Social Representations of History and History Education: Is There a Gap?

On the one hand, changes in history education (and social context) influence how people remember historical events. For instance, research has shown that whereas older Russians, educated under post-Soviet systems of education, emphasize the positive military role of Stalin in WWII and state that the German aggression was unexpected, younger Russians are critical toward Stalin and blame his leadership for the early failures against the German Army (Emelyanova, 2002). In a similar way, the abandonment of apologetic view of colonial history and a relative acknowledgement of the atrocities of the “Discovery of America” in French, Spanish, Portuguese and German textbooks are reproduced in critical, anti-colonial, and non-apologetic representations of “the encounters of civilizations” prevailing among secondary school and university European students (Perez-Siller, 1995; Von Borries, 1995). At the same time, it is important to be aware that historiography and history textbooks are only one of many sources for learning about the past. For instance, research in Germany has revealed that historical novels and movies were evaluated as more important to learn about the past compared to history textbooks, although not as more important compared to the history class and history teachers’ statements (Von Borries, 1995).

On the other hand, changes in historiography shape the content of history textbooks although in a delayed manner. For instance, in the seventies historians in Israel paid attention to the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and elaborated a social catastrophe narrative, competing with the dominant Zionist narrative. However, this historiographical perspective was included in history textbooks 20 years later and not without a strong resistance (Bar-Tal, 2013). As concerns historical events and figures, a recent survey shows that among the North American public prevails a rather neutral image of Columbus as a discoverer (85 %), whereas only 6.2 % share a dominant in the past heroic image of Columbus as a moral icon, which together reflects the fact that current history textbooks are less apologetic. However, criticism of Columbus as initiator of indigenous social and cultural catastrophe has not been incorporated into SR: only a minority (3.6 %) associates Colombus with negative traits. This is despite the fact that both history books and mass media have increased their criticism of Columbus and the “Discovery”. Whereas in the 1940-1960s only 20-30 % of North American history texts mentioned negative aspects of the discovery, it is 50 % in the 1980s and 1990s (Schuman, Schwartz, & D’Arcy,


A similar gap is found with regard to the general conceptions of history. Recent review of historiography proposes three regimes of historicity. According to the ancient regime, the past is the most important facet of history and the guide of the present. The modern regime, oriented toward the future, proposes that the history is fueled by progress. Finally, in the post-modern, focused on the present, regime the future is opaque and social movements are weak (Delacroix, Dosse, Garcia, & Offendstat, 2010). However, a recent large survey showed that current lay beliefs about history did not assimilate its historiographical post-modern view but rather a mixture of pre-modern (history as a cycle), Enlightenment (history as socioeconomic progress), romantic (history as product of great leaders) and post-modern (history as a product of technology) beliefs coexists across 40 nations as hegemonic representations of history (Bobowik et al., 2010; Paez, Liu, Bobowik, Basabe, & Hanke, in press).

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