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Why Teach History: Part 5


Knowing and Understanding the Other

Alan Sears, University of New Brunswick

This five-part blog series is focused on articulating the humanizing and civic reasons for teaching history. I began the series by arguing that those of us who teach history are often sucked into the vortex of justifying our subject’s importance by articulating how it contributes to career development https://cha-shc.ca/teachers-learning-bl/why-teach-history-part-1/). I think that is a trap that, in the end, really doesn’t serve us very well.  The rest of the posts in the series set out a number of broader reasons for teaching history including developing complex understandings of evidence and truth (https://cha-shc.ca/teachers-learning-bl/why-teach-history-part-2/), fostering civic reason (https://cha-shc.ca/teachers-learning-bl/why-study-history-part-3/), and providing deep context for understanding and wrestling with contemporary issues (https://cha-shc.ca/teachers-learning-bl/why-teach-history-part-4/). This last instalment of the series makes the case that one of history’s critical contributions is in advancing our understandings of others, both individually and collectively.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been a key player in the contemporary global focus on economic priorities for public education systems and universities. It’s most effective policy instrument for this is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (https://www.oecd.org/pisa/). PISA is an international testing program that traditionally assessed student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science in almost 100 countries or regions around the world. The results are reported widely, generate considerable press in many countries, and shape discussions and decisions about educational policy and practice in important ways, including a narrowing of curriculum priorities to those subjects or disciplines perceived to best enhance career readiness: those almost never include history or other humanities.[1]

Recently, growing social and cultural fragmentation have created challenges for the world’s economies and prompted a rethink even in the OECD of the kind of education necessary for a more comprehensive prosperity. In 2018 it moved the PISA program beyond the three traditional subject areas of literacy, numeracy, and science to begin assessing “global competence” which it describes as “a multidimensional capacity.” According to the OECD, “Globally competent individuals can examine local, global and intercultural issues, understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being.”[2] (https://www.oecd.org/education/Global-competency-for-an-inclusive-world.pdf).

While the OECD continues to focus on economic aims for education arguing, among other things, that “educating for global competence can boost employability,”[3] it seems to me that a broadly humanistic approach to education would be a more effective way to foster the particular elements of global competence outlined in their description. Central to the definition is dealing with “intercultural issues” and understanding and appreciating “different perspectives and world views.” In short, understanding others. History is well positioned to contribute substantially to these kind of understandings in two specific ways.

First, a central goal of history education around the world is to develop the ability to understand and apply historical perspectives. In Canada, the model of historical thinking developed by Peter Seixas and colleagues has been infused in curricula across grade levels from primary to high school.  That model includes attention to six central historical thinking concepts that Lindsay Gibson has written about elsewhere in the CHA Teaching/Learning Blog (https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/what-is-historical-thinking-part-ii-2020-09-14.htm). One of those concepts is historical perspectives. Seixas and his colleague Tom Morton lay out a set of guideposts for teachers to use in fostering sophisticated understandings of perspective in their students. Those are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1: Guideposts for Historical Perspective[4]


The past has been described as a “foreign country,”[5] and research indicates that many students see residents of that country “as inherently inferior and ignorant.”[6] This is exactly the kind of understanding, or misunderstanding, about which those interested in contemporary approaches to intercultural education are concerned. Through addressing the procedural concept of historical empathy or perspective taking, history educators develop students’ understanding of and empathy for “conflicting belief systems, and historical actors’ differing perspectives.”[7] It strikes me that the two projects — developing complex historical and contemporary understandings of difference — are entirely complementary.[8]

The second way history education can enhance understanding of the Other is through attention to historical consciousness generally and collective or cultural memory in particular.  Historical consciousness refers to the way individuals use the past to orient themselves temporally making sense of their past and present as well as situating themselves for moving into the future.[9] This consciousness is often not drawn from the analytical study of the past common in history classrooms, but rather from family stories, media portrayals, commemorative rituals, as well as engagement with historical sites and museums. A key component of historical consciousness is collective or cultural memory. Jan Assmann, one of the leading scholars of cultural memory, argues, “Societies conceive images of themselves, and they maintain their identity through the generations by fashioning a culture out of memory. They do it . . . in completely different ways.”[10] While these collective memories often bear little resemblance to the past as historians describe it (Joycelyn Létourneau, describes them in one context as “mythistories”[11]), they are critical for understanding how people as individuals and groups make sense of and act in the world.

In our book, The Arts and the Teaching of History: Historical F(r)ictions, Penney Clark and I make the case “that school history education has been dominated by two themes: teaching students what historians know (content); and teaching students how historians know (historical thinking). What has been missing is attention to how history – or the past – works to shape individual and collective identities, ways of being in the world, and approaches to thinking about the future.”[12] Peter Seixas and Stephane Lévesque have each proposed a model for engaging collective memory in history,[13] and plethora of research has been done to document the historical consciousness/collective memory of young people in societies around the world.[14]

As Assmann points out, commemorative practices, sites, and objects are key purveyors of collective memory and the study of them offers outsiders access to understanding the identities and cultural constructions of others. That means the study of current commemorative practices and controversies have tremendous potential to enhance students’ knowledge of themselves and others. Penney Clark and I suggest a comprehensive, critical audit of commemorative art, spaces, and practices, in students’ communities and societies can foster understanding of how these cultural forms shape their own historical consciousness and identities and how those are temporally and culturally situated. This helps lay the foundation for similar examinations of the practices of others.[15]

One key component of any critical audit is paying attention to dissent within societies as well as differences between them. Commemoration is focused on creating connection and common understandings, but in virtually every society there are those who resist for one reason or another. For example, the Indigenous Peoples of Australians often challenge the raucous national celebration of Australia Day with signs that simply say “Sorry.” For them, the celebration of the Australian state is discordant with their experience of systemic racism and cultural destruction.[16]  Closer to home, Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney document the consequences in a rural New Brunswick elementary school which tried to find accommodation for families whose children could not participate in the daily singing of the national anthem for religious and cultural reasons.  They make the point that, “Anthems, like all rituals of cultural artifacts, are created within a particular historical moment, yet children are rarely taught to analyze them as texts or encouraged to discuss them as historical documents.”[17]

Through requiring their students to engage with historical perspective taking and including the consideration of how historical consciousness and collective memory act to shape human identities, motivations, and actions, teachers of history can facilitate the ability to understand and work with others. This a key component in the OECD’s concept of global competency and critical to both personal development and human flourishing.

[1] Sam Sellar, David Rutkowski, and Greg Thompson, The Global Education Race: Taking the Measure of PISA and International Testing (Edmonton, Alberta: Brush Education, 2017), 7&13. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1500013. I’ve written more extensively about this in several places including, Alan Sears, “Just Tinkering: Education for Civic Engagement and Electoral Sophistication in New Brunswick,” Journal of New Brunswick Studies / Revue d’études sur Le Nouveau-Brunswick 2018, no. 9 (August 1, 2018): 47–56. 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).
[2] OECD, “Preparing Our Youth For An Inclusive And Sustainable World The OECD Pisa Global Competence Framework” (Paris: Directorate for Education and Skills, 2018), 4. https://www.oecd.org/education/Global-competency-for-an-inclusive-world.pdf.
[3] OECD, 5.
[4] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), 148.
[5] David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country Revisited (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
[6] Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 162.
[7] Peter Seixas, “What Is Historical Consciousness,” in To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, & Citizenship in Canada, ed. R. W. Sandwell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 17.
[8] This paragraph was adapted from Alan Sears, “Historical Thinking and Citizenship Education: It Is Time to End the War,” in New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada, ed. Penney Clark (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 344–64.
[9] There is a plethora of work on historical consciousness and its relationship to education including Peter Seixas, ed., Theorizing Historical Consciousness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004). Anna Clark and Carla L. Peck, eds., Contemplating Historical Consciousness: Notes from the Field, vol. 36, Making Sense of History (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2019).
[10] Jan. Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge ; Cambridge University Press, 2011), 4. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511996306.
[11] Jocelyn Létourneau, “Remembering Our Past: An Examination of the Historical Memory of Young Québécois,” in To the Past : History Education, Public Memory, and Citizenship in Canada, ed. R. W. Sandwell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 71.
[12] 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), 170.
[13] Peter Seixas, “A History/Memory Matrix for History Education,” Public History Weekly – The International Blogjournal (blog), 2016, https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/4-2016-6/a-historymemory-matrix-for-history-education/. Stéphane Lévesque and Jean-Philippe Croteau, Beyond History for Historical Consciousness: Students, Narrative, and Memory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 17.
[14] See, for example, Lévesque and Croteau, Beyond History and Mario Carretero, Milel Asensio, and Maria Rodriguez-Moneo, eds., History Education and the Construction of National Identities (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2012).
[15] Clark and Sears, The Arts, 203-206.
[16] Sears, Alan. “Respectful Commemoration.” In The Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Elementary Teachers, 4th ed., edited by Roland Case and Penney Clark. Vancouver, BC: The Critical Thinking Consortium, in progress.
[17] Michael Dawson and Catherine Gidney, “‘There Is Nothing More Inclusive Than O Canada’: New Brunswick’s Elementary School Anthem Debate in the Shadow of Afghanistan,” in Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror, ed. Lara Campbell, Michael Dawson, and Catherine Gidney (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015), 229–41.