History Education and Reconciliation in (Post)Conflict Societies

by Jamie Wise

May 19, 2020

The histories we teach have important implications for how conflicts are viewed in the present. As Cole (2007, 123) concludes, “…understandings of history are crucial to a society’s ability to reckon with the difficult past for the sake of a more just future.” This essay considers the role of history education in shaping collective memory and intergroup relations in (post)conflict contexts. History education intersects with peace education (see Brahm 2006) by focusing on how narratives about past violence are invoked and constructed in (post)conflict educational settings. Referring to “(post)conflict” contexts as such recognizes that even after peace agreements are signed or direct violence has ceased, conflicts often persist through the memories and identities of groups in those societies. History education can contribute to reconciliation by helping to acknowledge difficult truths about the past, while also reforming intergroup perceptions and ideas about possibilities for cooperation with former enemies in the future. These retrospective and prospective orientations produce both opportunities and obstacles for teaching history in (post)conflict settings.

In what follows, an overview of the major theoretical perspectives needed to understand the influence of history education on reconciliation is provided—including the contact hypothesis, social identity theory, and memory studies. Next, this essay considers practical approaches to using history education to reconcile divided groups with regards to pedagogy, joint textbook revisions, and teaching contested narratives in both inter- and intragroup educational spaces. Throughout these sections, empirical evidence from a non-exhaustive sample of (post)conflict cases around the world is included to summarize the state of knowledge about the impact of these approaches and identify remaining limitations and gaps. Finally, this essay concludes with key recommendations for policymakers, scholars, and educators gleaned from this literature on how to incorporate history education into reconciliation efforts.

Theoretical Perspectives

Contact Hypothesis

One strand of research examining the link between education and reconciliation in (post)conflict contexts emphasizes bringing members of conflicting groups into contact with one another in educational spaces for the purposes of learning with and from one another. Studies in this area draw largely from Allport’s (1954) “contact hypothesis,” which posits that intergroup interactions characterized by equality, non-competition, and the possibility of learning about the “other” can lead to improved intergroup relations (as cited in Schulz 2008, 34). This hypothesis assumes that conflict is based on negative perceptions of the “other” that persist due to each group’s isolation from the other. The vast social-psychological literature on intergroup contact has found promising evidence that it can reduce prejudice, anxiety, and discrimination while promoting empathy between groups, suggesting its value as a tool in peace education (see Mania et al. 2010).

While many other reconciliation-focused interventions like dialogues and joint projects may also rely on intergroup contact as their theoretical basis, Schulz (2008, 35-36) asserts that educational spaces in particular can create a “social arena” that enables parties to engage in non-violent confrontation and promote reconciliation. These encounters are framed around bringing together students from different sides of the conflict, whether through integrated schools, education programs, or site visits. It is argued that—given proper facilitation and conditions—such encounters can produce small-scale reconciliation, often (though not always) through learning about the other’s narratives and views of history.

Social Identity Theory

Many scholars also approach the question of reconciliation through history education from a Social Identity Theory perspective, which holds that self-identification with a particular group enhances positive perceptions of the ingroup alongside negative stereotyping of any outgroups (see a review of this literature in Korostelina 2013). For more on the intersection of education, identity, and conflict, see Bellino and Williams (2017). While this theoretical perspective overlaps much with the contact hypothesis in its emphasis on intergroup relations, it provides a better framework for understanding how attitudes about one’s ingroup identity—as defined in part by one’s imagined history—either adds to or detracts from reconciliation.

In particular, Korostelina (2013, 41-43) provides a model of identity formation in history education, articulating how teaching about the past can contribute to conflict behaviors or alternatively to a “culture of peace.” Korostelina (2013) argues that history education can reinforce ingroup identities, and when these are tied to ideas of nationhood based on tolerance and shared humanity, they can contribute to reconciliation. History education can also champion diversity and the equality of all groups within a society, shaping positive intergroup relations. Finally, history education can be leveraged to demystify existing power structures and their justifications, which are often embedded in memories of symbolic threats between groups. As Korostelina (2012, 195) writes elsewhere: “History education can address the collective traumas and contribute to reconciliation through the development of a common inclusive identity, facilitation of social cohesion, and development of a compelling moral framework.” As such, history education contributes to both retrospective and prospective reconciliation, linking the two through considerations of social group identity.

Memory Studies

More recently, scholars have made efforts to bridge the divide between work on history education and memory in (post)conflict settings. Paulson and colleagues (2020) contend that education should be considered a site of memory for the teaching of “difficult histories.” In particular, they argue that history education is more than just a vehicle for transmitting nationalistic or state-sanctioned narratives within top-down efforts to institutionalize collective memory. Instead, it is argued that schools provide spaces for contestation and the construction of memories through interactions between students and teachers, who can “seek to mobilize history education for reconciliation and the construction of peace” (Paulson et al. 2020, 442). This memory work connects to broader transitional justice processes in (post)conflict societies by possibly integrating the findings of truth commissions and human rights trials into educational programs that persist long after the mandates of those mechanisms have expired (Cole 2007, 121). Further, history education can aid transitional justice by acknowledging past harms against victims, teaching democratic norms, and promoting reconciliation (Cole 2007, 123).

Practical Approaches

Pedagogy in History Teaching

There are many pedagogical perspectives on teaching contested histories (see Elmersjö, Clark, and Vinterek 2017). Paulson and colleagues (2020) reflect on Seixas’ (2004) pedagogical approaches to history education, which are outlined here for reference. First, the “collective memory” approach emphasizes a single historical narrative, often shaped by nationalistic and political concerns (Paulson et al. 2020, 440). Second, the “postmodern” approach draws from multiple perspectives to present students with diverse narratives to critically examine, such as those compiled in joint history textbooks (Paulson et al. 2020, 440). Third, the “disciplinary” approach aims to provide students with an understanding of the sources and methods underpinning the creation of historical narratives, such that they can understand how meaning is derived from past events (Paulson et al. 2020, 440-441). A review of the literature by Paulson (2015) examined history education in eleven conflict-affected countries, finding that educators most often took a “collective memory” approach to teaching that furthered traditional ethno-nationalist narratives. However, Paulson and colleagues (2020, 441) ultimately argue that future research should focus on how history curricula are constructed, as well as how teachers and students experience history education in the classroom as memory work.

Drawing from case studies of history teaching in a variety of (post)conflict countries, Korostelina (2016) observes that the distinction between “monumental” and “critical” histories remains a dilemma for reconciling societies. In particular, monumental histories are used by (post)conflict regimes to spread mythic narratives that perpetuate their dominance through mechanisms like glorifying the ingroup and shifting blame to the outgroup (Korostelina 2016, 291). However, the introduction of critical histories can complicate monumental narratives by incorporating multiple interpretations of the past and grappling with the causes of violence (Korostelina 2016, 293-294). Such critical histories can contribute to reconciliation, since “the contradictions between social groups long perceived to be unchangeable can be reinterpreted; conflicts can be transformed into possible cooperation” (Korostelina 2016, 294).

Others have also argued that history teaching in divided societies should enable students to actively engage in processes of knowledge acquisition centered on critical inquiry. Specifically, McCully (2010, 216) argues that history teaching contributes to peacebuilding when it: 1) equips students with critical thinking skills; 2) uses sources that provide for multiperspectivity; 3) fosters caring and empathetic understandings of the “other”; and 4) instills democratic values through open, participatory debate. However, McCully (2010, 214) cautions that educators must take into account how history teaching may interact with identity politics in contested societies. In particular, it should be recognized that—depending on the context and the political sensitivity of educational content—teachers may need to be prepared to engage in “risk-taking” in order to pursue social change through history teaching (McCully 2010, 215). In the United States, a recent initiative Educating for American Democracy (EAD) also emphasizes critical inquiry as a pedagogical principle for linking American history and civics education. The EAD asserts that: “All deserve an education that supports “reflective patriotism”: appreciation of the ideals of our political order, candid reckoning with the country’s failures to live up to those ideals, motivation to take responsibility for self-government, and deliberative skill to debate the challenges that face us in the present and future” (EAD 2021, 12). While not explicitly framing its work as reconciliation, EAD acknowledges the importance of grappling with critical histories to build a more democratic future in a polarized society.

In their summary of pedagogical approaches, Skårås (2019, 520) adds “avoidance” in addition to “single narrative” and “multiperspectivity” approaches to history teaching. Skårås (2019, 522) observes that avoidance may be the preferred option in contexts that are still experiencing high levels of insecurity; writing about ethnographic research of teaching in South Sudan, Skårås notes, “The multicultural classroom has become a safety threat because no one knows for sure who aligns with whom in a civil war that students and teachers take part in after school hours.” Thus, critical histories can be supplanted by single narrative ones when conflicts remain active, failing to address the root causes of violence or promote sustainable peace (Skårås 2019, 531-532). Similarly, Korostelina (2016, 302-304) notes how some societies may promote “selective histories” that exclude information about past violence to avoid reproducing negative intergroup perceptions, ostensibly in the interest of peace; however, such oversimplified and noncritical histories actually undermine reconciliation. Pingel (2008) echoes how avoidance may be enforced from the top-down, when (post)conflict governments are disinterested in teaching about difficult histories. Pingel (2008, 185-187) notes how history teaching was suppressed in post-genocide Rwanda, efforts to craft a new master narrative stalled in post-apartheid South Africa, and segregated schooling entrenched one-sided histories in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pingel (2008, 187) pessimistically observes: “The initial interest in finding out the historical reasons why violence and conflict broke out in society is quickly overshadowed by a policy of remembrance that encapsulates or neutralizes the contested past.”

Despite the political constraints often present in (post)conflict environments, efforts to teach difficult histories have been made in a variety of countries to introduce multiperspectivity and critical histories into curricula. The next section summarizes some notable cases in which history education—through revising textbooks and teaching contested narratives—has been employed to pursue reconciliation.

Revising History Textbooks

Some scholars have focused on the revision of history textbooks in (post)conflict settings as an opportunity for pursuing reconciliation. For example, several states and regions have undergone projects to compile joint histories through textbooks, including the Joint History Project in Southeast Europe, the Shared History Project led by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) in Israel-Palestine, and the Tbilisi Initiative in the South Caucasus region (for detailed case studies, see Korostelina 2012). After facing a myriad of coordination challenges as well as political obstacles, each of these projects ultimately produced educational texts that represented differing historical accounts from various groups. The result of these projects was not to create a novel, shared history to replace former narratives; instead, they placed alternative stories side-by-side, relying on “multiperspectivity” to strengthen mutual understanding and provide opportunities for entrenched meanings of identity to be challenged (Korostelina 2012, 211-213). Consequently, these projects contribute to reconciliation both by producing teaching tools to reshape students’ perceptions of intergroup relations in the long-term and by creating fora for intergroup dialogues through the committees and working groups that temporarily convene to deliberate over joint histories.

Emphasizing this dialogic component, Metro (2013) conceptualized history curriculum revision workshops as intergroup encounters, focusing on how interaction among educational stakeholders can present an opportunity for small-scale reconciliation. Based on an ethnographic study of how multiethnic Burmese migrants and refugees in Thailand approached history curriculum revision, Metro (2013, 146) outlines six steps to intergroup reconciliation, including: “1) hearing other ethnic groups’ historical narratives; 2) realizing that multiple perspectives on history exist; 3) “stepping into the shoes” of others; 4) complicating master narratives about identity; 5) exposing intra-ethnic divisions to other ethnic groups; and 6) forming cross-ethnic relationships.” Metro (2013, 146) stresses that this process does not unfold in a linear fashion and obstacles remain—including interethnic tensions, language barriers, and anxieties about critical thinking—though positive outcomes were reported from the model.

While the process of creating joint histories enables possibilities for reconciliation, there remains a dearth of evidence showing the long-term impact of these endeavors. In particular, even when joint textbooks are commissioned, it is often assumed that they will be put into use in classrooms, which may not necessarily be the case (see Paulson et al. 2020, 441). Further study of how joint history textbooks are used in classrooms—and consequently impact attitudes and behaviors towards reconciliation among students—are needed (see Skårås 2019, 517). In one example of such research, Rohde (2013, 187) examined the PRIME textbook project, finding that those involved in creating the textbook found it difficult to translate “dialogic moments” with others beyond their encounters associated with the intervention and into everyday life. In addition, both Israeli and Palestinian students who used the side-by-side textbook in class had mixed reactions to exposure to the other’s narrative, ranging from refusal to openness (Rohde 2013, 187). Thus, it remains unclear whether reconciliation achieved through joint textbook projects results in enduring, broad, and positive effects.

Teaching Contested Narratives in Inter- and Intragroup Educational Spaces

Another practical approach centers on teaching contested historical narratives to students in educational spaces in order to promote reconciliation. Salomon (2006, 45) posits that peace education makes a difference in intractable conflicts when it results in changes to groups’ collective narratives, which are often anchored in understandings of history. Educational interventions designed to complicate and contest the dominant narratives that fuel conflict have been employed in both inter- and intragroup settings, with mixed results.

Teaching contested narratives in intergroup educational contexts draws much from the “contact hypothesis,” in suggesting that the exchange of narratives through encounters between groups can have positive impacts on their relations. Where opportunities for such exchange are limited by the segregation of school systems, desegregation could provide a pathway to reconciliation. For example, one survey of over 3,000 high school and college students in the former Yugoslavia found that students were more likely to report believing that reconciliation was possible if they were students at mixed-ethnic schools (Meernik et al. 2016, 425). Another study by Schulz (2008) involved direct observation of Israeli and Palestinian students enrolled in the same master’s program on peace and development. The study found that lessons on the contested history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in students gaining intellectual understanding of the other’s views but also fostered negative emotional attitudes as students sought to defend the narratives of their ingroups (Schulz 2008, 41-42). Among the limitations of this intergroup approach to education are difficulties measuring how changes in attitudes and relationships forged in the classroom endure after program completion and therefore impact reconciliation on the broader level (see Schulz 2008, 46-47). As relatively few studies on history teaching in intergroup settings could be found, this may indicate the difficulties of bringing formerly conflicting groups together in educational spaces and the necessity for further research.

Other educational interventions have been aimed primarily at the intragroup level, where the teaching of contested historical narratives might impact students’ perceptions of their ingroup as well as the not-present other. For example, Ben David and colleagues (2017) conducted intragroup dialogues with Jewish-Israeli undergraduate students through a university seminar focused on examining the collective narratives and identities of Israelis and Palestinians. They found that “intragroup dialogue provided a safe space for dealing with the impact of the conflict on participants’ collective identity, in a way that promotes willingness toward reconciliation” (Ben David et al. 2017, 275). Meernik and colleagues (2016, 427) found that students in the former Yugoslavia (at both homogenous and mixed-ethnic schools) who acknowledged their own ethnic group’s responsibility in the conflict and recognized the positive impact of the International Criminal Tribunal viewed reconciliation as more likely, suggesting the importance of teaching about these topics. However, history teaching that highlights the guilt of an ingroup does not always promote positive intergroup relations. Bilewicz and colleagues (2017) demonstrate how Holocaust history education among German and Polish high school students had little effect on improving antisemitic attitudes. More research is needed to understand when and how teaching contested historical narratives leads to shifts in attitudes among students towards tolerance and reconciliation. While the social-psychology literature contains many studies of inter- and intragroup dialogues held outside of schools (for examples, see literature review in Ben David et al. 2017), more attention should be paid to the unique impacts of historical dialogues in educational settings on reconciliation.


This essay has provided a brief overview of the state of research linking history education to reconciliation in (post)conflict settings. To conclude, here are several cross-cutting recommendations from this literature for educators, policymakers, and scholars below:

  • Avoid Teaching One-Sided Historical Narratives: Incorporate multiperspectivity to account for the views of all sides of the conflict. This might be achieved by drawing curricula from joint history projects to provide alternatives to dominant narratives. Specifically, “History curricula should highlight the ways in which all groups within a society have suffered, include discussions of why and how these groups were dehumanized and demonized, and show how acts of discrimination and violence were justified” (Korostelina 2012, 196-197).
  • Promote Critical Thinking in History Teaching: In theory, encouraging critical inquiry as a pedagogical approach in the classroom can support reconciliation and democratization (see EAD 2021 and McCully 2010). As Korostelina (2016, 306) observes: “Critical history promotes active citizenship, critical thinking, and an ability to recognize social manipulation, thus preventing a recurrence of violence.” History teaching should thus emphasize curiosity and questioning.
  • Use Creative Teaching Methods to Circumvent Identity Threats: Some techniques include: 1) emphasizing empathy with the victim group over guilt with being associated with the perpetrator group; 2) relying on narratives of moral-exemplars and heroic helpers as a less threatening entry point for discussing a contested history; and 3) focusing on local histories (rather than national narratives) where they are available to personalize the history (Bilewicz et al. 2017, 183-187). In addition, intergroup dialogues may be preceded by intragroup dialogues conducted in educational settings, which allow members of the ingroup to explore narratives that may challenge their identities in a less threatening environment (see Ben David et al. 2017).
  • Recognize the Agency of History Teachers and Students: While (post)conflict states may have political interests in disseminating particular nationalistic narratives, students and teachers have significant agency in the classroom to “engage, rupture or ignore” them (Paulson et al. 2020, 444). When diverse historical narratives are omitted from officially sanctioned education, teachers, students, and community groups can create informal spaces and opportunities for reconciliation (see the example of one Muslim and Tamil community in Sri Lanka by Duncan and Lopes Cardozo 2017).
  • Encourage Intergroup Contact in Learning: Educational spaces can be used to convene students from conflicting parties, enabling them to learn with and from one another. These interactions can help reduce intergroup tensions and enhance understanding, though the environment should be constructed as a safe space where disagreements over sensitive historical issues can be effectively moderated (see Schulz 2008). Desegregating schools can also help overcome obstacles to reconciliation (see Meernik et al. 2016 and Pingel 2008 on experiences in the former Yugoslavia).
  • Integrate History Education into Transitional Justice Processes: While memory is recognized as an important facet of transitional justice, consideration should go beyond museums, monuments, and memorials to include education as a site of memory (see Cole 2007 and Paulson et al. 2020). Further, Pingel (2008, 194) observes how little effort has historically gone towards incorporating the “truths” uncovered by truth commissions or trials into history education, indicating the siloed nature of these transitional justice mechanisms and how silences can persist through insufficient coordination.
  • Research the Impacts of History Education in (Post)Conflict Societies: As this essay has indicated, more research is needed to understand the impact of history education in (post)conflict societies. Future study should seek to assess how history education contributes to specific outcomes, like the likelihood of conflict recurrence or the realization of reconciliation (see Paulson 2015, 37). Additional studies can explore whether the practical approaches outlined here (including specific pedagogies) have lasting effects on reconciliation at the personal, national, and international levels.


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