National Historical Narratives Origins and Educational Implications

We could think of two possible origins for these dimensions of national narratives: cognitive, educational, and sociocultural. Firstly, in terms of cognitive development, it is easy to see how the dimensions we have described are very much related to the romantic stage studied by Egan and mentioned above. Therefore, it seems that the features of the philosophical and ironic stages are difficult to achieve. On the other hand, from an educational point of view within both formal and informal contexts, as museums and similar environments, traditional instruction still dominates, with explicit or implicit content that is closer to the romantic ideals than to the renovated aims of history education. Also, history, as an academic discipline, still has advocates for the romantic approach (see Berger, this volume, about national historiographical writings) and many school textbooks and programs (Seixas, 2010)—mainly through master national narratives—emphasize that banal nationalism that Billig (1995) described.

In addition, banal nationalism is still present on a day-to-day basis in most nations, particularly in the informal context, through national celebrations and rites, movies, novels, or mass media communication (Carretero, 2011; Wineburg, Mosborg, Porat, & Duncan, 2007). All of these mechanisms are related to the process of the production of a narrative around the concept of the nation. This process has been postulated as one of the most influential in the social sciences nowadays, and much theoretical work has been developed about how nations are imagined (Anderson, 1983; Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983). Also, as signaled by Billig (1995), when nations are granted a monopoly over the right to violence within their territory, historical conflicts become nationalized. These conflicts evolve into wars among nations instead of counties, nobles, or royal lineages. This phenomenon undoubtedly is reflected in the history of many nations today that nationalize territorial conflicts from epochs much earlier than the birth of the nation itself. Thus, national narratives following the same general scheme of the so-called reconquest can be found in many a nation’s interpretation of history (Carretero, 2011; Wertsch, 2002). As a matter of fact, many more examples can be found all over the world (see for example chapters by Millas and Maier in this volume).

Let’s just consider the changes in European territories and nations during the so-called short century (Hobsbawm, 1990). This is to say, the First and Second World Wars, plus the collapse of the Soviet Union, introducing frequent and dramatic changes on the political map of the European continent. It would be interesting to investigate whether students are able to understand that those changes in the nations’ territories not only constitute geopolitical and historical consequences but also imply that nations are not essential and immutable political entities. Thus, the possible cognitive origins of the studied conceptions, we think, have to do with how the learning and teaching process takes place. For this reason, these cognitive origins are considered in the context of specific suggestions to improve those processes.

For example, teachers could emphasize that the concept of nation is embedded in a particular national narrative, and this narrative usually has a historical subject, but that other possible subjects could also be taken into account. Even though these new subjects could change the meaning of the narrative, presenting alternative historical versions of the past could be a fruitful learning strategy. Concerning the second dimension discussed in this chapter, students could learn the important distinction between the past and the present in relation to possible identification, that is, to understand that the historical “we” is not the same as the current “we.” In this research, we have found that university students tend to confound the two “we’s,” but at younger ages this tendency could be much greater. This teaching endeavor would likely need not only specific contents but also a good deal of metacognitive ability which is a related aspect of historical consciousness (Straub, 2005).

In relation to the territorial dimension of the concept of nation, we would like to emphasize the need for and the convenience of introducing historical maps to school teaching activities. This is because our studies show university students tend to consider the present map both Spain and Portugal as the map that better describes historical changes over the centuries on the Iberian Peninsula. But definitely it is not the case because Spain and Portugal just existed as political entities since fifteenth-sixteenth century. Therefore, historical maps are an essential part of historical literacy and research, because they provide a clear and precise representation of how territories and nations have changed over centuries. As mentioned above, they are probably the clearest proof that nations are not essential entities. But some students might tend to consider the present maps as either immutable or as cognitive anchors for representing historical events and political changes. In relation to this, recent historiographical research has showed that the so-called historical rights are based on rather invented knowledge about historical boundaries (Herzog, this volume). This is to say, many of the ancient historical limits never existed as very precise borders. Therefore, it would be unjustified to use them to maintain territorial rights based on supposed past evidence. No doubt these findings have clear implications for history teaching and learning.

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