Narrative Mediation in Learning History

As several authors in the philosophy of history, such as Ricoeur (2004) and White (1987), and in our field (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Wertsch, 2002) have emphasized, narratives are a powerful cultural tool for understanding history, even though, as is well known, the explicative and logical structure of historiographical nature also requires fairly complex deductive and inductive elements.

As previously indicated, the use of narrative helps employ and manage the concept of causal relationships. Narratives are not a sequence of random events; rather, they are used in an attempt to shed light on how one event causes another and the factors that affect these relationships (Mink, 1978; Zerubavel, 2003). Nevertheless, narratives do not include all of the events related to a theme or all of the actors that participated in these events. Therefore, one of the objectives for students must be the understanding that, inevitably, narrations simplify history, tell some stories but not others, and mention some central characters while neglecting others who are lesser-known and more anonymous (occasionally entire social groups). Teaching that hopes to develop a historical literacy should invite students to avoid these biases and become aware that there are alternative histories, seen from other perspectives, that reclaim other protagonists and must also be taken into account.

Another fundamental objective that our students must achieve when working with narratives is the realization that they are tools for understanding history but are not history itself. That is to say, concrete people who determine which actors take part in them, when and where the events begin, and when and where they end produce narratives. It is easy to forget that they have been intentionally constructed and are essentially tools that mediate our knowledge of history, but that despite their abundant use and familiarity, they are not history (Barton, 2008).

There are two types of concrete narratives that appear quite often in the realm of education: individual narratives and national narratives (Carretero & Bermudez, 2012; VanSledright, 2008). Alridge (2006), starting from an exhaustive analysis of American textbooks, revealed that the narratives regarding the “great” men and the events that guided United States of America toward an ideal of progress and civilization continue to be the prototypical way through which many historians and textbooks disseminate knowledge. This observation demonstrates the predominate presence of these types of narratives in the teaching of history. An analysis of its characteristics and its influence over the students’ abilities when learning history can provide clues about some of the skills those students need in this regard.

The individual narratives are those focused around the personal lives of relevant historic figures, in comparison with those in which the focus is on more abstract entities and events such as nations, economic systems, social change, civilizations, and impersonal concepts of this nature. Frequently, these figures are on the sidelines of other events and individuals that comprise the historical context, and the most controversial aspects of their lives are generally not shown (Alridge, 2006). However, in the informal ambit, these narratives begin to join other more anonymous narratives, above all those from novels and movies.

The use of this type of individual narrative is justified, in part, due to the fact that the more abstract accounts are identified as likely more difficult to understand and as motivating students to a lesser degree. As Barton and Levstik (2004) indicate, these individual narratives have the power to humanize history. Students may identify with these characters and put themselves in their place in order to gain an idea of the feelings that guided them and even to imagine how they might have acted in those situations. Through these narratives, students also learn to value the role that one individual can play in a society and contemplate the possible impact of one individual.

Nevertheless, although these last narratives can be a highly motivating component and more easily understood by students, they also produce a series of characteristic biases that complicate the acquisition of a historic literacy. For example, when narratives are exclusively for individual and personal use, there is an absence of causal explanations of a structural nature based on social, political, or economic factors. At the same time, the impact produced by collective action is unknown.

In any case, there are negative effects for the type of causal explanations that students employ when understanding history. When students face more abstract texts that are more difficult for them to understand, they attempt to use individual narratives as a tool for comprehension in order to give meaning to the narration. From there, they search for individual motives or reasons that will allow them to understand what occurred. As noted by Hallden (1986), in an analysis of the explanations given by students about certain historical events, these explanations focus on the actions and intentions of individuals. For these students, the object of study in history is persons or personified phenomena. To Hallden this personification of historical explanations can arise in various aspects:

One aspect of personalization is connected with the view that the course of history is directed by Great Men (Grever, 2009; Smith, 1998). A second aspect concerns the personification of the state, political institutions, and other organizations. A third has to do with the tendency of students to transform structural explanations into the kind of explanation where the actions or needs of the people constitute the explanations (Hallden, 2000). Riviere et al. (2000) in an interesting study showed similar results.

Therefore, a predominant use of these individual narratives can foster the emergence of these biases in historical explanations, while they develop a vision of history as a fragmented series of stories about celebrities. It seems evident that the predominant use of these narratives can complicate students’ learning of a contextualized history, in which there is space for important aspects such as social, political, and economic factors and the role of different social groups. History should provide these students with knowledge of the complexities, contradictions, and nuances of that history, while this type of narrative presents simplistic and one-dimensional portraits (Alridge, 2006). This is to say, in terms of Egan’s views these individual narratives and this personified understanding would prevent an understanding closer to philosophical and ironic ways of narrative representations.

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