In the discussion surrounding history as part of the high school curriculum, one question keeps returning: Why should we teach history? This is a complex question with multiple possible answers. I argue that history should be taught in high schools for two reasons: to obtain knowledge about the past and to train investigative skills. First, systematically taught historical knowledge is necessary for speaking about the past and gaining a better understanding of reality. Crucial to this is a framework of reference consisting of general knowledge about the past, which in turn serves as a useful foundation for societal participation and for the comprehension of contemporary phenomena and problems. According to Wilschut et al., history education is meaningful because students gain an understanding of what history has to do with themselves, contemporary society and human existence. Additionally, history can impact the formation of a pupil’s identity because it is intertwined with their culture. However, identity formation is not the primary goal of history, but rather a by-product of it. And indeed, using history to actively create a group- or national identity is no longer acceptable in Flanders’ education system.
Apart from conveying knowledge, history also has an important role to play in training the critical attitudes and investigative skills that are increasingly crucial to our ability to interpret the large amounts of information with which we are confronted on a daily basis. Through the analysis of primary and secondary sources, pupils can learn to reconstruct and deconstruct information and form a well-founded opinion. At first glance, a focus on the deconstruction of secondary sources seems more important, as outside the classroom, students will be confronted with a lot of information that often consists of fact interpretation as opposed to primary sources. Yet, I argue that learning how to handle historical sources remains a valuable skill. The ability to construct an explanation of what happened in the past by consulting primary sources can be extrapolated to pupils’ everyday lives. By teaching them to be investigative and critical, pupils might be better able to form their own opinions and interpretations. Furthermore, investigating primary sources can cultivate respect for the ‘other’, whether in the past or as part of another contemporary culture.
These critical and investigative skills correspond with ‘historical thinking’, the significance of which, according to Wilschut and his co-authors, lays in the fact that it counters myths, teaches people to participate in a debate through factual argumentation, and keep an open mind towards both the ‘other’ and to possible changes in society. However, historical thinking has no universal definition. Wilschut et al. define its characteristics as: chronology and periodization, historical distance, anachronisms, unpredictability, time-relatedness and consciousness about reality. However, I would argue that these features correspond to those postulated by Peter Burke – not a teachable skillset, such as that found in the interpretation of Morton and Seixas. They define the features of historical thinking as: generating historical significance, working with evidence, identifying continuity and change, analysing causes and consequences, historical perspectives, and the ethical dimension of interpretations. Wilschut et al. call those skills “historische denkwijzen” – which they confusingly translate back to ‘historical thinking’, and define as ways of thinking necessary for forming images about the past. They link this to the skills introduced by Van Straaten: collecting, arranging, explaining and creating an image, but Wilschut et al.’s interpretation of historical thinking remains dissatisfying in its failure to clearly distinguish between characteristics and teachable skills, in contrast to the practical definition given by Morton and Seixas.
Such a distinction is necessary in teaching history, which I think we should do for several reasons. First, to create a framework of reference that enables pupils to further their understanding of reality and serves as a groundwork for participation in society. History can also influence the creation of a pupil’s identity and foster a respectful attitude towards others by offering a variety of perspectives. Finally, it is of the utmost importance that we teach students how to handle information in a critical manner. Wilschut et al. are sceptical of the value of teaching pupils to work with primary source material and instead want to focus on secondary sources. However, I am a proponent of employing both, thus analysing and studying the past itself, as well as deconstructing and investigating historical claims. History is especially suited for training these skills and attitudes, as it confronts pupils with an immensely complex and diverse past that must be reconstructed and studied. The skills learned in doing so are indispensable to our information society.
Burke P. “Western Historical Thinking in a Global Perspective – 10 Theses.” In: Rüsen J. (ed.). Western Historical Thinking. New York: Berghahn Books, 2002, pp. 15-30.
Seixas P., Morton T. The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson, 2012.
Wilschut A., van Straaten D., van Riessen D. Geschiedenisdidactiek. Handboek voor de vakdocent. Bussum: Uitgeverij Coutinho, 2016.