History and Living Together in Contemporary Nations

Let us agree on one point: the substance of the past—that is, all the facts that make up the having-been——has veto rights on the form of history that is made out of the was. We cannot pummel the past into a shape that suits the present. The past is a complex reality, however, and it can withstand many possible and valid shapings. In this situation, then, what shape shall we give to the substance of the past (Graham, 1997)? More concretely, what story of the past shall we offer that allows today’s people, in all their ethnic and sociological diversity within a single nation—a fairly common community grouping, as we know—to imagine themselves in relation to a particular historical experience and, on that basis, to find a way to live together in the present?

Rigor and Relevance

Connected as it is to the higher goal of social (or national) cohesion and citizenship education, the teaching of history does not have the same premise and goals as scholarly history. While the teachers’ mandate in history class is partly to pass on truthful, factual knowledge, they also have to teach the students responsible and constructive citizenship. In contemporary democracies, adolescents are expected to be simultaneously critical and empathetic, reflective and creative, representative and supportive of the social and national becoming. Within the dual valence of the aims of public education—to teach youth the true and the good—resides the teacher’s principal dilemma: how to say what is true from the point of view of science and the past in a way that is also good for society (or the nation) and the future?

This is the delicate heart of the matter. Determining what is good for society or the nation and what is good for the future is by no means selfevident. Doing and teaching history does not consist of setting the historical conditions so that a hoped-for society or desired future comes to be. That would be instrumentalizing the past for specific ends, as well as prescribing the future. Saying what is good for society and for the future means saying what allows society to think of itself as a changing reality that leaves the future open. To people today, it is undoubtedly true and good to remember that the past does not carry inescapable destiny within it and that the present cannot be conjugated in the unequivocal past tense. As such, noth- ing—neither past nor present nor future—is closed. Everything is open to interrogation. This may indeed be the sole lesson that the study of the past can teach contemporary people: that everything changes all the time, more or less rapidly and quietly. Change is, in fact, the only constant in the human condition, if not the material world. In this regard, the idea of change is interesting, as it refers to both the true and the good: to the true in that the past was effectively a place of change; to the good in that the present and the future are still effectively places of hope—that is, places open to further changes, depending on the direction that human actions imprint on the world’s becoming.

In this situation, it could be beneficial to write the history of the nations in the key of the fundamental concept of change, which is so closely bound up with complexity. (Re)making the history of the nation from the angle of its continual changes, updates, crossings and branchings rather than from the angle of the apparently unshakeable continuity of its history—or at least its historicity—might lead young people to (re)discover the nation as a teeming and multipartite locus of construction, an undefined place subject to transformation in its developments, a place that is still under construction and therefore open to the plans and projects of its players in the present. In this (re) presentation of the nation, young people, no matter what their cultural background and future prospects, would be able to find material to know and reason to hope, since the experiential space of the nation would open up and its horizon of expectation become undefined. This next passage—the final lines of a little overview of the history of Quebec that we produced (Letourneau, 2004: 108-109)—illustrates this point well:

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