PhD Student, University of New Brunswick
“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 this 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.
- Establish historical significance;
- Use primary source evidence;
- Identify continuity and change;
- Analyze cause and consequences;
- Take historical perspectives; and
- Understand ethical dimensions of history.
… 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.
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-defence’ needed to participate in a democratic society. Osborne presents seven (sound) arguments for history as self-defence:
1. History armours us against all those people who claim to know it and are only too anxious to tell us what it proves;With intellectual self-defence, comes intellectual freedom – and an ability to make informed choices and effect change in the present.
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.