visible in those anti-Semitic stereotypes. If society were generally tolerant toward people of different skin colours, other cultures, other religions, then respectively there should be fewer of these sorts of negative comments,” Š. Liekis assures.

He adds that one must admit that there are people who excuse Nazi crimes and are convinced that those actions were good: “There are people who say that the crimes were good because they created an image of the society they see as just. […] Respectively there is a part of the public who excuse those crimes one way or another. This is just like with all crimes, be it crimes against humanity or criminal activities, there will be always apologists.”

In Š. Liekis’ opinion, the reasons why people have a negative view of certain public groups are deep. According to the professor, politicians who speak against matters such as refugee arrivals in Lithuania also have an impact on this.

“A part of the political powers are against refugees, assure that the refugees will pollute everything here, that it will be difficult to deal with them. At the same time, Lithuania has no integration programmes for those refugees. You cannot learn Lithuanian in Lithuania if you are a foreigner intent on living here. There is a set of problems which overlap in the political field as well,” Š. Liekis points out.

According to him, while people often look to politicians for leadership, this leadership may be controversial and sometimes directed against human rights, against otherness.

Another major problem linked to society, according to Š. Liekis is education. The professor observes that decreasing investment in education and the decline of education quality is closely linked with news spread in the public.

“For example what is it that children learn at school? Are they taught suitably? Is there enough time for certain topics? If, for example, a child formally learns to answer a certain question, but the teacher ridicules otherness herself during class and talks about how there’s a black kid in class – all this work goes to waste,” Š. Liekis explains.

He summarises that the long-term problems in education, lack of state investment into education are one of the reasons why people ignore or even fail to notice problems such as anti-Semitism.

Recommends to not overvalue internet comments

Expert teacher V. Toleikis echoes Š. Liekis’ thoughts, however in his opinion comments left in internet portals should not be overvalued. He points out that a part of the comments may be written intentionally and not seeking to express a real opinion.

“We know that a part of the commenters are so-called trolls who are doing jobs. They even have certain clichés on their tables, names of Jewish communists. They sometimes post the same thing some 20 times a day to cause more antagonism. It is their job, they are paid for it. That’s one part of society,” V. Toleikis assures.

He adds that poorly educated people also often make comments on internet portals or social media: “What institutions are completely ignoring is that Facebook and Delfi are also opened up by fairly many illiterates. […] These illiterates also manage to write, lacking punctuation and spelling abilities, comments. In this area there shouldn’t be too many concerns.”

V. Toleikis agrees that educated people also are among the commentators online, however in his opinion it is simply a means to vent, “It is the same when in Soviet times people scribbled on toilet walls, it is self-expression. […] I have to say that our society is becoming more modern on its own. Pleasant or not, but people are emigrating and then later returning to Lithuania. My school has children who were born in Ireland, England, but now live in Lithuania. People who have seen the world are more emancipated. Lithuanians are not such a xenophobic and homophobic nation. It believe so, especially the youth.”

According to V. Toleikis, one of the problems is that various teaching programmes are greatly emphasised. According to him, teachers should primarily teach an understanding of sensitivity and empathy, rather than statistics and dates.

“Understand that this is my personal opinion. I believe there is a major problem in that we are layering too much on history teachers’ shoulders. History teachers are hostages to programmes and exams. In essence, history teaching is flawed. The way it is taught now, we would lose nothing if we ceased teaching history,” V. Toleikis says.

He explains that in teaching history there is no presentation of narrative, thus teachers struggle to nurture empathy, a better understanding in students, “If the narrative is lost, it means that history teaching cannot even establish any empathy because it turns to events, caricatures, some sort of questions, media cut-outs and such. Everything is focused on the mind, not the heart.” According to the pedagogue, only young, lively and interesting historians manage to draw in children and create a narrative despite conditions being unsuitable for it.

V. Toleikis assures that in current history teaching, a perception is created that historical events were due to processes, not human choice: “The theory of two genocides is to blame for Lithuanian participation in Jewish massacres and not that people had moral problems or their personal choice was the deciding factor. Even Hitler is made out to be a process. If we teach history so absurdly based on Marxist determinism, then sorry, but what are we doing? I place little hope in education then, but into teachers – yes. It is not the education system that we should work personally with, but specifically the teachers.”

Attention to anti-Semitism during accession to the EU and NATO

The head of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania secretariat Ronaldas Račinskas points out that there was a great deal of attention dedicated to the issue of anti-Semitism in Lithuania when the country was preparing for accession to the EU and NATO.

“There was certainly a great deal of attention for those questions because both the EU and NATO are not just respectively an economic and military alliance, but primarily value based alliances. It is specifically the view of the individual, human rights, of what occurred during the years of the Second World War. It is a truly important matter, however you cannot change world views, perceptions and understanding within a few years, no matter what programmes you establish,” R. Račinckas explains.

He observes that there exists a disconnect between historians, the academic community’s knowledge and how the public remembers that history. According to R. Račinckas, the public is split into groups. A part does not care about history or understand the state in only a certain historical process, however that understanding is fairly weak. However, there is a group for whom history is especially important.

“What is most interesting is that opinions are often opposite in the two groups of people. For example we can hear discussions linked to the second world war, Soviet occupation, Nazi occupation, once again Soviet occupation, partisan resistance, Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust. When you talk to some people, then others, their tales are often in black and white, good and bad with no shades,” R. Račinskas highlights.

According to him, people who have a different undersanding of history may present historical events completely differently: “You listen to one group of people; listen to another and those two tales are like a negative and a positive of the same photo. In a certain regard, people live in a sort of memory ghettoes. The Soviet era has conserved that thinking, historical memory; it was prohibited to talk about it.”

R. Račinskas points out that during the Soviet occupation there were no talks of the Holocaust. He reminds that even monuments to Holocaust victims often stated that the monument was to murdered peaceful Soviet citizens, though in fact Jews were also exiled during the Soviet era.

“Among exiles in 1941, the percentage of Jews exiled, compared to their percentage in society, was twofold larger percentage-wise. This is as if not seen, unknown and we live in a sort of closed off ghetto where a specific tale is cultivated. I believe our goal is to exit this ghetto at long last,” R. Račinskas says.

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