Piloting the ESSR: Exoticism

July 30, 2019

The domestic round of piloting was no piece of cake, but we only had to pilot one lesson plan, and thematically it responded to our respective countries’ national histories. We could thus rely on, if nothing else, pre-existing conceptions or on a basic knowledge of Czech(oslovak) life and institutions among our students and teachers as well.

However, this was not the case for the second, international round of piloting. To speak just from our Czech perspective, bringing Bulgarian and Bosnian history into the class was quite a departure from the Czech curricula. This may sound surprising to someone who might see the whole former Eastern bloc as a single entity. Nevertheless, the truth is that, when it comes to teaching so-called “world” history, history classes in Czech Republic focus on what was once called a world or universal history, stressing topics such as Greek democracy, the decline of Rome, the Hundred Years’ War, the English Civil War, the American Declaration of Independence and so forth.

So, even though Bulgaria and Bosnia were once part of the Eastern bloc and both countries are Slavic, we really couldn’t rely on any preconceptions or generally shared knowledge.

But even this can work for you. According to what teachers told us, the general unfamiliarity and strangeness of the topics actually captivated students. The departure from the common curricula was seen as refreshing, as a chance to somewhat travel to less known, more adventurous lands (pedagogically speaking, at least). The subjects of the Bulgarian and Bosnian lessons only added to this feeling. The disturbing events of the so-called Restoration process as well as the story of Bosnian Jewry offered Czech students very different and uncommon perspectives on state socialism, ones that vary a lot from the views shared in the Czech Rep.

Needless to say, bringing in an exotic topic isn’t enough to ensure the students’ attention. Both lesson plans worked cautiously with what an international audience might already know and what would be new to them. This is why it is so fortunate that the Bulgarian lesson plan builds on the notion of personal identity (and that of one’s name), while the Bosnian lesson begins with widely shared knowledge of Holocaust. It is only after these common topics are brought on the table that the both lesson plans can develop their own pedagogical aims.

There is, however, one possible downside to all this. Teachers or the developers of the lesson plans should not rely on the effect of exoticism too much. There is always a risk of falling into “orientalism” (as Edward Said put it), into this reductive and romanticizing view which conceals more than it actually reveals. You should not teach about distant and exotic topics for the exoticism’s sake. This is a reservation everyone should take into account when departing from the common curriculum.