Polyperspective teaching of history in a multipolar world

Grammar school mission: “to examine controversial topics from several perspectives” and to come to an independent judgment

by Tobias Salander

According to the school laws of the various Swiss cantons, public schools must be politically and denominationally neutral. At the same time, according to the Matura Recognition Regulations of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK), one of the educational goals of the Gymnasium (grammar school) in Switzerland is to promote intellectual openness and the ability to make independent judgments of students, as, for example, the government council of the canton of Aargau recently reminded its teachers: “This undoubtedly includes dealing with current issues, including political ones. The objective is for students to deal with such often controversial issues, to examine them from several sides, and to learn to substantiate their views with arguments and to persuasively represent them.”1

Anyone who works as a teacher today, especially as a teacher of history or political studies, faces a great challenge in fulfilling the clear legal requirements that promote domestic peace. We live in a time full of horror reports from war zones, just think of the situation of the 24 million Afghans facing starvation, the precarious situations of the people in Yemen, Congo, Syria, Libya, to name but a few. At the moment, everything is overshadowed by news about the war in Ukraine and about the refugees who arrive in the cities, towns and villages of Europe in need of human attention, protection and care. Like every person who comes to us -– in the rich European countries – as a refugee.
  Polyperspectivity, to use the modern expression, is required in our schools, today more than ever. A Euro-centred narrow view of the world is passé. Every teacher who complies with the legal requirements and takes the students seriously as young adolescents will consequently, first of all, collect the prior knowledge of the adolescents entrusted to him or her in their lessons, especially in history lessons, and remind them that one listens to each other calmly, respects the opinion of the classmate, even if one does not always share it. The more multicultural the class, the more exciting, the greater the chance that the problem at hand will be “illuminated from several sides” or be approached already in the introductory phase. Certainly, Vladimir, the Russian student, will bring in the view of his relatives in Russia, which probably differs from that of the Ukrainian or the French colleague. Or does Vladimir not dare to speak out at all in the present mood against everything Russian? Although he knows that the teacher gives everyone room to contribute? And what does Pradeep from India say, whose home country, unlike Switzerland, surprisingly does not participate in the sanctions against Russia? And Ren from China, whose system he describes in the brightest colours, full of national pride, and who has often been criticized for this? How does one talk about the conflict in exile Tamil circles? In Buddhist families differently than in Christian ones? What does Murat from the Iraqi Kurdish regions say, who repeatedly points out that his people have been waiting for their own nation state for decades, but are being held back by the Turks and the Americans? What about Amrit, the young Sikh woman who recently called Gandhi a Hitler, to the great amazement of the teacher? And Özil, who anxiously avoids any mention of his home country, probably because of the negative coverage of Erdogan? Lisa, Rosa and Max with German and, respectively, Swiss backgrounds? The two young ladies close to SPD and SPS and counting themselves to the climate youth? Christoph, a member of the young SVP, who continues to adhere to the state maxim of perpetual armed neutrality and argues very eloquently and is used to the fact that the others often no longer listen to him, “because of Blocher”?

Learn about the positions of the US schools of foreign policy

The writer has fond memories of the broad spectrum of opinions that met and often clashed in the classroom during his time as an active grammar school teacher, for example during the Kosovo war in 1999 or the Iraq war in 2003. As a teacher in the neutral small state of Switzerland – at that time still refraining from any sanctions – but did not oblige its citizens to be neutral in their opinions, he knew how respected his country was as a mediator in such conflicts of a war-like nature, how respectfully the Good Offices and quiet diplomacy were spoken of, but also the work of the ICRC, which could only become active on this basis. He will never forget Sahit and Blerim, whose relatives fought a fierce battle in their home country in 1999, but who continued to maintain their friendship as Serbs and Kosovars, especially through the school game of basketball.
  After gathering the preliminary knowledge, the teacher must think about the next steps. Looking at the media landscape, she or he quickly notices that there is a lot of talk about Russian geostrategic master plans, “fake news”, megalomania, imperial power play, war for resources, etc., etc. — but what is almost completely missing within the European media landscape, unlike in the U.S., is a look at the diverse approaches to U.S. foreign policy that naturally rival each other. If the teacher is already of an advanced age, he will remember the debate in 1999 and after 9/11, which his current students did not experience because they were not yet born. There it was about the terms “preemptive strike”, Art. 51 UN Charter with the right of self-defense, Art. 1.2 and Art. 2.1 UN Charter, the right of self-determination of peoples and the sovereign equality of all its members, a systemic contradiction of the UN Charter, Art. 5 NATO Treaty, alliance case, “war of aggression contrary to international law”. It was about “fake news”, war lies, some of which were admitted afterwards by Gerhard Schröder, who himself classified the air war against Serbia in 1999 as illegal under international law, about Colin Powell’s lie, later admitted by himself and known as the greatest embarrassment of his life, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And earlier, the Vietnam War with the life testimony of the then U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara, who called himself a war criminal, at the age of 85; shortly before his death, the conscience of the Irish-born Catholic had come forward…
  Since the debate about George W. Bush and the Bush Doctrine, about his advisors and cabinet members who called themselves neo-conservatives and gathered around newspapers such as Commentary, since the sharp criticism of the US war of aggression against Iraq in 2003, which violated international law – as later expressed by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – since then it has been forgotten by the media, at least in Europe, or considered politically inopportune to address the various foreign policy schools of the USA. Yet everyone who deals with US foreign policy has known this since 2003 at the latest, and no teacher who discusses the history of the last 30 years in class can avoid it: Alongside, behind and in the bosom of the two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, the various schools of foreign policy in the USA are vying for influence and top positions and for the implementation of what they see as the right policy. Besides the already mentioned neo-conservatives (i. a. Norman Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Robert Kagan and his wife Victoria Nuland), the US media mention the liberal internationalists (i. a. Francis Fukuyama and the Clintons) and the realists and neo-realists (from Henry Kissinger to Robert McNamara, Paul Nitze, George F. Kennan and John Mearsheimer). Three groups that had tried to influence the presidencies of a George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump with their different but partly overlapping views. And what about Joe Biden? Who are his advisors? What schools do his ministers and cabinet members belong to? Where are they trying to steer the great steamship USA and its captain?

No one who wants to be taken seriously can get past “Foreign Affairs”

If the teacher has decided to present these schools in the required brevity or to have the pupils work on them, precisely because of their different assessments of the war in Ukraine – opinions that one hardly ever hears in Europe – the question is how to start. How to present these schools as neutrally as possible, how to enable the pupils to distinguish them and relate them to today’s processes? It takes effort on the part of the teacher, since any articles on the subject can hardly be found in the daily media. So, the teacher will have to visit US websites – English language skills are a must. And he quickly finds what he is looking for. All the big schools have their websites, their exponents are professors at US universities, on YouTube there are recordings of lectures including PowerPoint slides and transcripts.
  Since the teacher regularly listens to lectures by representatives of these schools via YouTube, out of interest and as background preparation, he will choose a lecture as an introduction to the topic that gives an overview of all schools and point out to the students that the statements are of course coloured, but that they will subsequently get to know the individual positions with original documents from the inside view. The choice could fall on a representative of the neo-realists, for example, whose articles are also printed in one of the most renowned journals of US foreign policy, Foreign Affairs of the Council on Foreign Relations. In this way, the students get to know the foreign policy journal par excellence, which opens its columns to the representatives of all foreign policy schools and therefore belongs to the compulsory reading of a historian and in every better school library.
  The selected lecture, which provides said overview of foreign policy schools, is entitled “The great delusion” and is by John Mearsheimer.2
  Students learn that Mearsheimer, a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and the recipient of several awards. Among others, he is the recipient of the American Political Science Association’s 2020 James Madison Award, given every three years to an American political scientist who has made outstanding scholarly contributions., He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and was a fierce opponent of the 2003 Iraq War. According to Wikipedia, which is not bad for a first overview, he is “the main proponent of a school of neorealist theory in international relations known as offensive neorealism. According to this theory, states are not satisfied with a given amount of power, but strive for hegemony for security reasons.” Which is why, according to Mearsheimer, there will be an exchange of blows between China and the USA. A point that will certainly make the Chinese student Ren prick up his ears.
  Mearsheimer, and this could also generate a current hook, spoke about the war in Ukraine in an interview3 in the “New Yorker” on 1 March and repeated what he had already published in Foreign Affairs in 2014.4
  The title, which was sure to confuse some students, and not only them, was: “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault. The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin”5

Recognise contradictions between US and European narratives

Students would be given the task of noting down the different schools mentioned, tracing the speaker's position, comparing it with the media reports they consult, looking up unfamiliar terms. With the help of the teacher, the various points would then be presented to the plenary, which would inevitably lead to an exciting discussion and further questions. For Mearsheimer, like Kennan and the other realists or neo-realists, initially even Henry Kissinger, see the West as entirely to blame, in the previous history, the NATO eastward expansion, which Russia has rejected not only since Putin, and he emphasises that the USA, conversely, based on the Monroe Doctrine, would not tolerate the Russians setting up bases on the American double continent either. And that’s just it: Russia should have been won over for the big fight against China that would inevitably come.
  Since most students without a migration background probably recognised a blatant contradiction between the media they had consulted or the statements of the head of the EU Task Force for Strategic Communication, Lutz Güllner (e. g. on the cause of the war and the role of NATO, see “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 11 March 2022, see also box) and the Mearsheimer’s statements, the thought process would be stimulated and the lessons could be further developed in various directions.
  This is what makes history lessons so exciting, but it also always challenges the teacher to stay up-to-date and to consult as many media as possible from all over the world in order to counteract a Europe-centric narrowing of his view and to meet the legal requirements. It goes without saying that this also requires a lot of time, but after all, the salaries of grammar school teachers are well calculated. And favourably, the teacher also has curiosity, an alert spirit of research and a wide-ranging network of contacts at home and abroad, which also needs to be cultivated. And it can be helpful if, at the next craftsmen's appointment, he asks the professionals, who often come from abroad, how they assess the world situation. What comes back is rich and ideally complements one’s own perspective on the world.
  Now the lesson could be taken further as follows: The exponents of the other schools cited by Mearsheimer could also be examined with articles and lectures on YouTube, always from their inside perspective. For example, it would be necessary to clarify what is meant by “Bush Doctrine”, who are the neoconservatives and who are the liberal internationalists. The students would be astonished to learn that while US foreign policy differs along party lines, the number of opinions and schools of thought is more diverse and in some cases even cross-party. Surely the question would then arise of what Francis Fukuyama meant by his dictum of the “end of history”, why the Cold War ended, what happened to the Soviet Union, what the 1990s felt like in Russia. What the Soviets, then the USA, were doing in Afghanistan, how the statement by US General Wesley Clark was to be understood, that as early as 2003 several wars had been planned in the Pentagon against Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, etc. Certainly, one would also touch on the concept of conspiracy theory and examine who introduced this term into political discourse and when, and what distinguishes these from real conspiracies in history.

Distinguishing between cause and reason of war – a beginner’s exercise

And all this with two history lessons a week? How is a teacher supposed to choose where to focus? She or he will develop it together with the students, taking into account the legal requirements of neutrality and polyperspectivity and the curriculum.
  Students at all grammar school levels have already learnt in the upper grades of primary school that every war has a cause and a reason. The shooting of Sarajevo as the immediate cause, which could not be understood if the reason was not examined, in this case the imperialist policy of the great powers of the time and their alliance networks. Social, economic, financial and armament aspects may also have been included, depending on the teacher. And also what war propaganda triggers in people.6
  Since the media are full of articles about the fact that the first victim of war is always the truth, since CIA experts are interviewed about the importance of media warfare (cf. for example “Tages-Anzeiger” of 14 March), there would already be material here for further lessons, favourably in cooperation with media studies and German teachers. But also, the foreign language teachers could be involved, today also teachers of Arabic, Russian and Chinese, languages that every self-respecting grammar school has recently started to offer as a free subject. Films could also be envisioned, such as “Ukraine on Fire” by the three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone, and a question could be posed to the upper classes: Is it “boot-licking propaganda” (commentary in the Daily Beast) or enlightenment involving contemporary witnesses? The students would be required to collect arguments pro and con. And if they also learn something about the great investigative US journalist Robert Parry, who exposed the Iran-Contra scandal, so much the better.
  When it comes to the question of neo-Nazis in Ukraine, keyword Azov Regiment (cf. “Tages-Anzeiger” of 12 March), it would certainly be exciting to collect Israeli voices. Conveniently, the history teacher also subscribes to one or the other Israeli newspaper such as “Haaretz” or “Jerusalem Post”, which also have English editions. The students will gain insight into Israel's tense relationship with the USA and Russia, and inevitably questions about the history of the Middle East will arise – and the next series of lessons are already in the pipeline. Those who now think that the twelve weeks of teachers’ time off from teaching are certainly justified for history teachers, given the immense reading workload expected of them, are certainly not wrong. Horribile dictu, if only a teacher consulted the native media products right now!

... and be no wiser than before?

But what if, at the end of the series of lessons, the students had to say to themselves, as read in German class in Goethe’s “Faust”: “And here, poor fool! with all my lore I stand, no wiser than before”? Well, would that be so bad? Isn’t a history lesson a success if you go home with more questions about history than before?
  A lot is gained if the young people are able to follow the tangle in the media jungle more consciously afterwards and slowly begin to form their own opinion – how this is then presented is up to everyone. If the pupils see the learning objectives “insight into US foreign policy discourse”, “media and their perspectives”, “EU task force for strategic communication”, “wars in the age of nuclear weapons” etc. only approximately fulfilled, a lot has already been done and the legislator's demand to get to know different perspectives has been satisfied. If they can later contribute in their professions, family and as fellow citizens to making the world a more peaceful place, beyond ideologies and propaganda, any educator who cares about world peace can only consider themselves fortunate.  •

1 quoted from https://www.watson.ch/!533754759?utm_medium=social-user&utm_source=social_app
2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZVIaXFN2lU, the book on this: John Mearsheimer. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Henry L. Stimson Lectures) Yale University Press 2018.
3 https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine
4 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault
5 And the lecture on: Why is Ukraine the West's Fault? Featuring John Mearsheimer.University of Chicago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4
6 cf. Forster, Peter. Aber wahr muss es sein: Information als Waffe (But true it must be: Information as a Weapon). Huber, Frauenfeld 1998. ISBN 3-7193-1154-6; Becker, Jörg; Beham, Mira. Operation Balkan: Werbung für Krieg und Tod (Operation Balkan: Advertising War and Death). Nomos-Verlag 2008; Müller-Ullrich, Burkhard: Medienmärchen. Gesinnungstäter im Journalismus (Medienmärchen. Mindsets in Journalism). Blessing, München 1996, ISBN

“Task Force on Strategic Communications” of the EU versus John Mearsheimer et al.

ts. The EU has kept a “Task Force on Strategic Communication” since 2015.1
  Its head, Lutz Güllner, is keeping a watchful eye on any false reports and propaganda from Russia in the current Ukraine conflict. In an interview with the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” on 11 March he names one of the prominent false reports that his agency is investigating as the cause and effect of the war. Güllner: “Here, the West and NATO are portrayed as the real aggressors.” It would have been exciting if the interviewer had confronted Güllner with the statements of US political scientists such as the Madison Prize winner and former staff member at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, John Mearsheimer, according to which it was precisely the West and NATO that were to blame for the war because they had pushed NATO’s eastward expansion. Mearsheimer, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, belongs to the neorealist foreign policy school of thought in the USA. He was against the Iraq war of 2003 and sees the real danger for the USA in China – for this, one needs Russia as a partner and would be well advised to neutralise Ukraine. One would have liked to hear from Lutz Güllner how he classifies the US patriot Mearsheimer and his statements. As Russian propaganda that needs to be censored?

1 see https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-8-2016-0290_EN.html

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