“Georgia’s Youth and History: Experience, Attitudes and Values“ is a study published by WeResearch in December 2021. In addition to surveying public school students in Georgia, the study also reports and analyses viewpoints expressed by history teachers and experts in the field. This review summarises the study’s key findings and relates them to multifaceted processes of identity and state-formation, as well as to questions of generational succession. The review also attempts to locate findings within broader temporal and political contexts and to discuss the study’s insights in light of questions of the past and the future.
There is no collective memory but there are collective conditions of potential memories
On the Sense and Nonsense of History
Historical narratives play a central role in the formation of national identity. At first, adolescents’ conception and knowledge of the world is derived from tales, books and stories that adult members of the family provide. With time, the social influence on the development of their attitudes and knowledge - that of schools, friends, social and traditional media - grows ever more prominent. In this long formative process, a younger generation develops a historical conception of its provenance and of nationality, as well as of the state and of its social and historical role.
Identity formation is a process through which dominant historical narratives are internalised and linked with one’s self-identity. The construction of national history among the youth is a versatile process, in which institutions like the school, the educational system and the family play the leading role. Today, with the growing availability of and access to new and emerging sources of information, the role of television, social and digital media increases proportionally. Nevertheless, the school and teaching in school are still the primary media of knowledge formation. Therefore, the teaching of history and school textbooks are thought of as roadmaps for building national identity and it is assumed that their content is an expression of a broad social and political consensus. Each successive generation is a new “mnemonic generation”, tasked with a dual function - (1) to preserve consolidating knowledge on the nation’s past and disseminate consistent and/or consensual views, and (2) to help re-interpret history in new ways, creating opportunities for revisiting the past, thereby turning it from a static or a binary category into a broadly contextualised knowledge helpful in shaping the future.
Young people’s experience of and attitudes towards national history, as well as their values related to the past could have a powerful impact on their future identity. This article is an overview of findings of the study Georgia’s Youth and History: Experience, Attitudes and Values. The purpose of the study was to explore attitudes towards the teaching of history, to gather self-evaluation data on the knowledge of history, and to assess interest in specific historical periods among Georgia’s youth. The study relied on both quantitative and qualitative methodology, including focus groups and expert interviews. Alongside multiple-choice entries, the survey distributed also included open-ended questions, where respondents could provide their own answers. Despite the relatively low number of such questions, the results point to the remarkable diversity of (and even sharply contrasting views on) historical knowledge and attitudes towards the past among today’s youth.
Divergent Attitudes towards Georgia’s History
The 2021 study by WeResearch focuses on the experience, attitudes and values of Georgia’s youth related to the teaching of history. It encompassed several directions, including a study of young people’s attitudes towards the role and function of history, the self-evaluation of their knowledge of history and their interest in specific historical periods. The study also attempts to investigate the diversity of practices, activities, and sources involved in the teaching of history in Georgia’s schools. According to its findings, majority of Georgia’s youth places a special emphasis on the knowledge of history and relates it to the present, as well as the future: “According to students, history is extremely important both for knowing the past (84%) and for understanding the present (87%), as well as for shaping the future.” This finding makes it relevant to interrogate the transmission of this knowledge, the ways in which young people learn about historical events and whether the teaching process provides opportunities for posing critical questions and for voicing alternative viewpoints.
At first glance, WeResearch’s study provides divergent and contradictory answers: half of the survey respondents considered history as an event bounded in space and time, which should be studied objectively, while the other half indicated that history could be interpreted and narrated from different perspectives. However, additional qualitative analysis shows that for the majority of students this multivocality is not an end in itself. It is rather a means to discern a “true history”, one that speaks to each student in the context of their everyday interactions with school teachers, classmates, and last but not least their family.
The attitudes of parents and teachers, as well as the nature of school curricula and the insularity of teaching infrastructure, play an important role in the consolidation of such views. As the study proves, there is a real dearth of new historical research that would help establish novel approaches to history and update existing knowledge. Additionally, the integration and contextualization of Georgia’s history within global histories, and the formulation of the former within the latter, has been a persistent challenge. Selection of school textbooks based on a Ministry of Education tender process is another problem: “The problem with the tender process is its short timeline, which leaves insufficient time for adapting scientific content to teaching needs. Meanwhile authors have to take into account other considerations: offering the least price, complying with standards, finding sources, etc.”
Tensions Associated with Teaching History
In his article Constructing Primordialism: Old Histories for New Nations, Ronald Suny discusses, through the examples of Kazakhstan and Armenia, multi-faceted processes of historiographical tendencies in national identity formation in the wake of post-Soviet transition. Suny underlines the disjuncture that emerged between historians who studied constructions of history and the emergence of national, cultural and ethnic identities and “nationalists” who were directly involved in the politically charged formation and solidification of these identities.
The source of this disjuncture, according to Suny, lies in the pitfalls of inquiry and interpretation that might emerge as part of research and that were perceived by “practising nationalists” as threatening and potentially subversive. This same tension is on display in the dilemmas of teaching history - students are asked to question and critically assess preconditions of historical events and to contextualise them within broader developments, while also being required by the educational system to accept dominant historical narratives of the past unconditionally and to internalise them as part of their identity. As Suny writes, “Nation works most powerfully precisely when people are unaware that they have made contingent choices and feel that they are acting in accord with a natural order. Calculation is suppressed and feelings are heightened.”
In today’s schools we can relate the consolidation of attitudes towards and knowledge of this “natural order” with the study’s finding that the majority of students surveyed (81%) express greatest interest in Georgia’s history from the 5th to the 14th centuries AD. As authors of the study explain, teachers and curricula place a special emphasis on the mediaeval period: “The teaching of the history of Georgia’s ‘golden age’ is especially important for the formation of Georgia’s national narratives. [...] Narratives of the golden age, as well as narratives of heroism and victimhood play a special role in the development of national identity.” The teaching of the mediaeval period lends itself rather easily to narratives of bygone glory and of Georgia’s place among world’s civilizations, as well as to narratives of deep bonds between Georgian and Christian cultures, since these historical tendencies date back to this period in Georgia’s history. According to the study’s authors, the period makes for appropriate teaching material also because “teaching the history of Georgia’s unification is comfortable because of its uncontroversial and unambiguous nature.”
Limits of Contemporary Georgian Historiography: History in Two Dimensions
The study also found that interest in the period from the 19th century to the present day is also high (around 70%) among surveyed students. The focus here is on the transitions between historical regimes - from imperial Russia to Soviet occupation to independence. When teaching this period in Georgia’s history, the past is reduced to simple variables and binaries of the conquerors and the conquered, enemies and allies, freedom and servitude. These categories serve to construct dominant historical narratives of Georgia’s national identity and self-sufficiency, in which the story of Georgians’ resistance to historical foes and their rebellious nature are told and re-told anew.
Contemporary scholars have demonstrated that post-Soviet historiography largely reproduces the Soviet historiographical tradition. While contours of late Soviet methodology and content have remained intact, the only tangible change has been the extirpation of Marxist-Leninist terminology. This tendency has treated reconstruction of history as a linear process, in which identification of the enemy and narrating the struggle against it become the major pillars of constructing narratives of the national spirit and identity.
It must be emphasised that such univocal and linear conceptions of history mostly reflect and reproduce the self-identity and views of social elites, excluding the experience of common people. Such an approach depicts the past as one long, monolithic, and homogeneous temporal unit, in which political, social and cultural multiplicities are collapsed and reduced to simple determinants. This kind of cultivation of univocal views of history limits the possibilities for developing and paying attention to alternative voices and perspectives.
Studying young people’s attitudes towards national history can provide insights on a broad variety of issues. The study has shed a light on the conventionality and the insularity of Georgia’s public educational system. It has also shown that emerging alternative educational instruments are underutilised and that there is a lingering lack of opportunities for introducing a diversity of sources of information within the teaching process. What’s more, the study reveals a critical lack of financial, infrastructural and knowledge enlargement resources, that prevents the improvement of the quality of teaching by teachers and school personnel. The study also points to structural challenges, like the reproduction of ethnic, religious and gender-based hierarchies in teaching material and the gender-based and ethnic asymmetries noticeable in the teaching process.
To sum up, the study confirms the influence of the teaching of national history on the formation of national identity and the impact elite political interests and the status quo could have on shaping national historical narratives. But the study is even more valuable for its ability to broaden our understanding of the teaching process with possibilities for new and future research directions.
The study leaves us with more questions than it can answer. How tolerant, open, and receptive will the Georgian society be in the future? Will it reevaluate the historical tradition that has served current political regimes for decades? What steps should be taken to encourage the development of alternative viewpoints and new approaches in the teaching of history, to invigorate underprivileged voices and to transcend dichotomies, instead of homogenising and simplifying the past? These are the questions that should inform public discussion and research in the years ahead.
 Wim Meeus, ‘The Study of Adolescent Identity Formation 2000–2010: A Review of Longitudinal Research’, Journal of Research on Adolescence21, no. 1 (2011): 75–94.
 James H. Williams and Wendy D. Bokhorst-Heng, (Re)Constructing Memory: Textbooks, Identity, Nation, and State (SensePublishers, 2016).
 Félix Krawatzek and Nina Friess, ‘Transmitting the Past to Young Minds’, in Transmitting the Past to Young Minds (De Gruyter, 2022), 1–24.
 Harald Wydra, ‘Generations of Memory: Elements of a Conceptual Framework’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 60, no. 1 (January 2018): 5–34.
 „Georgia’s Youth and History: Experience, Attitudes and Values“, WeResearch, 2021, Tbilisi, p. 34.
 ^ibid. p. 35.
 ^ibid. p. 57.
 ^ibid. p. 58.
 Ronald Grigor Suny, ‘Constructing Primordialism: Old Histories for New Nations’, The Journal of Modern History 73, no. 4 (December 2001): 862–96.
 ^ibid. p. 892.
 „Georgia’s Youth and History: Experience, Attitudes and Values“, WeResearch, 2021, Tbilisi, p. 42.
 ^ibid. p. 41.
 Oliver Reisner, ‘Under Ivane Javakhishvili's Long Shadow: On Georgian Historiography Since 1991’, draft paper presented at CESS Annual conference 2021 under the panel The Challenges of Historiography in the South Caucasus, upcoming in 2022.
 Malkhaz Toria, ‘The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian–Georgian War of August 2008: Historical Analogy as a Memory Project’, in The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918–2012 (Routledge, 2014).
 Félix Krawatzek, ‘Which History Matters? Surveying Russian Youth and Their Understandings of the Past’, Problems of Post-Communism 68, no. 5 (3 September 2021): 402–14.