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The Appeal of the Nation in History Education of Postcolonial Societies

Teaching National History to Young People Today

Jocelyn Lctourneau

Nations appear to be struggling to unify their collective bodies. This is nothing particularly new. In fact, we could call it the perennial endeavor of national development. However, the current situation seems to be exacerbated by three cumulative factors: the rise of individual identities, the increase in international migrations and the growing globalism of the younger generation sped up by their extensive use of social media. All across the planet, and particularly in Europe and North America, political leaders are pondering how to neutralize certain supposedly destructive trends which, left unchecked, could undermine the homogeneity of the nation, its internal congruity and its continuity.

For many stakeholders, history—that is, the production of a cohesive narrative about the past, its dissemination among the population and its transfer to the youth—appears to be an excellent way to inoculate the nation against the germs of its potential disintegration. This point of view is not at all surprising. It has long been history’s role to create unity, regularity and durability where there is naturally divergence, controversy and discontinuity. As Homi Bhabba (1990) so aptly suggests, every nation has its narration and indeed constructs itself partly through it. While the history may not always emerge simultaneously with the nation, it often helps consolidate it. History, like literature, the media and the arts, nourishes the general portrayal—the set of reference points (Dumont, 1996)—that people, often historians, produce of the nation to give it foundation, consistency, trajectory and destiny (Berger, Eriksonas, & Mycock, 2008; Berger & Lorenz, 2015). This is why, in the current climate, many imagine that history can help the nation get back on track and vanquish the apparent perils laying siege to it, especially in terms of cohesion.

J. Letourneau (*)

Department of History/CELAT, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_12

But which history are we talking about, and for which nation? Therein lies the question, and the answer is not unanimous. From London to Sydney by way of Washington, Paris and Ottawa, to name a few places in the Western world, debates of greater or lesser intensity are taking place that oppose people and groups with different ideas about the future of the nation and its narration (e.g., Berger & Lorenz, 2011; Borne, 2014; Foster & Crawford, 2006; Granatstein, 2007; Macintyre & Clark, 2003; Zimmerman, 2001).

On one side stand those who advocate an immemorial and ethnic vision of the nation. Their position is clear. The nation is rooted in time and space. It has a heart—whether it is an ethnicity, a founding culture or an initial grouping— around which other cultures may or may not orbit. The nation also has historical proof that cannot be contested without the risk of upsetting its substance and cohesiveness, which is what some people believe is happening right now. Finally, the nation is memory and duty. It is a reality that must be cherished, protected and strengthened, in particular by narrating it, narration being one of the crucial rivets of its identity and survival.

On the other side stand those who, without denying the existence or importance of the nation, view it as being in transformation rather than crisis. For them, the nation is neither immobile nor immemorial, but moving and always in the process of self-actualization. While it may have been born of a particular culture, the nation has been enriched by all those who, coming from other cultures, inhabit it now and want to build its future by mutual consent. In other words, although it may have (had) an ethnic basis, the nation has long existed as a civic, plural and political place. Finally, the nation does not have to be viewed from an angle of uncontestable reality, but as an object that can be examined and problematized. The nation is not a closed memory, but an open question, and the history we create of its trajectory across time is by definition modifiable and provisional, rather than fixed and definitive.

 
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