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History education and language of instruction in divided societies: The case of Lebanon

Hanan Fadlallah, Secondary English Teacher at Al-Sadiq and Al-Zahra Schools

Education has long been seen as a tool for identity formation (Idris et al., 2012). Specifically, certain aspects of the education system are seen as the primary foundation on which national identities are constructed. Two of these aspects are language of instruction (Joseph, 2004a) and history education (Janmaat, 2007). Identity formation through language of instruction and history education becomes more significant in divided societies. Indeed, communities within religiously divided societies make use of the education system to reinforce their distinct cultures through separate schooling and curricula (Niens et al., 2013).

In this blog post I present a summary of the analysis of the history education textbooks adopted in different religious schools within the religiously divided country of Lebanon, based on my master’s dissertation. Lebanon is an example of a religiously divided society where the school system, which is mainly composed of private schools, is divided along sectarian lines. Private schools have the freedom to choose their own curricula, not necessarily abiding by the official curriculum set by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Lebanon. Consequently, private schools that belong to religious communities end up choosing their own curricula.

The analysis is mainly based on the framework developed by Korostelina (2013). Three concepts of national identity that can be promoted through history education can be identified. Ethnic identity is based on viewing the nation as monoethnic and demands that the groups belonging to different ethnicities should assimilate around the core ethnic community. However, multicultural identity is based on the perception of the nation as multicultural, providing diverse ethnic communities with equal rights. As for civic identity, people view their citizenship as a contract, disregarding ethnicities.

To analyse history textbooks, in relation to the promotion of national identity, I have adopted a qualitative content analysis method. Moreover, based on Korostelina’s (2013) research, I have developed a set of indicators to analyse whether history textbooks promote an ethnic, multicultural or civic concept of national identity. The indicators are: area of focus, perspective on which stories are presented, references used in the book, topics, portrayal of other ethnic communities, and language of instruction. The textbooks I analysed also focus on the same period of history so that the differences or similarities in the stories and perspectives adopted are clear.

After analysing grade 7 history textbooks adopted in Christian, Muslim Shi’i, Muslim Sunni and public schools, I found that Christian and Muslim Shi’i schools in Lebanon tend to adopt a version of identity that closely corresponds to an ethnic understanding of the nation. In other words, each religious school adopts a historical narrative representing the community’s perspective of history, disregarding other narratives in the society. Similarly, the language of instruction adopted in those schools is reflective of their perceived identity. For example, a number of Christian schools adopt French instead of the official language, Arabic, which reflects their identification with their former colonial rulers, France (Joseph, 2004b). My analysis suggests, however, that there is an attempt in some schools to promote an overarching civic identity in Lebanese society, regardless of the ethnic diversity in the society. This attempt is translated in the official history curriculum adopted in public and some Sunni and Christian private schools which generally avoids reference to ethnic communities as well as controversial topics such as the Lebanese civil war.

‘My analysis suggests, however, that there is an attempt in some schools to promote an overarching civic identity in Lebanese society, regardless of the ethnic diversity in the society.’

In conclusion, there appears to be an attempt to promote a civic concept of national identity through history education and language of instruction in some religious communities disregarding all historical narratives. Meanwhile, other religious communities seem to promote an ethnic concept focusing only on their historical narratives. Consequently, history education and the language of instruction adopted in religious schools in Lebanon generally perpetuate a divided society split along religious lines.

Hanan Fadlallah’s dissertation, ‘History education and language of instruction in divided societies: The case of Lebanon’, was the joint winner of the BERA 2022 Masters Dissertation Award.


Idris, F., Hassan, Z., Ya’acob, A., Gill, S. K., & Awal, N. A. M. (2012). The role of education in shaping youth’s national identity. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 59, 443–450.  

Janmaat, J. G. (2007). The ethnic ‘other ’ in Ukrainian history textbooks: The case of Russia and the Russians. Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education, 37(3), 307–324.

Joseph, J. E. (2004a). Language in national identities. In J. E. Joseph, Language and Identity (pp. 92–131). Palgrave Macmillan.

Joseph, J. E. (2004b). Case study 2: Christian and Muslim identities in Lebanon. In J. E. Joseph, Language and Identity (pp. 194–223). Palgrave Macmillan.

Korostelina, K. V. (2013). History education in the formation of social identity: Toward a culture of peace. Palgrave Macmillan.

Niens, U., O’Connor, U., & Smith, A. (2013). Citizenship education in divided societies: Teachers’ perspectives in Northern Ireland. Citizenship Studies, 17(1), 128–141.