The Roles of History Education in Civic Education

Historical narratives play an important role representing different aspects of civic engagement such as the role and agency of different individual and collective actors, the possibilities and obstacles to processes of social change, the origins and developments of public issues, and so on. But, how do some narratives promote active citizenship while others promote alienation and impotence? What enables people to feel that they can be effective agents in their particular settings and communities? The roles of history education in civic education are a complex matter.

Since its inception in school curricula in the late nineteenth century, history education was essential to the formation of new citizens (Carretero, 2011; Nakou & Barca, 2011). Carretero argues that a Romantic tradition has recurrently positioned school history as a tool to create and sustain cohesive national identities, establishing one account of the past that seeks to instill in future citizens a positive view of dominant groups and of the country’s political evolution (Carretero, 2011; Carretero & Bermudez, 2012). In sup?port of these goals, historical narratives prioritize content that emphasizes a common origin, focuses on the groups with which students should identify, provides historic models of civic virtue and glorifies the country’s past (Barton & Levstik, 2008).

However, the elitist and biased representations of the past often contained in these romantic narratives have not gone uncontested, among other things because they alienate students who do not feel represented, and hamper their sense of agency (Barton, 2012; Den Heyer, 2003; Epstein, 2009; Harris & Reynolds, 2014). Many scholars and educators advocate for teaching historical accounts that are more inclusive, pluralist and critical representations of the past, preparing students for the multicultural, complex and rapidly changing societies in which most of them live (Nordgren & Johansson, 2015; Yogev, 2010). Carretero argues that this draws upon an Enlightened tradition in which history education is primarily concerned with helping students understand the complexities of their past (Carretero, 2011); critical understanding rather than patriotic love is what defines the good citizen.

Different conceptions of how history education fosters a critical understanding of the complexities of the past, and how such understanding prepares students for their civic lives in the present, have different implications for the role of historical narratives. Seixas (2016) claims that the historical consciousness brought about by modernity heightened ‘the relativity of all values [and] the historicity of all traditions’, leading to the conception that ‘the past was radically different from the present, and the future would therefore be different from that which is currently known’. In these circumstances—he says—‘the task of preparing the next generation was radically different from the task of a culture in which tradition is preserved unchanged from one generation to the next’ (Seixas, 2016: ....).

As Carretero and Bermudez (2012) note, developing a rational understanding of the past was part of the progressive effort that since the first decades of the twentieth century strove to ‘open the classroom to the pressing complexities of social life (industrialization, urbanization, and immigration at that time)’ (p. 635). In the late 1950s and 1960s, different programs for the teaching of social studies and history in the United States echoed these ideas. Hunt and Metcalf (1955) outlined a curriculum for a ‘rational inquiry on problematic areas of culture’, and Massialas and Cox (1966) argued ‘the conditions of the society made it imperative that the schools accept as its role the ‘progressive reconstruction’ of the culture’ rather than affirm itself as ‘a conserving agent of the past achievements of the culture’ (p. 21).

Recent research on how schools in different countries teach about the violent past underscores the contribution of history education to helping students understand and deal with issues such as racism, inequality or violence. Historical narratives spark conflicting and troubling collective memories, but if carefully confronted, they open the possibility of learning about and from historical traumas (Barton & McCully, 2005; Bekerman & Zembylas, 2012;

Cole, 2007). The connection between history education and civic education is established through the content of what is taught and learned. Historical narratives foreground new issues and advance alternative explanations that interrogate social practices which have been taken for granted, shed new light on the roots of current problems, or give voice to individual and collective actors previously marginalized.

Another argument is that history education develops in students the capacity to engage in rigorous inquiry about the past, which in turn will serve ‘for thinking about the human world in time’ (Lee & Ashby, 2000: 216). Research on the development of historical thinking (Dickinson, Gordon, & Lee, 2001; Stearns, Seixas, & Wineburg, 2000; Shemilt, 1980) shows that students can learn to deal with the intricacies of historical evidence, the layered webs of historical multicausality, the multidimensional processes of change and continuity, and the contextual meaning of beliefs and practices that appear foreign today. Allegedly, these capacities for historical inquiry can translate to civic competence, fostering for instance the capacities to engage in reflective controversy, form independent positions based on reasoned considerations of evidence from multiple sources, trace the origins and evolution of current issues, consider the value dimensions of public issues, and consider and coordinate the differing perspectives of people (Barton & Levstik, 2008; Barton & McCully, 2007). In this case, the connection between history and civic education is not established through the content of historical narratives but rather through a set of tools derived from epistemological concepts and procedures of historical inquiry that serve the student (and the citizen) to critically examine and interrogate claims passed on to them, as well as to develop their own.

Three decades of constructivist research on the development of historical thinking provides ample psychological evidence to challenge the Romantic idea of a passive consumer of social narratives. Students can learn to use the tools of critical historical inquiry to interrogate cultural and historical narratives and develop a sophisticated understanding of them (Bermudez, 2015). In turn, scholarship informed by sociocultural theory (Wertsch, 1997, 2002) has redefined how to approach the role of identity, moral values and emotions in historical understanding, three elements that many regarded as the landmarks of the Romantic tradition. Carretero and Bermudez (2012) note that the current sociocultural perspective differs from the Romantic tradition in at least four important ways: (1) it portrays historical narratives as cultural artifacts rather than as essential distillation of national character, (2) because of that, it recognizes different and often contentious views of the past rather than positing the existence of one shared narrative, (3) it claims an active rather than a passive role for the individual in the process of consuming and constructing historical narratives, and locates this process in its sociocultural context and (4) because of that, it examines the interplay of rationality, values and emotions, rather than dismissing the importance of any of these elements.

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