Historical Narratives as Imaginations

Another type of narrative that is often found in both the realm of education and that of daily life is the national narrative. In the educational ambit of each country, the study of history typically does not center on random narratives from any part of the globe or necessarily from the geographical area in which the student lives (e.g. Europe, Latin America, or Asia). However, there is one theme present in practically all countries when teaching history: narratives that make reference to “our country’s history” (Berger, Eriksonas, & Mycock, 2008; Carretero, 2011) (See also chapters by Van der Vlies and Karrouche, in this volume).

This is not surprising if we take into account that the teaching of history that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century was conducted with marked identity purposes, connected to the nations’ building, and therefore with the purpose of decisively contributing to reaching the aforementioned goals (Berger, 2012; Carretero, 2011). This type of narrative substantially influences the way in which students understand and analyze information about the past (Grever & Stuurman, 2007; VanSledright, 2008). One of the principal difficulties that they face is that which pertains to considering another’s point of view. One of the fundamental components of historic literacy must be exactly that: taking different versions of history into account, including other points of view, and making space for “unofficial” histories. Nevertheless, as Wertsch (2002) (see also Penuel & Wertsch, 2000) indicated in his study of stories from U.S. history, few subjects introduce irony into these stories or comments that account for conflict between interpretations; the majority has appropriated the official version of history and reproduces it almost without nuance. Thus, one of the implications an elevated degree of appropriation of the official narrative might have is fostering an epistemological vision of history as something closed, unique, and true (VanSledright, 2008). At this point, it is important to take into account the ironic stage mentioned above by Egan's ideas about the development of narratives.

This type of narrative, however, not only diminishes the importance of these “other histories”, but also influences the type of causal explanations students give to specific historic events. Taking the term used by Wertsch (1998) these national narratives become a kind of schematic narrative template -more abstract and generic narratives that are socially shared—which influence is fundamental when building specific historical narratives. For example, in the case of the U.S., there are two present schematic narrative templates in the vast majority of national narratives, the concept of progress and that of liberty. Therefore, students use these schematic narrative templates to explain past events. Consequently, the resistance of Native Americans facing waves of European colonists is seen as an obstacle in achieving progress and the Vietnam War is justified by the need to bring freedom to that country. Students, due to excessive use of these national narratives, do not have access to the most controversial aspects of history, complicating the development of a more critical perspective that will allow them to consider the difficulties, dilemmas, and, in short, the reality of the democratic realities in which they live (Carretero & Kriger, 2011; Epstein, 2009; Grever & Stuurman, 2007).

Interestingly enough Social Psychology studies have shown that national narratives representations are not only mental states but they can be translated into political actions (Barreiro, Castorina, & Van Alphen, this volume; Smeekes, 2014). For example, let us see some of our results in the present and very complicated Greek context of both economic crisis and immigration. The following cases come from data collected from the large pool of comments published in the online forum created by the Greek Ministry of Internal Affairs (http://www.opengov.gr/ypes/?p=327) following the announcement of the legislation: “Current provisions for Greek citizenship, the political participation of repatriated Greeks and lawfully resident immigrants and other provisions” (see Kadianaki, Andreouli, & Carretero, 2016 for details). Therefore, they represent not just answers to a research questionnaire, but a real and everyday use of historical ideas developed as political attempts to influence new immigration regulations. More specifically, ideas about the past used with the purpose of defending a particular view on citizenship. Thus, one of our commentators says,

Even in ancient Athens at the time when it was an exemplar city-state (that we use constantly as an example) there was a clear distinction between Athenian citizens and those who came from other cities but concentrated in it [Athens], in order to enjoy [its] glamour and economic development. The metrics as they called them, did not originate from there [ancient Athens], they lived within the borders of the city- state but they usually had limited or no political rights. Political rights in Athens were given only in special circumstances but even in those cases they could become PEOPLE WITH EQUAL DUTIES-, but not CITIZENS. This was the protection of the system, since the foreigner could not participate in the decisions of the City Council or claim some sort of political power. With regards to financial assistance on the part of the Athenian democracy towards non-citizens it was probably nonexistent, since they were not entitled to a wage. On the contrary, there existed economic duties of the metics towards the city, like the metikion [type of taxation specific to metics], which was part of the official revenues of the state or the theorika [type of taxation], for the wealthy metics. And all this applied to Greeks of other cities, everyone else was simply... “barbarian.” (Filakismenos)

Through the analysis of several comments as this one, we identified four themes in the ways that national history is represented to formulate arguments about citizenship rights and boundaries in our data: (1) continuity of the nation; (2) idealization of the past; (3) moral obligation toward the past; (4) homogeneity or heterogeneity of the nation.

As Van Alphen and Carretero (2015) note, idealization of the past leads to perceiving the past as a moral example to follow in the present. Thus, ideas about idealization are complemented by ideas of moral obligation that we subsequently examine. Thus morality is a recognized feature of historical narratives. Gergen (2005) has suggested that historical narratives construct a moral status for the actors involved in the story. Studies on history “consumption” reveal that students’ historical narratives contain a positive moral judgment and legitimization of the national group actions (Lopez, Carretero, & Rodriguez- Moneo, 2015a). Interestingly enough in our previous studies, our coincident results were found with high school and university students in both Spain and Argentina (Carretero & Kriger, 2011; Carretero & Van Alphen, 2014). Therefore, it looks like there is a clear coincidence between formal schooling and informal uses and representations of history among citizens.

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