Textbook Research and National Narratives

Since the nineteenth century, the nation-state has been a very influential sociocultural framework in the Western world, providing large communities with memory, meaning and identity (Anderson, 1991; Berger & Lorenz, 2008; Grever, 2009). Next to historical legends and fiction, historical scholarship and school history have been major producers of national narratives and have contributed to the process of nation-building. In the mid-nineteenth century, history education became compulsory in many Western countries and has traditionally been seen as an instrument of the state to fortify national identity and ideas about nationhood (Foster, 2011). It can be argued that major social and political transformations as a rule leave their mark on the contents and perspectives of school history. History is written by the victors, as are history textbooks since they often reflect the perspectives and interests of the most powerful groups in society who maintain their social power and control through history textbooks (Anyon, 2011). Textbooks ‘justify behaviors and actions that are designed to have specific social consequences’ and can function as powerful political and cultural instruments in terms of socialization and identity construction (Crawford & Foster, 2007: 9).

After the Great War, the League of Nations promoted textbook revision in order to prevent new violent conflicts, militarism and extreme nationalism from arising. Some regarded history education as one of the causes of the war (Marsden, 2000): children were thought to have been poisoned by the nationalism promoted in history textbooks, willing people to die and fight for their homeland. Comparative international textbook revision became an important activity in order to overcome ‘narrow national and nationalistic approaches to historical interpretations and geopolitical visions of the world’ (Pingel, 2008: 182).

After the Second World War, this type of research was continued by UNESCO and the Council of Europe, focusing on the way nations presented their own and other peoples’ past. This type of research aimed to establish a more objective depiction of the past, better appreciation and more common historical understanding, aiming to decrease conflicts with former enemies or neighbors (Foster, 2011). The Georg Eckert Institute in Braunschweig, founded in 1951, has internationally been a main contributor to peace education. Next to this ‘conciliatory tradition’, focusing on cooperation, the ‘critical tradition’ has aimed to provide a critical analysis of contents, perspectives and discourses in order to raise questions about the relations between power, ideology and historical knowledge (Foster, 2011). This tradition has also questioned the status of history textbooks.

History textbooks have special prestige because they are supposed to contain knowledge that everyone ought to have and the learner or reader has a subordinate epistemological status (Issit, 2004). Knowledge that has been omitted, consequently, seems to be less important or even irrelevant because it is not part of the knowledge, the constituting elements of the history canon. Due to this textbook status, history textbooks can be described as a ‘key mechanism for the production and reproduction of ideas’ (Issit, 2004: 688). The special status of history textbooks is reinforced by separating the speaker and the speech: words and sentences are presented as objective, impersonal and above criticism, turning history textbooks into a ‘transcendental source’ (Olson, 1980). Students often acknowledge their textbook as a trustworthy authority (Wineburg, 2001) and this status is strengthened by the archival function of textbooks of preserving ‘true’ and ‘valid’ knowledge (Olson, 1980).

In earlier times, ritualized speech also had this function and this notion of ‘ritualized speech’ is even visible in the origin of ‘modern’ history textbooks, inspired by religious instructional texts and the Catechism with clearly defined questions and answers. At the same time, the status of history textbooks can be overestimated. Although cultural transmission has an important place in educational contexts, it is not a one-way activity due to complex interaction processes (Dekker, 2001). Besides rejection, Wertsch distinguishes two ways of internationalization: the ability to recall the past, mastering the subject by reason, and the ability to identify with a particular version of the past as a form of appropriation (Wertsch, 1997).

Next to developments and new interests, the field of textbook research has also faced some problems. Textbooks are often measured and analyzed in relation to a ‘correct’ or ‘balanced’ text, such as ‘academic historiography’ (Repoussi & Tutiaux-Guillon, 2010). However, the ‘objectivity’ and origin of the other text is often taken for granted, and assumptions about what education ought to be have frequently led to an analysis of what it has failed to be (Verschaffel & Wils, 2012). Tracing inaccuracies in history narrations fits the original criteria of textbook revision aimed at improving textbooks, but it does not give us any insight into structures within and amongst textbooks. Therefore, textbook researchers have addressed new questions, for instance, about ‘die Eigenlogik, form and structure of textbook narratives (Hohne, 2003). Traditional criteria of textbook analysis, such as truth and falsehood in relation to ‘reality’, are not very helpful: they do not reflect on specific textbook structures and on particular characteristics of this genre. Researchers’ excessive focus on the power of the state, moreover, has not been helpful either because this has caused structures to be seen in one, dominant way—history textbooks as instruments of the state—and blurred our understanding of other explanations (Hohne, 2003; Verschaffel & Wils, 2012).

This chapter aims to contribute to a better understanding of textbook structures by analyzing the constitution of national narratives within this genre. Narratives have played a dominant role in school history, especially national narratives (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Carretero, 2011). Next to instrumental factors, such as interventions of the state in order to preserve or change a particular version of the past (Podeh, 2000), cultural factors play a major role in explaining continuity and change in textbooks: a particular version of the past remains the same because it is relevant, fits the canon and suits a ‘cultural formation’ (Olick & Robbins, 1998). The content of such a cultural canon may still be in line with state ideology, for example, but its persistence is not caused by direct interventions of the state in the production of history textbooks.

Historical narratives themselves can be very robust and influential (Wertsch, 2008a). Even if academic findings have added nuances or proved them wrong, textbook narratives can ‘survive’, just like the legend of Drake’s drum, because of their form. If they are ‘good stories’ with clear plotlines, sound values, triumphant heroes and happy endings, this appears to outweigh their not being fully ‘correct’ (Raphael, 2004). It appears, then, that narrative form can eclipse accuracy.

Furthermore, people tell stories all the time in order to construct meaning about themselves, the world that surrounds them and the past (Bruner, 2002). Bruner argues that ‘we organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative—stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing and so on’ (Bruner, 1991: 4). Narratives can be defined, therefore, as mediational in the sense that they are meaningmaking cultural artifacts through which we give sense to reality (Bresco, 2008; Brockmeier, 2002; Wertsch, 1997). Narratives interpret reality and create a reality: by narratively linking the past, the present and the future, stories can add significance to these three time dimensions (Rusen, 1987). This temporal narrative composition creates continuity and establishes or supports a narrated identity (Rusen, 1987), which is an ‘attempt to obtain a narrative understanding of ourselves’ (Ricoeur, 1991: 33). In their definition of a national narrative, therefore, several researchers stress that it recounts who ‘we’ are as a nation; it tells about a nation’s origin, about characteristics of the national collective and about ‘where they are heading’ (Amin, 2014; Yadgar, 2002). Moreover, national narratives are group-defining stories and provide national pride and comfort in difficult times (Auerbach, 2010).

Next to content-related characteristics, researchers have tried to detect specific formal features of national narratives. National narratives can be highly patterned and be constituted according to the same structure (Feldman, 2001). This cultural pattern can be very dominant and remain the same, even if the details of the narration change. Moreover, this pattern or overarching structure can function as ‘mental equipment for the interpretation of events’ and can influence how individuals narrate their lives (Feldman, 2001: 129). Therefore, some researchers speak of a complex national narrative, which is ‘constructed from a set of secondary narratives, myths, symbols, metaphors and images’ (Yadgar, 2002: 58). The next section will elaborate on this issue in relation to the example given in the introduction: it places national narratives in history textbooks in a wider context of cultural memory and argues that this cultural formation can be an important factor in analyzing textbook structures and in explaining persistence in textbook narratives.

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