Insights into the Norwegian History Competition

Karsten Korbøl | Photo: Caroline Reistad / Fritt Ord
Karsten Korbøl | Photo: Caroline Reistad / Fritt Ord

»An Opportunity to Express Yourself«
Looking back on 20 years of EUSTORY Norway

The first Norwegian History Competition took place in 1999/2000. Karsten Korbøl is a teacher of History and Civics and has been serving as the coordinator of the competition since 2006. Additionally, he is working as teacher trainer at the University of Oslo.

In an interview with Katja Fausser, Managing Director of EUSTORY, he reviews the competition’s impact and the specific role history is playing in his country.


The EUSTORY Network is about sharing different perspectives of the past in Europe. What is special about the way history is dealt with in Norway?

»Some countries have more history than others«– I am afraid this sentence is true. Of course, new interpretations of the Norwegian resistance movement during the Second World War always stir up debate when they tamper with what we believe were our heroes. But compared to other European nations, Norway has a low level of conflict in its society. In many regards, our society is based on the idea of compromise which predominantly is the basis of our political culture.

Having said that, the 2011 attacks – a bomb in Oslo and the execution of 69 young summer camp participants on the island of Utøya – totally shocked Norwegian society. We experienced how hard it is for us as a society to cope with the violence. This terrorist attack is hardly mentioned in school lessons yet as teachers are finding it difficult to moderate classroom talks about it. The attack is a national trauma and, obviously, the wounds are still fresh. But we have to find ways how to talk about it – as historians we know that nothing good comes from avoiding discourses about traumatic and difficult topics in society.

The Norwegian history competition project has been existing for two decades now. Which current developments tell you that it is still relevant?

National surveys indicate an increase in the number of young people in Norway who state that the value of living in a democracy is not important to them. The numbers are not dramatic yet, but given the rise of populist and non-democratic parties and movements in many European countries we should continue investing in history and civic education in Norway.

For me as well as for “Fritt Ord”, the foundation that has been providing the resources for the history competition since 2002, the history competition project is an opportunity we offer to our young generation to express itself and to get ready to take part in the public debate  – something the foundation is fostering in all its activities.

Over the years your topics have varied, but for the last 13 years it has been »My family in the light of history«. Why is that?

Our aim is for all student to be able to participate and to feel welcome to do research on topics that are important to them. In our opinion, narrowing down the topic might push some students away. We needed to find a topic that all students felt comfortable with and that would inspire them to write their own story. If the topic had been, let’s say “The resistance during the Second World War in Norway”, many students with immigrant backgrounds, for example, possibly would have found it too distant from their lives and experiences, and therefore would have found it harder to engage in and to relate to.

From your experience, which obstacles might the competition project have to face?

Of course family history can be very tricky. Some students may not like to write about personal stories because sometimes families can be very complicated, and we do not want to push anyone into topics that are sensitive to them. In such cases, pupils can write about a local topic instead, such as how life in their apartment building changed with people moving in and out. We accept all entries as long as they offer the bottom-up perspective.

Looking back, what have been the favourite topics of the Norwegian students?

One obvious thing is that young people want to write about things that were dramatic, such as conflict between the good and the bad. That is why the Second World War has topped all topics. Pupils were writing about heroic family members in the past. In recent years, more students have written about family members who had joined the Nazi party, a fact which was easier to talk about for pupils from the second generation after the war. With only a few survivors of the war-time generation left, the number of entries related to the war is now declining.

What are other topics pupils focus on?

Migration is another important topic. Emigration to America, for example, or immigration to Norway. The growing number of students whose families have backgrounds other than Norwegian use the opportunity to write about how and why their families came to Norway. They are including new stories to the national historical narrative. We believe that the history competition project contributes to that.

What other contribution did the competition make to the teaching of history in your country?

The competition helped history teachers to realise that historical research is not just another tool for teaching history but a way of learning, a way of developing critical thinking. The competition also changed how we work with sources in the classroom. A student once said that for the longest time she had perceived working with sources to be just another task that was given to her by a teacher. When she was working on the historical project, finding sources became an exciting challenge, and composing her own narrative made history relevant and interesting for her.

What effect did your job as organiser have on you?

I would say that the competition influenced my own historical consciousness. It has triggered my own interest in researching my family history: Many of my ancestors were workers and famers. Nonetheless, my grandfather on my father’s side went to Wismar in Germany in the early 1920s. How was it possible for a farm boy to go to Germany to study at that time? Furthermore, my mother was the first member of her family to go to University. My professional work as a historian has benefitted from the fact that I reflected on my personal background, and the knowledge of my family history influenced my perspective on the Norwegian education and welfare system.

Do you remember a situation related to your work at EUSTORY which has led to sudden insights?

I admire people who are willing to take a risk in order to organise the competition. I am really impressed by the organisers of the Russian history competition – how they struggle with the government. An eye-opener for me was the incident at the EUSTORY Annual Network Meeting in Moscow in 2016, when guests of the Russian award ceremony were attacked by nationalists while they were entering the venue. At that moment I literally physically understood how explosive history can be. Some people have to fear history when it is not in line with a weak or fake official master narrative. To me it confirms the necessity of having the opportunity to express different views on history.

If you had one wish – what would it be?

Except for peace on earth, you mean? I wish that ministries of education as well as the public in general realise the importance of history education in schools. History provides us with so many necessary skills required for maintaining a decent and critical public debate – the real fundament of a functioning democratic system. With historical knowledge and tools we are better prepared to discover and act on fake news and hate speech. On top of that, history gives us joy and meaning in life.

Knowing our history makes it possible for us to dream about change in the future. It should not be too much to wish for, should it?

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