During the last few weeks, I have been studying for a couple exams for the Academic Teacher Education in History program. One exam consisted of discussing history as part of a high school curriculum. The discussion was based on the book of Arie Wilschut, Dick van Straaten and Marcel van Riessen regarding a didactic program in history. In this post, I want to share a few reflections on the clash between scientific and pedagogical views about how both past and contemporary values should feature in history.
The clash regarding values in history as a scientific discipline and as part of the school curriculum is rooted in the characteristics of history. As a field of study, history – although based on facts – remains an interpretation deriving from a particular point of view in time. When investigating the past, historians generally distance themselves from their own values and take into account those which were common at a certain moment in the past. Historians are aware of evolutions and changes in moral principles, none of which are universally or infinitely valid. However, Wilschut argues that adopting this attitude generates a problem in a pedagogical context. According to him, explaining historical events as a result of the existing moral principles in the past, as a historian would, could create the appearance of a justification for those events. However, I would like to note that historians do not aim to justify historical events; on the contrary, historians aim to objectively study the past. Yet, Wilschut argues against an objective approach and advocates that, especially from a pedagogical point of view, certain events – such as the Holocaust – cannot be justified. Therefore, he says, teachers cannot remain impartial towards former values and the past itself. For educational purposes, a history teacher has to provide lessons in morality based on the values and norms of today’s society, which are thus presented as honourable aims. This is somewhat included in Flanders’ education system, where schools have to stimulate a sense of citizenship. The consequence of this method is that teachers apply a presentistic approach that Wilschut aims to counter through the use of historical thinking, which highlights the relativity of values and in turn teaches pupils to be tolerant towards ‘otherness’.
This issue is a delicate one, even in an academic setting that aims to understand the way of reasoning of people in the past without approval or rejection. And while Wilschut does not entirely reject an objective study of the past, I feel I must object to his critique and overemphasis on the use of values. In a pedagogical context, a teacher cannot merely explain certain historical events, such as genocides, as understandable within a different ideology or set of values, but should also use contemporary values to express disapproval. However, an objective analysis remains valuable in a pedagogical setting, as it provides a better understanding of the past and human society. Furthermore, teachers should be wary of presentistic history education and should maintain a critical attitude towards their own values and norms, as they too are a historical phenomenon. Simply promoting values as honourable without a critical attitude towards them could lead to narrowmindedness, intolerance or even indoctrination. Therefore, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. When talking about values, teachers should maintain a balance between using history to present the principles of contemporary society, while at the same time questioning and analysing both contemporary and past values in order to gain a better understanding of human society, other cultures and different ways of thinking.
Wilschut A., van Straaten D., van Riessen D. Geschiedenisdidactiek. Handboek voor de vakdocent. Bussum: Uitgeverij Coutinho, 2016.
Onderwijs Vlaanderen. “Secundair onderwijs – Tweede en derde graad – Algemene uitgangspunten.” In: http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/curriculum/secundair-onderwijs/derde-graad/algemene-uitgangspunten/index.htm, last consulted on 01.02.2017.