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YOUNG HISTORIANS | Youngsters learning about history at the Grand Palais ‘Citadelle de l’Histoire’ in Paris, November 2008. Photo: Eric Avenel

“On the other hand, it is perhaps inevitable that one sees some aspects to be positive and celebrates them. I myself, and many of my colleagues and partners, believe that Europe is something very remarkable,” Isaacs adds.

She is a professor of history at the University of Pisa in Italy and coordinator for the CLIOHRES Network of Excellence, a network formed largely of historians, supported by the European Commission through the Sixth Framework Programme.

She says: “Humanity historically has had a hard time finding ways to avoid violence. The European Union provides a unique chance for very different countries, each with strong intellectual and political traditions, to take certain decisions and do certain things together, hopefully to mutual benefit.”

Isaacs rejects that the background and European approach of the network makes it disposed to another form of nation-building, now at the European level, serving to create a new European ‘we’. She admits that at least some of the EU funders may have wished that the network came up with a common European history to be fed to citizens, especially the younger generations. However, those within the network consider this to be absolutely avoided.

Beyond the nation-state
The CLIOHRES Network of Excellence wants to go beyond the national framework of traditional history writing. It tries to increase the awareness of how history, or more precisely the presentation of it, has served to divide people into groups and cement conflicting worldviews.

“Not only professional historians but people at large have very constrained ideas about the past; about who they are and who their neighbours are. What people ‘know’ about the history of neighbouring countries is very limited and usually totally different from what the citizens of that country see as their history. Better reciprocal knowledge can avoid people being manipulated into nationalistic or xenophobic stances,” Isaacs says.

 

Citizenship and identity
“We think that, not ‘history’, but the use made of it - in schools, in the media, by politicians - is one of the most potentially powerful tools for producing prejudice and enmity, leading even, as we have seen in the former Yugoslavia, to war and genocide,” Isaacs continues, adding that the network tries to make people aware of the potential power history can have.

 

History is a powerful force in creating personal and public identity, as a tool to define and exclude ‘others’, and historians even today consciously or unconsciously tend to work in national frameworks.

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KATHERINE ISAACS | History professor at the University of Pisa and coordinator
of the CLIOHRES Network. Photo: Francesca K. Pacini

The Network, which gathers more than 180 researchers and doctoral students from 45 universities in 31 countries, does not focus on a particular topic or a set of research questions. It is perceived as a forum in which researchers from different countries may meet and elaborate on their work through interaction with colleagues from abroad. By becoming aware of national differences, scholars of history may become more aware of how present research agendas have evolved and developed.

The researchers are divided into six thematic working groups covering politics, culture, religion, gender, frontiers, identities and the links between Europe and the wider world.

The groups also address some common themes such as citizenship, immigration and emigration, discrimination and tolerance, gender and identities. Their members have consciously tried not to project their modern understandings on periods distant in time. The ambition has instead been to explore their meanings in different times and contexts.

Relevance in the present
Katherine Isaacs argues that the research should not be considered an antiquarian exercise: “Historical knowledge has a lot of relevance for discussions in present-day society. For example, by studying different ways of organising political participation and the variety of paths by which citizenships have developed, we get a more informed discussion about citizenship in the present and the future. We get a better understanding of how different concepts of citizenship have defined the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and have served to identify both “nations” and minorities. Such questions are still highly important,” she says.

The concepts of tolerance and discrimination, Isaacs continues, are far from one dimensional. They have changed fundamentally over time. In its original Latin meaning, the term ‘tolerance’ does not mean openness, but ability to support and bear the burden of something. Moreover, by looking closer at the various meanings and ways of practicing tolerance, we can see how toleration basically is a strategy to deal with discrimination, not to eliminate it. It is, paradoxically, based on it: individuals and groups may tolerate practices and beliefs in order to preserve social peace, but this does not imply that these practices and beliefs are considered normal or appropriate.

Facts 

  • CLIOHRES is an acronym for Creating Links and Innovative Overviews for a New History Research Agenda for the Citizens of a Growing Europe. The network was launched as a five year research project in 2005.
  • The history of CLIOHRES is linked to the history of EU initiatives in higher education. It started with the ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) History network and the Erasmus Thematic Network for History; CLIOHnet (Refounding Europe: Creating Links, Insights and Overviews for a new History Agenda).
  • The network held its final plenary conference in Brussels in March 2010, but will continue its work until November 2010.
  • The Erasmus Academic Network CLIOH-world, will continue the efforts of CLIOHRES. One of its tasks is to prepare the research results - close to 50 books - for use and dissemination in higher education and the broader public.
  • CLIOHRES publications can be downloaded without charge at its website, www.cliohres.net. Common history

In CLIOHRES publications the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, between ‘Europe’ and ‘the others’, are represented as fluid. ‘Europe’ is not a clear-cut cultural or geographic entity and the meaning of ‘Europeanness’ has changed over time. The historical relationship between Europe and the world outside is the history of constant definition and redefinition of ‘Europeanness’ and hence also of ‘otherness’.

Isaacs says: “There may be some members of the network who believe that Europe has certain borders, perhaps coinciding with ‘Christian’ European countries but, in general, the idea is definitely that Europe is a dynamic and selective concept and that it is and will be, for better and for worse, what we make of it.”

Margrete Søvik has a PhD in history and works as a senior adviser at the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Higher Education.

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