Ladies and gentlemen!
I am truly happy about this teaching history conference. This, in my opinion, is a very important topic for the Latvian state.
The nation's infinite collection of past events creates its own unique biography. We see the biography of the Latvian nation through the perspective of historical events and their respective assessment.
This biography includes, but is not limited to, historical facts and chronology. Here the fundamental values of the nation are crystallised - in the way we select facts and in the way we evaluate them.
These core values of the nation unite generations, and form national self-confidence and identity.
The fundamental values of the Latvian state are enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution; they are independence, democracy, the Latvian language and belonging to the European cultural space.
They are also freedom, equality, solidarity, justice, responsibility towards future generations and work ethic. It is also a condemnation of the totalitarian regimes - communist and Nazi - that ruled here for long enough.
These basic values have matured over the course of the history of the Latvian nation; we can recognise them in concrete historical events.
Therefore, it is the task of history education to help the young citizens of Latvia to learn the fundamental values of the Latvian state, to understand the common moral core of our society.
Dear teachers and education policy implementers!
From time to time, we hear whining about students' poor results in exact sciences. However, recently, there have also been increasingly loud public accusations that young people's understanding of Latvia's statehood and its history is insufficient. This raises questions about the quality of our history education.
Does history education ensure, for example, that every young person, when they leave school, has sufficient knowledge of the course of Latvian history? Has every young person acquired the knowledge necessary for a citizen of a democratic state and about the fundamental values of our country?
Of course, this is not the responsibility of history teachers alone.
Most likely the officials and experts who developed the reform of educational content during the “School 2030” project asked themselves a similar question. This reform set very ambitious goals. However, the effectiveness of any reform is revealed in practice, not "on paper".
Today, there are looming challenges that could significantly hinder the achievement of educational goals. Therefore, this is the right time for history and social studies teachers to agree on the way forward to ensure quality history teaching in the long term.
"In the context of “School 2030”, the lack of clarity in the educational content, the lack of appropriate didactics and teaching materials, and the insufficient support for history teachers are all causes for concern.
After several years of experience, it is time to carefully and boldly evaluate the new teaching methods and curriculum. We need to keep all the good that has been achieved and adjust what has not been so successful. Now is the time to do it.
History teachers in a democratic country must be able to strike a balance between facts, critical thinking skills and a values-based perspective.
Firstly, a critical thinking approach also implies knowledge of the facts. Only if the facts are known can they be critically evaluated. First the facts, then their meaningful connection and critical evaluation.
Therefore, it must be clearly defined what a young person should know about Latvian history upon finishing school. Of course, Latvia’s history must be seen to a large extent in the context of European and world history.
Secondly, the facts that a young person needs to know must be able to be linked to a meaningful picture of history.
Random facts are meaningless. Only the meaningful connection of these facts to the overall picture of the history of Latvia, its certain phases, as well as European and world history, makes sense. Because it is not individual facts, but only the idea of history that forms the spiritual basis that influences human thinking.
Thirdly, the selection of historical facts and the historical picture they form must be value-based. The critical thinking approach logically requires one to take an evaluative position outside the object being evaluated. A critical thinker must be aware of the values on which this position is based. He must also reflect on this position.
A critical thinking approach does not imply value relativism. This evaluative stance must be based on certain values of society and the state. We are a democratic country, and that means that these evaluative positions must be based on the value system of a democratic country. These values, as I have already mentioned, are set out in the preamble to the Constitution and characterise the identity of our country and people.
It will be difficult for a teacher without adequate training and skills to provide such a values-based approach to the history of Latvia.
Therefore, the qualifications of teachers are as important as the content of the subject of history. But it has been neglected for a long time. There is no clear and convincing enough plan to address the shortage of history teachers, to provide the next generation of pedagogues.
There is also a lack of systematic research on the didactics of history. There are no real national research programmes on these issues. The possibilities for Latvian history didactics to adopt the positive experience of other European countries are not included in our vision of the teaching of the subject of history.
The acute problem is, of course, the shortage of history teachers, especially in the minority schools that still exist. Teaching Latvian history and core values in these schools can often resemble walking through an ideological minefield.
How to motivate teachers who are loyal to Latvia to work with students who are not native speakers of Latvian? What didactic solutions are available to educators to enable them to work in such an environment?
Data from the International Youth Survey 2021 show that Russian-speaking young people aged 14-29 are three times more likely in the survey to say that Latvia did best during the Soviet occupation in the 20th century. How to tell these students about the crimes committed by the Soviet occupation regime? Or, for example, about the post-war national resistance movement against the Soviet occupation regime, which is an important chapter in Latvia's history.
History teachers must be able to teach young people this idea of ours about Latvian history. Especially those children whose families are still under the influence of Russian propaganda.
We must not indulge in wishful thinking and expect these, and other problems will resolve themselves. It must not be allowed that the reform makes the teaching of history in schools fragmentary, thus breeding ignorance and moral relativism.
A clear strategy for teaching history and the country's core values is needed, which includes a systematic evaluation of what has been achieved and adjustments accordingly.
I must admit that there has been no such consistent policy from our education system over the last 30 years.
There has often been goodwill and commitment, and there have been some good and some very good projects, but what has been lacking is a mechanism to ensure the sustainability of this direction. This is precisely what is needed, because each generation needs to learn the fundamental values of our society and country, which are largely shaped by our historical experience. The discovery and transformation of this historical experience into fundamental values is the task of why history is studied at all. Not to "hammer out" or learn isolated facts.
This is only possible if this task is institutionalised. Relying on enthusiasm and individual interest alone will not ensure the task's lasting fulfilment.
Therefore, I suggest that we think about a new institution - the Latvian Institute of Historical Memory and Democratic Education. Professor Valters Nollendorfs has thought about and put forward this idea.
Such institutes actually exist in all countries that have experienced totalitarian regimes. In Estonia, it is the Institute of Historical Memory, in Lithuania - the Institute of Genocide and Resistance, in Poland - the Institute of Historical Memory. Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Germany also have such institutions, dealing with these issues on a permanent basis, which have been given the task by the state to do so. It is not just a group of enthusiasts - which is all very well - but it is not enough for the long term.
I think we also need to get together and create this kind of institution. That would be a consistent solution.
Currently, the Latvian Museum of Occupation partly fulfils this task, but it actually has a different mission.
In particular, the mission of this institute would be to uncover the history of Latvia in the 20th century. It would be responsible not only for historical research but especially for communicating Latvian history and the values of the Latvian state to Latvian society and abroad.
The perception of Latvia abroad is created by messages that are largely influenced by Russia, and Russia is doing this very actively, with quite a lot of success. If we do nothing, or if there are only isolated projects, then it is not enough.
We can also link this to the issue of Latvia's security. Why should other countries show solidarity with Latvia? Because we share similar values, we need to communicate this.
Therefore, I would say that the primary task of this institute should be the communication of public history and values.
Such an institute would strengthen our nation's self-confidence and values in line with the needs of a modern, democratic, legal and national Latvia.
This institute could, of course, also provide certain support for the development of history education, content and didactics, and the qualification of pedagogues.
High-quality history teaching is a strategic investment in the future.
We live in turbulent times, as challenges are being “thrown” to the resilience of democracies, and in particular the resilience of the Latvian democratic state system.
World history teaches that nations with a clear moral horizon and a sense of core values have a better chance of navigating through stormy waters.
I would like to thank the Association for Teachers of History and Social Studies for taking the initiative to organise this conference. I wish you constructive discussions on the role of history and fundamental values of the state in Latvian schools!