Confronting History in Africa

By Karen Murphy

In the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda, Karen Murphy helps teachers and students move forward by understanding the past.

I’ve just returned from Rwanda and South Africa where I’ve been facilitating seminars for secondary-level history teachers. In Rwanda there’s been a moratorium on the teaching of history since the genocide in 1994. In South Africa, teachers are now required to teach about apartheid, human rights, and the transition, yet they have not had opportunities to learn about teaching these subjects, let alone discuss them as professionals with other teachers, particularly teachers of varied colors and backgrounds.

When I was working on my Ph.D. in American studies at Minnesota, I didn’t think I’d be doing this 10 years later, but I’m surprised at how well my education and teaching experiences at Minnesota prepared me for what I’m doing now. I am director of international programs for a nongovernmental organization called Facing History and Ourselves ( We help teachers to confront some of the most difficult moments in history and to support adolescents in making connections between the choices individuals made in the past and the choices they make today.

Connections is the key word here. Our work is not about comparing the past to the present or pretending to be someone in the past and wondering how they felt or why they acted as they did.

Instead, it’s about identifying historical patterns, teasing out what is particular and what is universal in an event, exploring the way ideas change over time and how they spread from one place to the next, one moment to the next. And, particularly in countries in transition, it’s about understanding paradigm shifts.

In all of these ways, my work has been informed by my education, from what I studied to write question one of my prelims to long discussions with David Noble—as well as what I taught (what I hope taught) at Minnesota.

After the genocide, Rwanda was devastated. Three fourths of all teachers were murdered or imprisoned, thousands of children were orphaned, and thousands of women who had been raped and tortured were widowed and HIV-positive.

Thirteen years later, the country is more stable, but it is also fragile. Discussions of democracy, bystander behavior, and the decisions made by perpetrators and rescuers are not historical abstractions. Rwanda is a place where people disappear, are intimidated, and where free speech is a luxury most people cannot afford.

Still the teachers with whom I have worked have faith that education—particularly a history education that includes confronting the past—can make a positive difference.
I share this belief and have hope that this work is not just a contribution to rebuilding and reconstruction, but also to the prevention of future atrocities. This hope is informed by my education. I was proud to see and be part of the development of a multicultural requirement at Minnesota, to be influenced by strong programs in American Indian, African American, and Chicano studies, and to be surrounded by many students and teachers who believed that their work could make a difference in the world.

Karen Murphy’s 1996 Ph.D. dissertation focused on race and national identity during the progressive era. Now based in London, she continues her work with countries worldwide.



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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 14, 2008 2:44 PM.

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