History Teaching

Food for thought

Controversial and sensitive issues

What are sensitive and controversial issues in history?

"The terms sensitive and controversial are often used interchangeably, although it may be useful to distinguish between them. Historical scholarship and indeed the study of history are full of controversies. This is because historians may interpret evidence in different ways, emphasise different aspects of an event or discover fresh evidence to challenge old orthodoxies. Controversies where there are different opinions can be productive and stimulate research and interest. Not all controversial issues are sensitive but most sensitive issues are controversial.

The issues that are the most sensitive in history are those that relate to identity and which profoundly affect what people believe about themselves and their rights. Those aspects of a country’s or group’s history, which are about national or group pride and pain, are the ones most likely to be both sensitive and controversial. All nations and groups have such controversial and sensitive issues in their histories because history defines people as individuals and as members of national, cultural, religious and ethnic groups. These issues are not just the preserve of historians but often engage the government, the media and society in debate. Controversial and sensitive issues can relate to relationships with other countries, to groups within countries or to particularly painful, tragic, humiliating and divisive moments in a country’s history. Periods of conquest and glory can also be sensitive since they can define attitudes to neighbours in ways that may not promote tolerance and peace. Knowing why some aspects of the past are controversial and sensitive is an important first step in clarifying how to teach about them".

[Extract from the report of the seminar on “How to teach controversial and sensitive issues in present-day secondary schools
Tbilisi, Georgia 13-14 November 2000]


[This topic in history teaching]


See also

- Reconciliation
- Conflict
- Identify