Putting truth back into history
I fear we spend too little time talking about historical truth in schools. This is because the idea of historical truth has become immensely unpopular. Post-modernists like Jenkins have argued that history has no objective truth, and that to pretend otherwise is a dangerous fallacy. Indeed, Jenkins (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2009) suggests that all history writing is a battle for different groups to construct their own histories in their own self-interest. Taking this to its extreme, he even made the case for the removal of the study of history altogether (Jenkins, 1999, 2009). To my mind, this rejection of the possibility of historical truth is a dangerous stance to take, now more than ever, and one which prevents our students from being properly critical of different truth-claims.
I can already hear the clamour in response to my last point. However, I would ask that you hold your judgement for a paragraph or two more because I think that it needs a little more explanation.
Firstly, I am not suggesting that there might be-, nor arguing for-, a single, agreed upon historical truth, though this approach has certainly become quite vogue amongst the proponents of cultural capitalism and followers of Hirsch. It can also be seen in a crop of new history textbooks which claim to deliver clear, factual narratives for children to learn and recite (more on this in another blog soon). Such approaches risk straying off into vague antiquarianism, but worse than this, the communication of a single “authoritative” version of events encourages kick-back and mistrust from its recipients. We might even argue that this has been evident in the growth of postmodernism as a movement. It is important for me as a proponent of the SHP approach to history, that students are aware of the processes by which history is made and of the fact that narratives are always contested. I will not say too much more on this subject here, as Ben Newmark has written well on this topic in his recent blog post HERE.
So, how does all of this help students engage more rigorously with historical interpretations? Facilitating students to pursue historical truth, by means of engaging in truth processes is, I believe key to just this. “It is a scandal” Bloch remarked of the education system of the 1940s “that in our own age…the critical method is so completely absent from our school programmes” (Bloch, 1992, p. 113). To throw out the constructivist, critical method in schools in the twenty-first century would be equally unforgivable, especially when there has been such a huge amount written on engaging students with constructing the past (see Riley (2000) on deep and meaningful enquiries; also, Counsell (2004) on the puzzle in historical study).
That is not to say that the constructivist approach has not been- and cannot be- problematic. At one extreme, such approaches have been criticised for allowing the child-centred nature of the learning to take precedence over historical validity; Seixas notes the ‘anything goes’ mentality where, in the worst cases, historical enquiries in the classroom have given students “too much interpretive leeway…[to] construct and reinforce untenable views of the past” (Seixas, 1993, p. 320). However, he also notes that students at the other extreme are bound by the information delivered by their teacher, and are therefore unable to participate in the processes of creating meaning in history.
By way of solution, Seixas suggests that, much in the same way academics construct meaning collectively, so students might also be encouraged to take part in similar, classroom based “communities of inquiry” (1993, p.314). The role of the teacher would then be to mediate the creation of meaning by being both a link to the community of academia, but also the epistemological authority in the school community (Seixas, 1993, p.314); acting in an epistemologically authoritative manner to establish “criteria for historical evidence, methods for determining historical significance, and limits on interpretive licence.” (Seixas, 1993, p. 320).
Having teachers acting as the link between students and academia puts an enormous emphasis on teachers having excellent, and current historical knowledge. This is a very tall order, but schools who are serious about improving their educational outcomes need to invest in subject specific training and knowledge development for their staff (an issue on which I have been vocal previously). This is vital if teachers are going to be able to mediate the kinds of interpretations which students create, the critiques they offer of others’ interpretations, and of course the truth processes in which they engage.
Despite the potential pitfalls, I still believe that adopting this kind of ‘disciplinary approach’ to history education has the power to equip students to be active participants in debates over meaning and purpose; to fundamentally engage them with the processes of historical construction and defence; and to help them to establish their own standpoint, via a rigorous and justifiable historical method. To approach history without this disciplinary framework would leave students with only one of two options, they would either have to cleave to a story they were being given on the basis of faith, or be lost in an ocean of relativism (Ercikan and Seixas, 2015).
In my next blog, I intend to get onto the more pressing issue of practical classroom approaches which might engage students in truth processes and help them to rigorously evaluate historical interpretations. Each of these approaches is just one small step towards insulating young historians from the post-truth culture which pervades.
Bloch, M. (1992) The Historian’s Craft. New Ed edition. Edited by P. Burke. Translated by P. Putnam. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Counsell, C. (2004) History and literacy in Y7: building the lesson around the text. London: John Murray.
Den Heyer, K. (2011) ‘History education as a disiplined “ethic of truths”’, in New possibilities for the past: shaping history education in Canada. Vancouver, B.C: UBC Press, pp. 154–172.
Ercikan, K. and Seixas, P. C. (eds) (2015) New directions in assessing historical thinking. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Jenkins, K. (1991) Re-thinking history. London ; New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (1995) On ‘what is history?’: from Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. London ; New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (1999) Why history?: ethics and postmodernity. London ; New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (2003) Refiguring history: new thoughts on an old discipline. London ; New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (2009) At the limits of history: essays on theory and practice. London ; New York: Routledge.
Riley, M. (2000) ‘Into the Key Stage 3 history garden: choosing and planting your enquiry questions’, Teaching History, (99), pp. 8–13.
Seixas, P. (1993) ‘The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History’, American Educational Research Journal, 30(2), pp. 305–24.