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The gap between the present and the past — Historical distance and history education Part III

Posted by Chris Pedersen
1 June 2015 - 6:50pm


Part I and II of this series was an explication of the temporal conception of historical distance. I discussed a variety of prominent historians' thinking on the temporal conception of historical distance. I also analyzed the work of Phillips (2013) and Zelenák (2011) to detail the various implications and traits that increase or decrease temporal distance in historical texts or a reader's mind.

Part III represents my embarkation on an adventure of thinking around historical distance and its place in history education.

First, I wish to discuss historical distance in relation to schooling. Distance could be taught to students using methods familiar to history teachers. Students would be introduced to the term and through a series of lessons which necessarily involve scaffolding, slowly start to develop a complex understanding of the term and its place in the academic fields of history and philosophy.

Teachers could construct numerous methods to teach this concept. If one was looking for a benchmark on how to teach historical distance, then Seixas and Morton's 2013 tome The Big Six provides an excellent exemplar. There is a dearth of literature on teaching and specifically teaching historical thinking. A model using guideposts and levels of understanding would be benefiical for teaching historical distance (Sexias and Morton, 2013). Therefore, I will spend no time elaborating on this aspect of distance and education. However, important questions arise when we begin to question what occurs in the history classroom.

How is historical distance created in the history classroom? How does a teacher create historical distance? How do students create historical distance? How do students perceive their proximity to the events of the past? 

Textbooks, movies, art, primary documents, secondary documents and other sources present a construction of historical distance. The readers of these texts also construct distance between themselves and the past events represented by the sources. I feel it safe to comment that the materials used in the classroom construct historical distance for both the teacher and students. The primary documents chosen present a construction of distance from the events they describe to the readers in the present. Through the various functions discussed in the previous post, each text, source or narrative constructs this distance. Students come in to contact with historical distance everyday and recognize it even if they can’t put what they are thinking into language. Distance in the classroom is always in fluctuation. Student's proximities to past events will constantly remain in fluctuation as well.

How might a teacher's methodology influence a student’s proximity to the events of the past? How and what this looks like is not clear because no qualitative research has been done on this topic.  More importantly, how does it shape what occurs in the classroom? Do students often feel alienated from history education because of their constructed distance from the events of the past? Do teachers stray from teaching certain components of history because they feel the distance is too great? As I mentioned above, this article is a call for conversation around historical distance and education. It is not a container of answers.

How does understanding historical distance lead to ones conception of self? The recognition of one’s historically effected consciousness relies on an understanding of historical distance. Historical distance and the traditions of the past influence our construction of historical narrative and thus our beliefs and prejudices are never separated from our construction of the past. The distance between the past and the present influences our understanding. A historically effected consciousness relies on one understanding historical distance (Gadamer, 2004). Our understanding of traces or texts from the past relies on a reflection on tradition. Therefore, historical distance is not a problem that must be overcome but is important as it affects our understanding in the present (Gadamer 2004). 

For students to develop historical thinking skills and thus historical consciousness, they must be exposed to the various ways of thinking about historical distance and therefore how historians think about the past and our connection to it. An understanding of historical distance could complement and contribute to students understanding of various conceptions of historical thinking. I have introduced an example in Seixas and Morton (2013) but there are other conceptualizations of historical thinking elsewhere. Regardless of which model is used, historical distance contributes to students understanding. What about alternatives to the methodologies of historical thinking in education? Do these deserve elaboration in the future?

This series on historical distance is short. It is only an introduction to a complex area of focus in historical study, philosophy of history and history education. While the literature on historical distance is expanding there remains a void in the literature pertaining to historical distance and its impact on history education. After my brief foray into this topic I have emerged with more questions than answers. Questions that deserve further deliberation.

Have you reflected on your construction of historical distance? Do you have any experience with the problem of historical distance in the classroom? How do you create historical distance in your history classroom?


Works cited:

Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and method (Second, Revised ed.) (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.). London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Phillips, M. S. (2013). On historical distance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Seixas, P., Dr., & Morton, T. (2013). The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson Education.

Zelenák, E. (2011, December). Indirect reference and the creation of distance in history. History and Theory, Theme Issue, 50, 68-80.