“Our borders are strong”: A case study of the Armenian identity through Aybenarans (alphabet textbooks)
In the field of Comparative and International Education, I have focused on understanding the role of nationalism in the Republic of Armenia’s (RoA) education through content analysis of textbooks. Often times, many scholars look to history textbooks to understand how the national identity is defined. This research was part of a larger study I am compiling for my thesis,[i] but I find the implications of the study to be compelling for those who are interested in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in general.
Considering the textbook is a source of “official knowledge” (Apple, Smith, 1991), what do aybenarans teach children in Armenia? Textbooks offer “…through their content and form – particular constructions of reality, particular ways of selecting and organizing that vast universe of possible knowledge.” (p.3) The public education textbooks are approved by the national government and thus, one would expect textbooks to celebrate and center the Armenian national identity within texts and illustrations. In this article, I offer an example related to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict from my larger study to demonstrate a piece of the “official knowledge” that is being taught to students in Armenia at the first grade level. I will then follow up with a discussion on the possible implications of these lessons.
The idea for this study began when some of my colleagues and I wanted to examine first grade books from Soviet and post-Soviet years. Whether it is in Armenia, Ukraine or Latvia, we found commonalities with varied differences between first grade alphabet textbooks. In fact, our latest research “Pedagogies of Spaces” (Silova, Mead & Palandjian, 2012) indicates there are many spaces that contribute to the national identity, both within and outside national borders.
One aybenaran explicitly defines an image of the map of Armenia where the borders include the conflict territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Although this is only found on one page in one textbook from my study, the message offers the assumption of Karabakh belonging to Armenia without an official resolution to the conflict. One can infer several interesting results. First, it assumes that the conflict never occurred, especially as this textbook is in the hands of first graders nearly two decades after the conflict. It recognizes the territory as another region of Armenia without the slightest hint of any complication. Today children studying this aybenaran, whether in Armenia or in the conflict territory itself, are being influenced by the national(istic) discourse to accept that these are “our borders” and, more specifically, that “our borders are strong.” It also becomes more complicated because a child in Yerevan may not read this text in a similar way as an Armenian child in Stepanakert. These are two very distinct capitals that have very unique cultures established despite both having traditional Armenian traits. For example linguistically, Stepanakert Armenians have their own dialect and politically, they experience extremely different challenges.
Another insight to further explore is how this map explicitly defines the color-coded regions. Using Yerevan as a reference point, as represented by the tiny purple region located in the south central area of the map (above the pink region) the other regions are simple to identify including Shirak in the northwest shaded in yellow or Tavush in the northeast shaded blue. But ironically the Syunik region includes Nagorno Karabakh as the territory is shaded in a darker shade of green. With both of these larger regions being lumped into one color, how does this map understand the local understanding, if at all? Moreover, how do people in Kapan and Shushi relate to each other geographically? It is clear that the regional shading offers an interesting twist on the map. Perhaps by shading it in green, this appears to have integrated Nagorno Karabakh more easily within the borders and supported disguising of the conflict.
The third inference suggests that the map does not include the nations neighboring RoA, which contributes to the ethnocentrism and mono-culturalism among the thought processes of the students. It ignores where Armenia is within the context of the rest of the world. In other words, what countries neighbor Armenia and what does this mean in relation to the Armenian national identity? In the text below the map, entitled, “Our Fatherland”, the borders of Armenia are classified as “strong” indicating that this land and people are protected and the borders are fixed. Furthermore, the text describes how we [Armenians must] love our fatherland. Within this image and text, it is important to consider the significant role of nationalistic discourse and examine – what are the possible implications of these messages to the children of RoA? Do children in Karabakh relate to the myth of the fatherland as Armenia or more locally to “Artsakh”? Many of these questions rely on the need to acquire information from students, which is one of the limitations of this study being focused solely on books.
Referring back to this sample page from the aybenaran (in the image provided above), the national(istic) discourse in the text and image might suggest that when an Armenian and Azerbaijani child meet, Armenian children may strongly argue that the territory of Karabakh belongs to RoA. Therefore, to what extent should nationalistic discourse be disclosed within education? Specifically in this case, how does this lesson support the children’s understanding of the conflict? Some students may have directly or indirectly been impacted by the conflict, which can give them an opportunity to express their feelings about these experiences. We cannot assume children are not aware of the reality, which leads to my next point about the role of teachers. How do teachers approach these specific lessons? This answer cannot be gauged by analyzing textbooks, however, further analysis in observing the teaching of national identity would be an important factor to also examine the context of these textbook studies.
The role of the national identity in education is a critical source to examine now more than ever. Evaluating the current trends of education in Armenia may suggest there is a need for reforms that could enhance and create an understanding of peace. A study recently published by Barseghyan and Sultana (2012)[ii] describes how history textbooks in Armenia and Azerbaijan currently teach animosity toward each other. Clearly, education remains an under-utilized resource for influencing children to support a peaceful future. One other direction to expand this discussion is to understand – does the Armenian national(istic) discourse avoid discussing Nagorno Karabakh as a conflict and why? How are students allowed to engage in class discussions about the conflict within the frame of national(istic) discourse? If students ask these types of questions, how are teachers trained to respond? From this brief analysis of the map, there are more questions than answers about the power of textbooks in shaping children’s understanding of the world. Aside from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, extending the curriculum to examine relations with neighboring Turkey can also be included in discussions. Within a few years, RoA and Turkey will establish relations that will eventually see greater interaction between the neighboring countries.
It is important for the RoA education to support their youth for a peaceful future. Individuals concerned with supporting a peaceful resolution to the conflict must begin by understanding how education is being utilized now, and asking how can this be used as a safe space to overturn the current politics involved in the national(istic) rhetoric? Will there be a safe classroom to have such conversations? Building these bridges in education will better prepare our children.
Gyulameerian, J. (2003) Zankag Aybenaran. Datev Gitakrdakan Hamaleer, Armenia
Palandjian, G. (2012) The ABCs of Being Armenian: Ideals and ideologies in Soviet and
post-Soviet early language textbooks in Armenia (under review)
Silova, I., Mead, M., Palandjian, G. (2012) (under review) Pedagogies of Space: (Re)Mapping National Territories, Borders, and Identities in Post-Soviet Textbooks — and its accompanying images.
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