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Review of Textbook

A New and Captivating School History Textbook on Maltese History

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord – Executive Director EUROCLIO, the European Association of History Educators

Napoleon’s reforms in Malta abolished slavery, decreased the power of the Catholic Church, increased interest rates for borrowing money, set up schools and left the population with the debts of the Order. In the new school Maltese history textbook, students are requested to assess these reforms, and to judge whether they were positive or negative for Maltese society. It is clear that it is not possible to formulate just one clear answer on several of these measures, as the judgment will depend on one’s outlook in life or changing circumstances. The present economic crisis might induce many people to possibly revisit the idea of (cheap) money lending. However, in order to assess the quality of the students’ answers, teachers are required to judge the answers along strict logic methods.

A few weeks ago a team of 10 history educators published under the title From the Coming of the Knights to EU Membership the first modern English language school textbook on Maltese History for Secondary level. All authors are members of the Maltese History Teachers’ Association, and worked under the inspiring guidance of Editor Dr Yosanne Vella.oweverer

 This new book is not meant, as the editor notes, as an all compassing coverage of the syllabus, but as a tool to be used in combination with other materials.

However I believe that the authors are too modest about their achievements. The publication is carefully constructed, from the point of view of the content but also from that of methodology as well as pedagogy. Compared to the existing publications on Maltese history, the book consists of many ingredients making it a high quality and innovative European school history textbook. This means that instead of long texts, complimented by a few visual sources, such books offer multi-perspectivity and diversity through a rich variety of texts, visual and written source materials and a wealth of tasks and questions.

Academic historians all over the world are often deeply concerned about the regular misuse of history for political and ideological purposes. History educators share these concerns but are at the same time aware that society only allows school subjects in the curriculum which are relevant for the students. Learning history in school must therefore have a purpose. Many believe that the most important reason for modern school history is to help students to understand the world around them. However, strengthening core-competencies, building civic attitudes, developing value systems and combating bias and prejudices are considered also standard educational responsibilities for history in school.

From the Coming of the Knights to EU Membership supports students to understand the world around them. With chapters concerning Malta under the rule of the Order, the British take over, ‘The Maltese political leaders, remembering  the victims of World War II, and Malta and the EU, the book offers a manifold of answers to present-day students about the past of their country. The complexity and multi-perspectivity of this Maltese past is highlighted through discussions about drawbacks and benefits for the island in World War I, the language question, or the questions of democratization and independence.

However this book accepts also the pedagogical challenges of school history. Building a value system among the future generations, in the first place denotes addressing the issue of human rights. In the book we can find examples in the attitude of Valetta towards Dr Giuseppe Callus, questions related to the freedom of speech and the issue of self-determination of the Maltese people. Developing critical awareness and building civic and democratic attitudes are addressed through a variety of sensitive and controversial issues such as corsairing as an accepted way of warfare, why the Turks attacked Malta in 1565, the political role of the Catholic Church versus the division between Church and State, and the international relations of Malta after its independence. From the Coming of the Knights to EU Membership also wants to strengthen students’ core-competencies such as the sorting and ranking of arguments and analyzing and judging different sources of information. The book also offers plenty of exercises to write well reasoned and balanced essays, based on careful assessment of evidence.  The book intends not to explain everything about Maltese history but asks the student to search for answers in libraries or the internet. 

The book also favours an open approach to the history of Malta, demonstrating its relations to the rest of Europe, using international languages and even showing the variety of languages used in Malta. Also its language contributes to balanced presentation of the past, with its careful use of concepts such as ruling instead of occupying. However one may find Turks instead of Ottomans.

But it would be unnatural if all about this brand new book were to be positive. Unfortunately the authors have not chosen to follow modern history textbook writing, introducing chapters through questions or problems. Instead they offer short chronologic descriptions of the events related to the chapter, such as ‘The French in Malta’ and ‘The first years of British Rule’. Such approach is not really catching the attention of the reader, and is therefore missed an opportunity to focus the students towards the main themes of a certain epoch.

From the Coming of the Knights to EU Membership offers still a traditional political male dominant approach; however that might be more a curriculum than an author’s choice. The reader learns much about the political developments, the nation’s enemies, the language disputes and the independence debates, but hardly anything about the everyday experience of people living in Malta. Sometimes there are small hints through population statistics or facts about the negative effects of various wars, and how life on the Island might have been. However in general the reader receives little idea who the Maltese were and how they lived on a day to day basis. This approach also leads inevitably to a lack of gender perspective: only 2 women feature in the whole book. And it is only through interviews with these two women, that the student will receive some idea of the ordinary and often difficult life in Malta, leading, amongst others, to massive emigration during the Twentieth Century.

But, not withstanding these points of criticism, I would like to congratulate the History Teachers Association of Malta, which as an independent NGO, took the responsibility to produce a creative and innovative history textbook for school Maltese history based on the standards developed among experts in Europe. Interesting enough the book fully qualifies to serve the needs of the recently published Vision 2015, where Malta’s future is based on 6 pillars, among them education and tourism.  Education in this document looks for creativity, innovation and an education formed of basic competencies, knowledge, skills and attitudes, while tourism wants basic knowledge of Maltese history. From the Coming of the Knights to EU Membership offers it all.

Reading this book further increased my interest in Malta, and I wish to return soon to discover more of its exiting history. I hope that by the time of my return much of Malta’s rich heritage, shown in the book, is restored and open to the public.  So that not only I but also students than can further explore Maltese history by interesting educational itineraries, covering topics such as the Knights, the Napoleonic era, the field hospitals of the First World War and the shelters of the Second World War. Inspired by the book to explore the living history around them, future generations of students must have a better understanding of their national history and will therefore be able to guide tourists like me to the very rich historical heritage of Malta. I am very much looking forward to that.

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