The Power of Story: Historical Narratives and the Construction of Civic Identity

Helen Haste and Angela Bermudez

We are historical creatures. The past is present in how we define ourselves, in how we understand our communities and our role in them, and in how we imagine possible futures. Our sense of the past informs the direction of social transformations we envision and in which we partake.

According to the concept of historical culture advanced in this handbook, the past is necessarily present in a wide variety of relationships and transactions constituent of our personal and collective identities. As Grever and Adriaansen as well as Liakos and Bilalis explain in their respective chapters, historical culture comprises public uses of history, such as preserving and visiting historical museums, producing and consuming historical literature and films, documenting the historical background of current debates, teaching history in schools or doing historical research. The related concept of historical consciousness further explains the social function of history that underlies the idea of historical culture. As conscious beings, humans strive to understand the past in order to orient themselves in the present and project their future (Rusen, 2004; Seixas, 2004, 2017).

In this chapter, we build on these two concepts to examine the relationship between history education and civic education, particularly regarding the role of historical narratives in the construction of civic culture and identities that we understand in the framework of New Civics. In the last decade, a host of social, academic and pedagogical transformations have redefined civic education, expanding the concept of civic action beyond conventional participation in electoral politics. New Civics emphasizes that actual civic engagement takes

H. Haste (*)

Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA A. Bermudez

Center for Applied Ethics, University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain © 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_23

place in a variety of social scenarios, addressing multiple issues, and through a range of different means. Grounded in sociocultural psychology, both civic education and engagement are seen as processes situated in particular contexts in which participants establish social interactions and dialogue. The main contribution of a sociocultural psychological approach to historical culture is the consideration of an active subject, whether it be a student learning history or an engaged citizen embedded in historical cultural practices. Narratives in general, and historical narratives in particular, are prime cultural tools for these interactions.

Civic actors use narratives to understand their contexts and experiences (past and present), and their agency within them. Narratives carry and frame the cultural stories we draw upon to make sense, to create identity and to define boundaries and alliances. This is not surprising. History is interwoven with narrative. Facts don’t exist in isolation; it is their context that gives them meaning. Threaded in narratives, historical events gain rhetorical power because they fit into a good story. A narrative implies explanations of causality and consequences that justify the dominant social system, social practices and social values—or suggest challenging or subversive alternatives.

The relationship between history and narrative has been the subject of heated controversies. In historiography, long-standing debates have confronted the merits and shortfalls of storied versus analytical forms in the examination, representation and explanation of the past (Cronon, 1992; Munslow, 2007; White, 1984). Is the task of historians to describe or to explain the past? Are both tasks equally interpretive? Do storied accounts and analytic explanation withstand equally well the rigors of a critical lens and methodological procedures? Dovetailing these questions, history education too has discussed the power of narrative to shape students’ understanding of the past, and of our knowledge of it (Levesque, 2014; Shemilt, 2000).

The relationship between history and civics is equally controversial and the two disputes are not unrelated. If history writing and teaching respond to present social concerns, moral questions or identity matters, this may compromise academic rigor and open the door for a political or ideological manipulation of the past. Such concern is not unwarranted, but we cannot ease our worry by simply assuming that academic rigor makes historiography politically disinterested and ideologically neutral. Understanding history as a sociocultural practice, the concepts of historical culture and historical consciousness challenge a strict separation between academic and popular uses of history (Grever & Adriaansen, 2017; Liakos & Bilalis, 2017). This does not negate the differences between them, but rather underscores their common foundations and the many ways in which they interplay. Greater attention to the public dimensions of historical practice has led to an increasing recognition of what Seixas describes as the ‘porousness between contemporary interests and our narrations of the past’ (Seixas, 2017). This recognition compels us to manage the tension between rigor and relevance that is fundamental to establishing a good connection between history and civic education.

In turn, such connection brings us back to the narrative structure of historical consciousness (Ricoeur, 1999; Rusen, 2004; Seixas & Morton, 2013). This narrative structure affords (a) the flow between accounts of the past, experiences in the present and imaginations of the future, (b) the emphasis on individual and collective agency within the complex mechanisms of historical causation and (c) the articulation of moral questions regarding the implications of past events and historical interpretations for our lives today. Historical consciousness makes little sense if it is not for the sense of flow, agency and ethical awareness that historical narratives provide. These affordances explain how historical narratives frame our civic engagement, as they provide reference points for justifying, interrogating, challenging or resisting current social arrangements and practices.

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