What History? For What Purpose? For Whom?

March 21, 2011 at 11:01 am 1 comment

Posted by Cynthia Wallace-Casey

“In the history courses I took in school in the 1960’s, we read about history, talked about history, and wrote about history; we never actually did history.”

(Chad Gaffield, 2001)

Among historians, there really is no doubt that history matters.  We are engrained with the essential belief that without knowledge of the past, we are unable to contextualize the present – and it is only through history that we are able to gain insight, and learn from those who lived before us.   Most historians agree that history must be evidence-based and that the practitioners must respect established methods of analytical inquiry that are as objective as possible. The controversy arises when one begins to interpret the evidence, and this becomes even more complicated when we consider the how and what of presenting history to students.

As the discipline applies to the classroom, Ken Osborne outlines three distinct concepts of teaching and studying history that continue to be at play in varying degrees within Canadian schools: nation-building, societal transformation, and critical thinking. He also extends his analysis, by suggesting a fourth concept, which he indentifies as historical mindedness.

The narrative of nation building – history from the top down, or bottom up – is something which many of us remember from our own schooldays. This is the history Chad Gaffield recalls in my opening quotation. It is history that is patterned upon chronology, often presented in a way that fosters an appreciation for progress.  As J.L. Granatstein suggests, this is the history on which great nations are built:

If Canada is to be worthy of its envied standing in the world, if it is to offer something to its own people and to humanity, it will have to forge a national spirit that can unite its increasingly diverse peoples. We cannot achieve this unanimity unless we teach our national history, celebrate our founders, renew the old and establish new symbols, and strengthen the terms of our citizenship… We have a nation to save and a future to build.

Yet, as noble as it sounds, such narratives of nation-building are what Benedict Anderson would dismiss as pure fabrication – an imagined community and “in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” … crafted by the author to serve some higher purpose.

In the 1970’s, there emerged a greater interest in the social, cultural and gender aspects of history. In the classroom, history became a tool for societal transformation in which students learned about the past within the context of current public issues. As Osborne observes, “history became less a chronological survey of the past and more the examination and analysis of problems, themes, and concepts in which chronology was largely ignored.” Considered more of a social studies approach to teaching history, this methodology is still very common, as the events of the past are interpreted in ways that make them more relevant to the present.  Much like Maurice Halbwach’s analogy of a self-portrait, history is built around fundamental themes, such as family, community, and nation – starting with the most immediate connection of “me” and extending out into a broader historical perspective – so that the here and now is a living part of a collective memory. In this way, history is presented not as a line of chronological events, but as a web of effects that are interconnected and applicable to the present.

In the 1990’s, a third dimension of teaching history was added to the mix, in that students were encouraged to develop critical thinking skills. Through the adherence to formal methods of historical research and objective analysis, students are permitted to arrive at their own conclusions.  Thus, they are trained in the process of doing history.  They learn the fundamental skills of historical thinking; question the evidence; and ideally learn how to think for themselves. Through this inquiry process, students role-play as professional historians by adopting “forms of knowledge” (modeled after R.G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history) that are identified in Canada as The Benchmarks of Historical Thinking:

  • Establish historical significance;
  • Use primary source evidence;
  • Identify continuity and change;
  • Analyze cause and consequences;
  • Take historical perspectives; and
  • Understand ethical dimensions of history.

The focus here is more upon developing the habits of mind that come from following a disciplined process of inquiry, rather than adhering to a particular genre of first-order interpretation.

In addition to the three distinct concepts of nation-building, societal transformation, and critical thinking in teaching and studying history, Ken Osborne has also identified a fourth concept which is more subjective: historical mindedness.  This concept, he describes as a “way of viewing the world that the study of history produces”.  Historical mindedness combines the traditional narrative and knowledge of the past, with relevance to the present and broader social issues, while also adopting the discipline of historical thinking.  Thus, historical mindedness combines the three previous concepts of nation-building, societal transformation, and critical thinking, while placing the past within a continuum of time that is connected to the present as well as the future. Ultimately, Osborne suggests that there is room in the classroom for all three concepts of teaching and studying history (nation-building, societal transformation, critical thinking), and when these three are combined in an instructional plan, the end result is an overall instilment of a fourth concept: historical mindedness.

Although rooting the past in some aspect of the present can be beneficial when teaching basic principals to young people, such an approach can also be problematic in that the past becomes too easily consumable.  As Sam Wineberg explains, by “viewing the past through the lens of the present”, the past becomes a useable commodity that is easily dismissed without much thought:

… by viewing the past as useable, something that speaks to us without intermediary or translation, we end up turning it into yet another commodity for instant consumption. We discard or just ignore vast regions of the past that either contradict our current needs, or fail to align tidily with them.  The useable past retains a certain fascination, but it is the fascination of the flea market… Because we more or less know what we are looking for before we enter this past, our encounter is unlikely to change us or cause us to rethink who we are.  The past becomes clay in our hands. We are not called upon to stretch our understanding to learn from the past.  Instead we contort the past to fit the predetermined meaning we have already assigned it.

Wineberg describes the study of the past as existing between two polemics – that of the familiar and the foreign – in which either extreme has its pitfalls.  It is through the achievement of mature historical thought and understanding (an intellectual process which comes about through the reinforcement of habits of mind) that the study of the past can become most beneficial. To this end history matters because it educates in the deepest sense:  it teaches “humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of human history”. Thus, it is of fundamental importance to every human being.

History is of fundamental importance to citizenship as well.  As James Loewen summarizes, history “is about us”; and whether that us be “wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we arrived at this point”. In Great Britain, the us of history is reflected within the current “Britishness” debate which Sir Keith Ajegbo introduced in the 2007 curriculum report on Diversity and Citizenship. Ajegbo recommends the introduction of a history element to the citizenship curriculum as a way of understanding what it means to be British:

While it is important for young people to explore [contemporary] issues as they affect them today, it is equally important that they understand them through the lens of history.  It is difficult to look at devolution without understanding how we became the United Kingdom.  Can immigration be debated properly without some knowledge of the range of people who have arrived on these shores over centuries? We are certainly not advocating that Citizenship education should be conflated with history.  However, we are strongly of the opinion that developing an appreciation of the relevant historical context is essential to understanding what it means to be a citizen of the UK today.

Such an approach supports the thinking of historians who participated in the British Institute of Historical Research Conference “Why History Matters” in 2007, where the utility of history was recognized as a powerful citizenship tool. In this sense, history is seen as a basis for understanding similarities as well as diversity; learning about the source of common belief systems and values; making connections to local, national and international identities; and ultimately gaining an appreciation of what it means to be human:

School history has to do much more than confirm or enhance an individual’s identity. It has to be about the bigger picture and a wider world because to study history is to grow up and move beyond ourselves.

Many of these same assertions hold true in Canada as well.  Recognizing that history education has moved beyond nation-building to embrace citizenship training in Canada, Christian Laville describes a duality that strives for a unified sense of shared memory on one hand, and independently-minded historical thinking on the other.  Historical thinking equips students with the intellectual tools needed to exercise their civic responsibilities, while historical mindedness creates a common identity that serves to build unity. This common identity is what Ken Osborne would call the “big picture” of Canada’s past; and historical thinking is the ‘intellectual self-defense’ needed to participate in a democratic society. Osborne presents seven (sound) arguments for history as self-defense:

  1. History armours us against all those people who claim to know it and are only too anxious to tell us what it proves;
  2. It releases us from the grip of the past, which so easily holds us captive and shapes our ideas;
  3. It teaches us how to be constructively skeptical (but not cynical or blindly rejectionist) when faced with appeals and arguments;
  4. It protects us from being misled by the taken-for-granted conventional wisdom of our own times;
  5. By showing us a wide variety of alternative beliefs systems, social practices, cultural norms, and the like, it enlarges our awareness of alternatives and choices;
  6. It helps us understand and take part in debates that are going on around us about the future of Canada and of the world more generally, debates that are going to affect us whether we like it or not;
  7. And, finally, it makes us less short-sighted and narrow-minded than we would otherwise be by helping us situate the present in the context of the transition from past to future so that we are not governed solely by the short-term imperatives of the here and now.

With intellectual self-defense, comes intellectual freedom – and an ability to make informed choices and effect change in the present.

As an extension of citizenship training, history is also fundamentally important in establishing a shared sense of identity.  It binds us together, by providing a broad framework in which every citizen must be able to find their stem of acceptance; and without this acceptance – a sense of belonging – citizens have no shared identity.  In the words of J.L. Granatstein, history is important “because it is the way a nation, a people, and an individual learn who they are, where they came from and where they are going, and how and why their world has turned out as it has”. But shared identity, as Britain’s Diversity and Citizenship curriculum report shows, must be broad enough to embrace cultural and ethnic diversity, respect differences, and bridge commonalities. Such is the global nature of citizenship in the twenty-first century.

Living within a complex backdrop of globalization, students need to be equipped with the tools to think critically about the past and the present. As Stéphane Lévesque cites scholars Ken Booth and Tim Dunne: “we cannot assume, for the foreseeable future, that tomorrow will be like today.  The global order is being recast, and the twists and turns will surprise us’. Teaching students to think historically can, as Levesque explains, “be a valuable contribution to the short and long-term challenges awaiting them”.

But, as Margaret Conrad has illustrated, history in the age of Wikipedia also requires new rules of engagement for historians. As the printed page is overtaken by cyberspace, Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a global village becomes ever more apparent and citizenship is no longer restricted to geographical boundaries. Within the “seamless web of experience” that the Internet has since availed, McLuhan predicted that the student would need a “do-it-yourself kit” in order to master the new global media. Perhaps the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking can provide students with the do-it-yourself kit that McLuhan predicted for the 21st century: the habits of mind that can enable Canadians to be full participants in today’s global society.

Entry filed under: Active history, Curriculum, Elementary School, Public History, Secondary School, Teaching, Teaching University. Tags: , , , , , , .

Refresher Post Pushing Past Canada and its (National) Histories

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Linkoogst « De Luie Leraar  |  March 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    […] What History? For what Purpose? For Whom? op Teaching the Past. Een goed geschreven artikel over het nut van de geschiedenis. […]

    Reply

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