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Why Teach History? Part 2

Exploring the Nature of Truth

Alan Sears, Faculty of Education, University of New Brunswick

In an earlier blog I raised questions about the overweening focus of public education on economic ends, in particular preparing students for work. I noted that historians and history educators often address this focus by demonstrating the value of historical study as preparation for a wide number of careers. I argued that trend sells our subject short, and that more time and energy should be devoted to delineating the substantial benefits of historical study for other areas of life, including human flourishing and informed and effective civic engagement. In this installment of the series I examine the value of history for fostering more complex ideas about the nature of truth and greater facility with civic deliberation.

In her book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Michiko Kakutani presents a disturbing picture of American society sinking in a swamp of “nationalism, tribalism, dislocation, fears of social change, and the hatred of outsiders.” This is driven, she argues, by an “assault on truth and reason” that has resulted in a loss of “a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.”[1] Kakutani’s dystopian analysis is so fiercely stated that it might be easy to dismiss as over the top if it were not being echoed by other observers in different societies around the world. For example, after her country’s election in the spring of 2017, French political scientist Nicole Bacharan lamented the state of civic deliberation in that country in tones very similar to Kakutani’s

I’ve never been so worried, so stressed out and so shocked. Most unnerving has been the division of the country and the hatred that came out of groups of people who can’t discuss anything, can’t understand each other, can’t talk…It’s like they don’t even speak the same language.[2]

This perceived assault on truth and rationality has also been explored by the CBC documentary radio program Ideas recently in a recent hour long show titled “The Truth About Post-Truth,”[3] and in an article by University of Texas philosopher Kathleen Higgins, who pointed out that “the Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ as their 2016 Word of the Year.”[4] I could go on, but I think the point is made.

It doesn’t take very close observation of the state of civic discourse to see that citizens in many societies struggle to engage in thoughtful, evidence-based discussion of important public values and issues. In their national longitudinal study of emerging adults (18-23 year-olds) in the United States, Christian Smith and his colleagues found participants’ thinking about complex issues was often manifested “as a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individual subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism.”[5] All of these contributed to both an inability and an unwillingness among participants to engage in civic discourse designed to wrestle with complex questions about what might constitute the common good and how that might be better enacted through policy and institutional structures. If, as is often argued, fostering effective and thoughtful civic engagement is a central goal for teaching history and civics, evidence suggests they are failing miserably.

But this does not have to be the case. As Penney Clark and I argue elsewhere, the serious study of history has the potential to help people develop “more complex ideas about historical truth in particular as well as more general understanding of the nature of truth in human affairs and its relation to evidence and perspective. The study of history demonstrates that while truth is always partial, contextual, and shifting, it is neither endlessly flexible (absolute relativism – everything is true) nor completely elusive (absolute cynicism – nothing is true).”[6]

One of the most important understandings about the nature of truth that can be fostered by studying history is the idea that knowledge, or ‘truth,’ is a complex phenomenon that develops over time with input from a range of sources and perspectives.[7] People are often frustrated by what they see as contradictory advice from so-called experts. It seems that almost every week researchers produce a study that contradicts or calls into question findings from other studies. For many, this calls the whole idea of expertise along with concepts like “evidence-based practice” or “data driven” change into question.

Part of the problem is that people want to derive recommendations or policy directions based on the results of one or two studies, which is almost never a solid basis for action. Substantive knowledge is normally derived from bodies of work that accumulate over time and represent studies done from different perspectives and draw from different sources. This is true, by the way, for virtually all areas of human knowledge, not only history. Historians delineate this kind of synthesis in historiographic chapters in dissertations or books; chapters that set out the current knowledge in the field thereby setting the context for their own work which might contribute to, challenge, or push forward accepted thinking.

History students can be involved in activities that demonstrate how historical knowledge grows, consolidates, and shifts over time. In one of the courses in her undergraduate history degree, my daughter was assigned to write the intellectual history of a journal in the field. She was directed to read all of the tables of contents over a fifty-year period, as well as a selected number of abstracts, and an even smaller number of complete articles. From that base, she was asked to describe developments in the field over time including the questions examined, types of evidence used, the range of scholars involved, and the general areas of consensus and contention regarding historical knowledge.

The same kind of exercise can be done in school using a series of textbooks from the depths of the book storage area. I regularly give students a set of five middle school history textbooks used in New Brunswick Schools from the 1940s through to the 2010s. I assign one of the textbooks to each group of students and ask them to respond to questions like: What is the scope and sequence of material covered in the text? What topics, ideas, or themes seem to be the most/least significant? Which people or groups are included in the text and how are they presented? Is there any indication of the authors’ or publishers’ beliefs about how students learn history? Once each group completes this task, I remix the groups so that each group includes an ‘expert’ on each of the textbooks and ask the new groups to consider: How have the topics, issues, or themes changed or stayed the same over the years? Have there been changes in the people or groups covered in the texts and the substance of that coverage? Has the approach to how students learn history changed? How might we explain the different changes and continuities?  Both of these activities demonstrate that historical knowledge is fluid and shifting, and these changes reflect, among other things, new bodies of evidence, new research questions, diverse scholars working from different perspectives, and current issues or concerns that require understanding historical context.

As Penney Clark and I point out:

While there is wide consensus across the community of academic historians that historical truth is partial and contingent in the ways described above, there is also community-wide commitment to the importance of grounding truth claims in rigorous analysis of primary and secondary sources. The available sources for any particular event, era, or set of ideas being studied may be used to support a range of interpretations and perspectives. They also, however, establish parameters that exclude support for some perspectives. Serious engagement with sources will allow for a range of opinion, but not an infinite range.[8]

These kinds of understandings are important for many areas of life beyond history and are critical for informed civic discourse. A key purpose for history teaching, then, is to foster deeper understandings of the nature of knowledge and truth and facility with using that understanding in thoughtful civic engagement.

[1] Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018), 12 & 26.
[2] Quoted in, Paul Waldie, “After Nastiest Presidential Campaign in Memory, France Faces Trump Moment,” Globe and Mail, 2017, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/after-shocking-campaign-french-face-profound-choice-to-upend-status-quo/article34907627/.
[3] Naheed Mustafa (Producer), The Truth About Post Truth (CBC Ideas, 2017), http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-truth-about-post-truth-1.3939958.
[4] Kathleen Higgins, “Post-Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed,” Nature 540, no. 7361 (2016), 9, https://doi.org/10.1038/540009a. For a fuller discussion of the crisis of truth in public discourse and its implications for history education see, Penney Clark and Alan Sears, The Arts and the Teaching of History: Historical F(r)ictions, 1st ed. 2020 edition (London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
[5] Christian Smith et al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 15.
[6] Clark and Sears, The Arts, 250.
[7] For a longer discussion of this point see, Alan Sears, “Negotiating the Maze of Educational Research,” Antistasis 1, no. 1 (2010): 25–27.
[8] Clark and Sears, The Arts, 255.