Public Debate in Portugal

Miguel Barros, organiser of the Iberian EUSTORY History Competition in Portugal | Photo: Private
Miguel Barros, organiser of the Iberian EUSTORY History Competition in Portugal | Photo: Private

Miguel Barros, President of the Portuguese History Teachers’ Association (APH) and organiser of the Iberian EUSTORY History Competition in Portugal, is one of the architects of a new historical discipline that has been introduced in Portugal recently. Its release stirred a national debate on Portuguese identity and the essence of the country’s history education.

In an interview with Katja Fausser, Managing Director of EUSTORY, he explains how the release of the new discipline revealed some hot issues of Portuguese society.

Together with a small team, you have developed the newly introduced discipline “História, Culturas e Democracia” (History, Cultures and Democracy) to be taught by history teachers in Portugal. Why was it needed?

In our country, students at the medium level could finish the subject of history after 9th grade at the age of 14/15. They could not continue studying issues related to civic or history education unless they selected Social Sciences. For 20 years, APH and others wanted to change that.

There was a momentum of trying to launch a new discipline that could bridge this gap and make an additional offer for this group after João Costa became Secretary of State of Education four years ago. At APH, we knew Costa from the joint development of a new history curriculum for Portugal in the years 2016-2018 and perceived him as a person who really thinks “out of the box”. Early this year, I proposed the idea to him of developing something new, and he was interested.

“Thinking out of the box” was important as the new discipline does not only bridge a gap in the school system, but at the same time introduces a consistent multi-perspective approach to hot issues like identities, colonialism or war crimes.

Together with a small team from CITCEM (a research group from Porto University, composed of Prof. Luís Alberto Marques Alves; Prof. Maria Helena Pinto, Prof. Cláudia Pinto Ribeiro and Prof. Mariana Lagarto) I wanted to include stimulations from past international conferences organised by EUROCLIO, but especially by EUSTORY, into the new discipline. On these occasions, we have been discussing with colleagues from different countries for a long time how history could contribute to civic education and what it means to really face our pasts. History classes can well foster skills like critical thinking that are crucial to fight populism, fake news and hate speech. As historians, we have to do our share.

The design of the new discipline caused much public attention and harsh criticism…

The decision was made to publish it two days after the Portuguese national elections on Oct 5, 2019. The polemic began soon thereafter. The start was made by the Observador, a conservative newspaper that invited Jaime Gama, a prominent Socialist Portuguese politician who served as Foreign Minister 1983-85, to comment on the new discipline. Gama started the public bashing.

What were the allegations?

Gama stated the program was “militant”, abandoning “everything related to togetherness, integration and national cohesion”. In his eyes, the new discipline presented history “without a national focus” and “without respect to Portuguese national symbols”. Our new approach to the past would, from his perspective, lead to segregation, friction and to “minoritarian identities.”

He lamented the new subject did not accept any heroes or Portuguese “strategic objectives”. He feared that the unit on the colonial war, where we state that in history lessons we should listen to anybody involved, no matter who they are and what their opinion are, was opening the doors for claims for compensations.

Can you give another example of how the new discipline approaches Portuguese history?

We, for example, prepared a unit on the Battle of Aljubarrota in the 14th century that took place in the context of the 100 Years’ War and was important for Portugal’s independence. Instead of presenting the narrative of a heroic Portuguese victory we provide different contemporary sources: contemporary chronicles from a Portuguese, a Castilian and a French perspective. Gama criticizes that in this unit the three sources and positions are presented as equally valid.

Did you expect the criticism?

To be honest, I was a little surprised that the first criticism came from a former Socialist. I did not expect the fear that “the truth” gets lost once the past is not presented by teachers as an iron narrative. In a way I had anticipated that it was a consensus of our times already that students should be encouraged to re-read and re-interpret the past. Nonetheless I am glad about the reactions: They have triggered a fruitful and eye-opening debate about Portuguese identities, about the question who “we” are. We still have to join forces to intensify the debate how we as society want to address the past and how to include different perspectives on historical and current issues in our country.

What is the situation right now?

We were glad when a renowned Portuguese historian, Diogo Ramada Curto, published a response, much welcoming our initiative. He valued the new discipline’s approach as adequate for our days: designing history lessons as laboratories more than as lectures.

We are now starting to present the new subject to history teachers, hoping that they will initiate the implementation of the new discipline in their schools. The first students may be able to enroll for the new discipline after the summer 2020. We hope it will make a contribution to a modern history education in our country that prepares children for the 21st century.

Thank your for your time.

Read the whole interview with Jaime Gama in the Observador (in Portuguese language)

Read the response by Diogo Ramada Curto (in Portuguese language)

More details of the new discipline “História, Culturas e Democracia” (in Portuguese language)

(Shortened) translation of details of the new discipline “História, Culturas e Democracia” in English language

Watch on Al Jazeera: Stream on »How does colonialism shape the world we live in?« with Akin Adeṣọkan from Indiana University, Miguel Barros and Priyamvada Gopal, from Cambridge University (9 Dec 2019)


Go back