After All is Said and Done

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By Peter Seixas

After all is said and done, and The Historical Thinking Project has been laid to rest, the biggest question in history education is still up for grabs.  What is history education for?  Leaving aside whether it is well taught or poorly taught, what are we aiming for?  Here is a smattering of possibilities, as they surface from time to time in public discussion and debate.

  • We teach history to promote national solidarity, a shared collective identity among people, most of whom will never see each other face to face.
  • We learn history to meet obligations to our forebears, who struggled, sacrificed and suffered to make the world that we have inherited.
  • We teach history to transmit the wisdom of the great actors, thinkers and writers of past generations to the next.
  • We learn history to transcend the past’s follies and foibles, the “mistakes,” that we are otherwise “condemned to repeat.”
  • We teach history to come to terms with the crimes and injustices of the past.
  • We learn history to preserve traditions.
  • We teach history for its own sake.

Each of these has considerable currency.  Any talk show host moderating a discussion of history education is likely to get stuck on one or the other.  Yet, many of them are in large part mutually contradictory.  They do, however, have one thing in common (other than the last, which I find nonsensical): they underscore the connections among past, present and future.

In thinking about the purposes of history, one place to start, then, is the present.  The conditions in which we find ourselves today are the starting point for our relations with the past and future.  Foremost among these, is the accelerating pace of today’s change, surpassing that of any previous era.  Its features include:

  • The mobility of populations and the transformation of previously settled and homogeneous communities.
  • The revolution wrought by new technologies, with information ever more accessible and, perhaps ever more ephemeral, posing …
  • Challenges to every aspect of the cultures we have inherited— work and leisure, privacy and publicity, celebrity and merit, love and sex, news and music, to name a few.
  • Demands for rights and recognition, voice and representation from groups and constituencies, whose names might not even have existed a decade earlier.
  • Unprecedented and accelerating environmental degradation, alongside demands for exponentially expanding economic growth.
  • Sharpening inequality between those with access to wealth and resources and those without.

This dizzying prospect demands an orientation: how did we get here, what shall we do?  In the past, teaching students the story of the national (or Western Civilization’s) past was supposed to provide an orientation in the present.  But the very conditions with which we grapple today undercut the relevance of simply “telling the story” of how we got here, in order to face the future.  “We” is complicated.  We have lots of stories.  Moreover, they don’t fit neatly together.  The heroes of some turn out to be the villains of others. Some of them are myths; others are fiction.  The disjunctions between past and present accelerate.  Indeed, the boundaries between myth and history, between truth and fiction become blurry.

Though these conditions are global, we face them in the context of the authority of states. Moreover, in the Canadian case, the political context is a liberal state that is guided, at least potentially, through the input, actions, mobilizations and protests of its citizens.  Without knowledgeable and meaningful participation by active citizens, the state becomes authoritarian.  Yet without the state, there is no guarantor of rights and freedoms.  Without the state, there is no public education project. But an open, liberal, democratic state is always the seedbed for conflicting demands and competing claims, intensified by the global conditions outlined above.

Out of this dizziness emerge the purposes of history education, as they were articulated and enacted through the Historical Thinking Project.  They start from neither celebration nor denigration, neither preservation nor condemnation of the past.  Rather, as the Project’s name suggests, its goal was to help students to think historically in a way that would orient them in time at a moment in time when simple tradition and story-telling—adequate for a coherent, homogeneous, slowly changing community—would no longer suffice. As some of the Project literature suggested, competent historical thinkers

understand both the vast differences that separate us from our ancestors and the ties that bind us to them; they can analyze historical artefacts and documents, which can give them some of the best understandings of times gone by; they can assess the validity and relevance of historical accounts, when they are used to support entry into a war, voting for a candidate, or any of the myriad decisions knowledgeable citizens in a democracy must make.

The six historical thinking concepts that provided the intellectual basis for the Project’s work, were, as a package, directed towards this end.  Historical significance provides a logic of meaning.  Primary source evidence gives students a methodology. Continuity and change frames temporality. Cause and consequence investigates the role of intentional human action—agency—amidst all the other forces of change and stasis.  Perspective taking opens a view on the gulf that separates us from the lives of the people in the past, and challenges us to transcend it.  And the ethical dimension acknowledges that, notwithstanding that gulf, we live with the consequences of the past within a shared frame of human rights and responsibilities.

The goal of the Historical Thinking Project was to push Canadian history education towards providing students with the tools through which they can take active, wise and knowledgeable part in debates over where we are, how we got here, and which turns we take next.  We took one small step in the right direction.

Peter Seixas is the Canada Research Chair in Education and Director of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness at the University of British Columbia.

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

3 thoughts on “After All is Said and Done

  1. Michael Cross

    All of the purposes of historical education listed are valid. However, the most important for me when I taught undergraduates was, simply, thinking about thinking. History is so complicated that it is an ideal vehicle for learning to think critically.

  2. stan

    If history is about orienting ourselves in time, we have to ask whose time? The list of significant features describing the present makes perfect sense to me, a middle-class, middle-aged man, but is this how students see the present? Jocelyn Létourneau suggested that we need to” approach teaching history from the standpoint of their [the student’s] beliefs about the past rather than, as we too often think, from our own beliefs”. He also suggests that we can then help students gain a more nuanced template of time but if students are more interested in clarity than complexity, are we disorienting their sense of time? Applying this formula to the FNMI communities, are we colonizing their sense of time? Indeed, as Peter suggested, the purposes for teaching history may be mutually contradictory.

  3. chrisharper65

    Thank you, Peter, for another thoughtfully and well written piece and for the work you, Jill Colyer, and others have done with the Historical Thinking Project. And thank you to all the contributors for the week-long series of articles; it makes me proud that we have such an engaged and thoughtful community.
    I like Peter’s bulleted list of what history education may be for; I would like to add two more purposes that are certainly not originally mine but which I believe–as a history educator, citizen, and human being–are important not to leave out.
    • We teach history to protect ourselves and our fellow citizens from those who would use (or abuse) history for short-sighted, misguided, or malicious purposes.
    • We learn history to gain perspective by locating the lives of ourselves and those important to us in the context of what has passed before.

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