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Power and the Questions We Ask about History Education

Posted by Thomas Peace
13 January 2012 - 3:12pm

Last month on this blog, Samantha Cutrara asked a challenging question that gets to the fundamentals of history education.  Who, she asks, is history education for?  This question is more complex than it seems, because, depending on the answer, it has a variety of implications for historians and history educators.  Implicit in this question is a set of power relations that often remain undisclosed in discussions about history and how it is taught.  By probing the implications that develop from the question of 'who history is for', it becomes apparent that we must ask a more basic question that helps us better understand the uses and abuses of the past. What do we mean by history education?

Frequently, history education is defined by its purpose.  As Samantha’s question illustrates, history education is defined by a perception that there is a group of people who “need to be taught” or content that must be “known.”  

If history is for the nation (and the preservation of the nation-state), or some other form of civic engagement, then the curriculum required must be more comprehensive and all-encompassing.  It must be deeply integrated into the very fabric of public policy and collective identity (examples of which include the Harper government’s revision of the citizenship guide for new immigrants or the intimate relationship that has developed between tourism and history in Nova Scotia). 

If history education is to empower people to understand their pasts in order to make decisions for their present and future, a different emphasis emerges, one based more on structure and process and perhaps more limited to the classroom (best illustrated by Peter Sexias’s Benchmarks of Historical Thinking).   

If history education is meant to provide a sense of personal meaning and a feeling of connection with the past, it takes yet another direction, one focused more on the individual and their immediate set of relationships (seen in the widespread interest in genealogy).  

Each approach to history education involves teaching the past and understanding elements of change over time, but the method of teaching and the expected outcomes are radically different.  The various ways historians have answered this question often defines their historiographical camp.  This was perhaps most clearly seen during the history wars debates during the 1990s and early 2000s, when history education aimed at a national audience was contested by histories that spoke more to other forms of identification (with no less significant impact on conceptions of the nation).  Answers to the question who history is for demonstrate that history education is a political act defined by an instructor’s beliefs about who and how the past should be used.

This leaves us with two related conclusions about the nature of history education.  First, because it is a political act, history education is about power.  Constructions of the past can be used to both empower people but also to disempower them.  Second, because it is an instrument of power, history education is transformative.

I think that these two elements of history education drive history educators to do what they do.  To be engaged in work that can empower and transform lives and societies is profoundly meaningful and rewarding.  An (often) unintended consequence of this, however, is that historians tend to focus on how history education gets used (or the purpose of the history we teach) rather than more basic inquiry about the nature of history education itself.  We tend to focus on the elements of our jobs that we can control, rather than those that we cannot.

If anything like me, most history educators have a predetermined outcome and audience in mind when we discuss our work.  Over the course of our training we grapple with the uses for history and arrive at a series of conclusions that determine our sense of audience and purpose.  This is normal and most historians acknowledge these biases and regularly question and revisit them. Nonetheless, they condition our answers to questions about who and how we teach history.

What studies like Rosenzweig and Thelan’s Presence of the Past and the Canadian equivalent Canadians and their Pasts have shown us, however, is that people learn about their pasts in ways that are often beyond the control of history educators.  As most history teachers can attest, what we teach is not always what students learn.  Conceptions of the past are deeply shaped by individual experience and the communities of which we are a part.  This has an important effect on history education.  It shapes student understanding and the relevancy of the topics we teach. 

In this context, perhaps it is more prudent for us to ask more foundational and open-ended questions of our profession.  Rather than asking questions about who history education is for (or for what purpose we teach the past), perhaps we should ask the more basic question: what do we mean by history education, and what is the role of the history educator?  Framing questions in this way creates opportunity for a more open-ended conversation and greater collaboration between history educators, policy makers and the public.  

Most importantly, though, framing our questions in this way forces history educators and policy makers to be explicit about how they use the past as an instrument of power.  It uncovers the assumptions that too often remain hidden when people respond to more specific questions about the nature of history education.  It acknowledges that teaching history involves entering into a power-based relationship with students and the public.