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"How Do You Know That?" Challenging how I come to know the past

Posted by Laurence Abbott
29 March 2012 - 2:29pm

My daughter has played an important role in shaping my thinking about how children come to know and understand the past. She often opens avenues of inquiry for me by posing naïve but difficult questions that force me to confront and engage the complexity of learning to think historically, and reflect on how we are situated in space and time. Through reading together, travelling, visiting museums and historic sites, watching TV, and telling family narratives, my daughter and I share encounters with the past, but personally appreciate these encounters in completely different ways.

In the half-dozen years she has been around she has had many encounters with the past. We have visited Fort Edmonton Park a number of times, explored the streets and ramparts of Quebec and the Plains of Abraham; we have wandered through galleries and exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, and the Royal Alberta Museum. I have read her books with historic themes, characters and settings, and now that she is doing a lot of reading on her own, historical themes are often central elements of the books she chooses to read. Yet, I am not sure what she really comprehends. How does she understand the past?

There is a dissonance between children’s historical imaginations and those of adults. While we need to capitalize on kid’s imaginative capacities, we need to do a lot more work as teachers in understanding how children imagine the past, particularly as they learn to think about the spatial and temporal character of history. In a book we have read many times, Something from Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman, we encounter a boy growing up in a shtetl in 19th century eastern Europe. I try to explain to my daughter that our ancestors lived in communities like these until about 150 years ago. Her response was an incredulous look coupled with the question “Daddy, how do you know that?” It is a good question that is difficult to answer.

There is an important insight here for teachers of history. As I have written in the past, many of us who teach history have a sophisticated relationship and affection for history that clouds our ability to appreciate that others, especially children, have not (yet) developed an appreciation of history or encountered the complexities of historical thinking. My daughter’s question awakened me once again to the pedagogic struggle to overcome the taken-for-granted assumptions we hold as teachers in relation to the content we are teaching. Presenting content to students, even through exercises where they discover it, and then assessing their understanding, gives little insight into the challenges children face in comprehending the nature of the historical within the complex matrix of the past.

Somehow I learned to perceive history’s ubiquity in the present, and one strand of my current research explores that. I have an affinity for the past that impels me to spend time in museums and visit historic sites, to read history and watch documentaries, to appreciate the integration of stories with places and things. Yet, I have also learned to engage with the past critically, to understand how the stories we tell of the past become to ones that count, and how other stories and counter-narratives struggle to be heard.  I want to encounter the past; I am well-prepared to commit my intellectual and emotional resources to make such encounters meaningful to me. But, I am reminded by my daughter’s relationship with the past and with history that just being present with the past and with history is not enough to cultivate interest or develop understanding. I am discovering that I need to ask her questions that might be difficult for her to answer, too, if we are both to come to a better understanding of the past and how we know anything about it.