History Educators in a New Era

Geschichte lehren in einem neuen Zeitalter

Protesters in Minneapolis holding a sign saying "Nope"

Abstract: This is a dangerous moment, globally, for the liberal arts, education and research, for democratic values generally, and for history and history education specifically. The deep forces of destabilization include increasingly polarized wealth, migrations from desiccated equatorial regions, and new modes of communication that are increasingly rapid, accessible, dispersed and subject to manipulation.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2017-9343
Languages: English, German

This is a dangerous moment, globally, for the liberal arts, education and research, for democratic values generally, and for history and history education specifically. The deep forces of destabilization include increasingly polarized wealth, migrations from desiccated equatorial regions, and new modes of communication that are increasingly rapid, accessible, dispersed and subject to manipulation.[1]

 

A New Era

Perversely, ascendant ideologies foster policies that promote the acceleration of all of these trends. Whilst the threat to liberal traditions is global, nowhere is it more palpable than in the United States, after the surprise election of Donald Trump. “From this day forward,” he promised, “a new vision will govern our land.”[2]

Many of the modern, liberal traditions that have been challenged by Trump and his fellow travelers were, until recently, so fundamental that history educators barely gave them a passing thought. …


Categories: 5 (2017) 20
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2017-9343

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2 replies »

  1. Thought-provoking and reflective, as always. Just a few short comments to two of your statements:

    “Most history education scholars in recent decades, myself included, have sought to destabilize students’ belief that what is in the textbook—or any contemporary account—is the story of what happened. We have focused on the categorical difference between interpretations of the past and the past itself.”

    and

    “… our central challenge will be to help students understand the limits of interpretation, the constraints that bind what we say to the evidence that we have, and the importance of defending interpretations that are supported by the weight of evidence, not as just one among many possible ways of seeing things.”

    I fully agree that in these days we experience more deeply that it is not enough to stress the — ineluctible (!) — insight into positionality, perspectivity and — therefore — relativity of knowledge, but that alongside with it, we need to stress that this insight does not mean that any interpretation is as good as any other, that there is no total freedom of responsibility in interpreting. It was Jörn Rüsen, I think, who spoke of “relative relativity”, not absolute relativity.

    In itself and on this level of abstractness, this should not be so complicated, while it may get much more intricate when focusing on concrete aspects. But nevertheless, not only a few people seem to have general reservations against it. And even some of those those who gain the insight theoretically, sometimes seem to feeld some inquietude with it. That seems to be the case, e.g., when people formulate that “unfortunately” there is no way of stating the absolute truth, that we are all are restrained in our insights into history by our different positions, perspectives and so on. While such formulations indicate correct epistemological insight, they also reveal a hidden longing for absolute, non-positioned and non-perspectival truth.

    But there is more to it. Such positions may add an image of history as a field which is a) systematically limited in its ability to arrive at “hard knowledge”, b) does not have any criteria for “hard knowledge”, and therefore c) is not only prone to partisan distortion, but which d) ultimately has no criteria for detecting them — which of course is a distorted concept of history in itself.

    From my point of view, the epistemological impossibility to totally represent “the past” and the character of historical knowledge as being ineluctibly bound to position and perspective, does not imply an inferior status of the discipline and its holding rather “weak” criteria and standards – but quite to the contrary a specific complexity of standards and criteria. The fact that we cannot just compare any statement (recount, accout or other) to “the past” does not devaluate these statements, but subjugates them to rather complex criteria of quality.

    Therefore, I am not sure whether we should speak of “limitation” of interpretations, as if there was some border where any interpretation ended with regard to its value and function. I much more appreciate your other term of “constraints” — not of the interpretation, but of what can count as a real “interpretation” (and just a speculation).

    From that point of view, then, I fully subscribe your call for re-reflecting on what might be called “epoch-typical key-questions”, as German educationalist Wolfgang Klafki, posited. Even “commited” historiography and history teaching is needed again.

    What we have learned, however, within the last decades of reflecting on the diversity od positionalities, perspectives and interpretations, then (and not the least from your work), is that all reflections on general, supraindividual and societal questions, all commited history education, can not do without enabling the students to reflect, conclude and judge not only on the resulting histories, but also on their different components.
    If such problem-oriented and commited history can be regarded as some kind of successor to earlier, affirmative and integrative concepts, it can not just conceptualize the learners in a class as unquestionably sharing a common perspective, common questions, interests and therefore arrive at commonly shared narratives, but has to enable the students to do their own historical orientating within such debates.

  2. Peter, I like your call for a muscular liberalism. Trump, Le Pen, and Farage have succeeded in making neo-liberalism look good. However, that goodness is only in comparison to something demonstrably worse. So the question of what we choose to defend is key, as is the need to reimagine how we might live together in ways that promote peace and sustain life.

    If post-modernists are correct when they argue that democracy rests on a set of beliefs or myths that are more aspirational than verifiable, so be it.

    History education began as a form of moral instruction for the modern era. I believe that historical study can still serve that end if content is selected to engage students in thinking about the common good, empathy, egalitarianism, human rights, and the intrinsic dignity of all individuals and groups. These are values worth fighting for. Using historical accounts as moral platitudes is not very effective, however, nor is teaching the skills of historical interpretation, analysis and synthesis if they are not in some way connected to larger questions about living together in a democracy.

    Do you agree? If so, what do you (and other readers) believe are those key questions?

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