Contemplating Historical Consciousness: Notes from the Field

CLARK, Anna; PECK, Carla L. (eds). Contemplating Historical Consciousness: Notes from the Field. Berghahn Books, 2018. Resenha de: APOSTOLIDOU, Eleni. International Journal of Research on History Didactics, n.40, p.253-263, 2019.

  1. Introduction

Contemplating historical consciousness: Notes from the Field, edited by Anna Clark and Carla Peck revises the effort of Peter Seixas (2004: 4) in analyzing this very interesting concept which ‘implicates historiography, collective memory and history education’. Before proceeding to the structure and the contents of the volume it would be useful to suggest a definition of the concept. Seixas (2004: 10) suggests that of McDonald and Fausser: ‘the area in which collective memory, the writing of history, and other modes of shaping images of the past in the public merge’. It is exactly this merit of historical consciousness that makes it that attractive: it is inclusive of equally disciplinary and ‘lay’ modes of thinking. The latter was appreciated also by the contributors of the 2018 volume, Chapman, Green, and Seixas. Rüsen himself in his 1987 article about history didactics in West Germany seeing historical consciousness as broader then history didactics, explains that: ‘the didactics of history now analyzes all the forms and the functions of historical knowledge and reasoning in daily, practical life’ (Rüsen, 1987: 281).

In relation to the methodology of historical consciousness studies, Rüsen in a 1993 article stated that ‘the proof of theory lies in amassing empirical evidence substantiating its theses’ (Rüsen, 1993: 79). On the same lines, contributors of the 2004 volume like Wertsch, Létourneau and Moisan and Lee exemplified the contribution of empirical research in the theorizing of historical consciousness while Lorenz urged for comparative approaches (Seixas, 2004: 14). Thus, the tradition of qualitative empirical research is adopted also by the contributors of the 2018 volume; all the fifteen contributions relate to empirical research making use of an array of research methods, instruments and types of samples. McCully and Burton conducted qualitative research using a set of images referring to the history of Ireland, and also interviewed students. Chapman used questionnaires for school students and trainee teachers including open questions, Van Nieuwenhuyse and Wils used written history exams, students essays and questionnaires also preferring qualitative approaches, van Boxtel conducted process studies among school students, Wanhalla and Green used oral history approaches, Peck paragraph writing in answer to an ‘open for self-definition’ question and interviews and Silverstein, interviews. The volume also includes research projects similar to the Rosenzweig and Thelen’s 1998 study, specifically Seixas’, Clark’s and Li’s. Finally, Lévesque and Létourneau ‘repeated’ the 2004 Létourneau and Moisan research methodology analyzing students’ narratives.

Clark and Peck distributed all the empirical wealth above in three sections: ‘Historical consciousness, curriculum and pedagogy’, ‘Historical consciousness within and beyond borders’, ‘Historical consciousness and cultural identity’. The distribution above is functional as education or pedagogy and identity constitute elements of historical consciousness. The second part ‘[…] within and beyond borders’ while it implies comparison between different countries and continents, proves to indicate a more intimate relationship of several peoples with their pasts: Canadians, Australians, Chinese.

Insisting on the structure of the volume and the content of the chapters, an editorial novelty was that the contributors responded to specific questions set by the editors. Reading the chapters through the lenses of the first two questions, ‘motives to conduct research in historical consciousness’ and contributors’ ‘conception of memory, history and historical consciousness’, I distinguished the following tendencies: research strategies that address mostly the cognitive part of historical consciousness, the articulation of methodologically valid historical narratives, and others that address existential and political orientation problems. I therefore display the several studies within the latter context which implies possible differences of the contributors in relation to memory. I must admit that despite the above attempted categorization, there are cases where one can only notice emphasis on different aspects of historical consciousness.

  1. Combining Cognitive and Orientational Approaches

The Dutch curriculum, as Boxtel described it, focuses ‘on the ability to apply – in a coherent way – historical thinking and reasoning skills and a chronological frame of reference […] and did not do much justice to Rüsen’s ideas about the practical function of historical interpretations; how historical knowledge and understanding is used to understand the present and to orientate […]’ (Boxtel, 2018: 62).

Boxtel herself, at the beginning of her contribution, states that she does not approach historical consciousness as a cultural or historical phenomenon, but as an individual’s understanding of the past and from a learning and teaching perspective (p. 61). She locates ‘collective memory’ in education, in students’ and teachers’ ideas about the past, and also in teachers’ and education specialists’ work in informal education and heritage places such as museums. Her earlier reference to the Dutch ‘dynamic heritage’ project (p. 63) exemplifies her attitude towards cultural heritage, the latter considered as a challenge for the students ‘to construct shared historical knowledge and acknowledge different past perspectives.’1 Van Nieuwenhuyse and Wils seem to have a different starting point: the contrast between the Belgian curriculum and teachers’ practices, and also, the transnational narrative templates located in Belgian students as opposed with ethnocentric narratives located in students’ speech internationally. More specifically, Belgian history teachers were found to be ‘past-oriented’ in contrast to the Belgian curriculum guidelines that define the development of historical consciousness as the principal goal of history education (p. 47).

Belgian teachers were also found ‘fostering students’ substantive knowledge rather than their strategic knowledge, and hence their historical consciousness’ (p. 56). The latter tendency developed despite the prevailing education culture in Belgium of following student-centered teaching methods and focusing on skills. Van Nieuwenhuyse and Wils end by suggesting a historical consciousness definition that would emphasize the need for the students to differentiate the past from the present while, at the same time, using the past to orientate in the present and the future. In this way historicist and historical consciousness tendencies would be synthesized.

Chapman admits that whilst the main characteristics of historical consciousness – ‘interests’, ‘needs for orientation in time’ ‘functions’ could be appealing – the English national curriculum has traditionally focused on the past. Nevertheless, historical consciousness research in England referred to students’ orientation in time (p. 35). As Shemilt (2009: 194) put it, ‘the possession of a ‘big picture’ of the human past is a necessary condition for the emergence of more sophisticated and socially productive manifestations of historical consciousness’. Additionally, Chapman refers to his own and his colleagues’ research conducted in 1999, 2009 and 2016. This focuses on the past’s usefulness for 16 to 19 years-old students, the purposes of school history teaching (trainee history teachers), finally on the modes of historical consciousness suggested by the English curricula.

He concludes that historical consciousness research could be rewarding in terms of illuminating problems that did not surface in different research contexts. In relation to the cognition-orientation opposition he finds that the concept of historical consciousness provides at least two affordances: the first is that with the four different types of historical consciousness, one overcomes the tension between heritage-memory and the discipline of history. The second is that, different types of historical consciousness help us to have insight to additional meaning making processes (p. 35).

  1. Traumatic, ‘Spatial’ and Identity Approaches

Four contributions in this volume seem to originate in the same motives on the part of authors: Wanhalla’s on ‘Mother’s darlings of the South Pacific’, King’s ‘What is black historical consciousness’, Silverstein’s, about teaching the Holocaust, and Marker’s contribution about the Coast Salish Territory. They all refer to processes of identity construction, which could count as processes to form historical consciousness, in cases where people experience trauma and marginalization.

‘Mother’s darlings of the South Pacific’ was a 2010 – mainly oral – history project that referred to the Second Word War experiences of indigenous women and their partners: American army officers that settled in South Pacific islands between 1942-1945. Wanhalla admits that the project above could belong to memory studies, though, ‘uncelebrated, not public, wartime memories’ (Leckie in Wanhalla, 2018: 92). Additionally, the project could be a historical consciousness project since it brought to the fore narratives (of indigenous women, American fathers, ex-soldiers, and their illegitimately born children, now grown-ups), that described a traumatic experience of social exclusion since American military authorities did not permit marriages between Americans and indigenous women, applying the US racial segregation laws extra- territorially. It is also a social history study that reveals unpredicted World War Two and militarization consequences on individuals’ personal lives.

King questions the way black history is being constructed at schools and generally in the public sphere, and consequently forms black historical consciousness and culture. He comments on the uses and misuses of history to construct identities as wished by the prevailing political voices. He focuses not on the space that black history occupies in history textbooks and curricula speaking in quantitative terms, but on the type of narrative developed in relation to the black people. It is a narrative of suffering and victimization, a disenfranchising one. Black people end up agentless while other ‘narratives involving the institutional aspects of racism that allowed racism to prosper for many decades in the U.S.A. remain silenced’ (p.

68). King reports what he calls ‘racial neutrality’ in public sphere that seems to create ‘collective memory ghettos’ (Traille, 2007: 36) for black people and especially youth that form relevant historical consciousness narratives.

Silverstein, starting from her own personal motive, being a Holocaust survivor descendant and having attended Jewish studies in her high school years, conducted research situated in twelve Jewish day schools in New York and Melbourne. Interviewing teachers, she identified common teaching strategies in the form of narratives relating to the future; as she puts it, the main and common concern of all these teachers is to form strategies that will ensure ‘that Holocaust education – a form of lieux de memoire – becomes public facing and acting’. There were teachers that perceived the maintenance of the Jewish traditions as an ‘obligation’ and others that transmitted to their students a chronologically developed narrative of the Holocaust ending with the founding of the state of Israel.

Nevertheless, the prevailing Holocaust narrative bore caveats as regards a possible Holocaust’s repetition even in the USA, a narrative that focused on the factors that made the Holocaust happen.

Silverstein notes that the study brought to the fore ‘how migrant groups, and post-genocide groups, negotiate their marginality, and we can thus grasp some of the pain – and some of the possibilities – imbricated in such marginality’ (p. 183).

Marker, Green and Carretero introduce another perspective as regards historical consciousness, that of space or landscape. Marker, having himself served as a teacher in a Coast Salish high school, referring to the people of Coast Salish. Its characteristics that differentiate it from the European or western historical consciousness are the following: it is articulated through space instead of time, it includes a metaphysical imperative, time is not developing in a linear but rather in a cyclical way, there is no distinction between categories of knowledge, instead a holistic view prevails. Land plays such an important role in the way Coast Salish people narrate their history that instead of referring to people’s history, we rather refer to the history of the land articulated by Coast Salish people. Apart from the space dimension I would count Marker’s contribution as another case of trauma and marginalization (like Wanhalla, King and Silverstein’s contributions): there were immense consequences that the colonization process had in the lives of indigenous people since the latter were alienated from their land and forced into another culture.

Green’s contribution bears no traumatic dimension like the previous ones: though it is similar to Marker’s contribution because of the space dimension, also to Wanhalla’s project because of the use of oral history. It also connects to Rosenzweig and Thelen’s work (the relevant contributions in this volume, too) because it focuses on family memories and their transgenerational transmission. The contribution is also interesting in relation to methodology and theory of historical consciousness. Green, like Chapman in the same volume, recognizes a certain affordance in the use of the historical consciousness concept as opposed to the collective memory one: it allows space for individual differentiation. Green also speaks in favour of the use of the term ‘consciousness’ as opposed to forms of memory that may not be conscious. Finally, she finds that the study of family memories refers to historical consciousness, since family memories are articulated in the form of narratives that connect past, present and future, also anchored to meaningful places as in the case of the Coast Salish people (p. 208).

Carretero, using as a starting point current politics, specifically the wish of Donald Trump to build a wall between the USA and Mexico to prevent prospective immigrants, notes the need for historization of current political problems to make sense of them, actually the creation of a narrative, the need to historize places, territories, displaying also the disputes about them (p. 79). The latter can be easily achieved by the use of historical maps that show political developments in an area. He finally explains how disastrous for the people historical consciousness can be, in terms of the fact that Trump wishes to replace symbolic walls, differentiated identities, as perceived by Americans and Mexicans, with concrete ones, imposing in that way a monolithic way of thinking that won’t allow individuals the possibility to discern other perspectives.

Levesque & Létourneau’s, McCully & Barton’s and Peck’s contributions originate in the relationship between people’s racial, ethnic, self-perception as opposed to school history. Levesque and Létourneau identify historical consciousness with narrative competence, thus their research question was ‘how can French Canadian students create usable stories of their collective past?’ (p.

143). They drew on previous Canadian studies in narrative competence conducted by Létourneau and Moisan and they themselves involved a sample of 635 students with an average age of 16 years and a half. Students were asked to narrate ‘the history of the French presence in Canada’. Influenced by the Howson & Shemilt’s (2011) work on students’ ‘big pictures’ of the past, Levesque and Létourneau found that ‘by the time students graduate from high school, they have acquired an important stockpile of historical information and little pictures of the collective past that vary from one region to another. Interestingly, these little pictures are part of “bigger” pictures organized in narrative templates such as la survivance’ (Levesque & Létourneau, 2018: 155). Unfortunately, students’ collective identification seems to affect the narrative template they finally select. Narrative templates despite being useful tools to organize the past have their limits too.

The latter remark about students’ commitment to their communities take us to McCully’s and Barton’s research question about ‘how history learned in school interacts with history encountered in families and the community’. In relation to motives, they both state that while being aware of several theoretical assumptions, it was school practice that contributed to the initiation of the specific research. Thus, they refer to Wertsch’s idea of ‘cultural tools’, Bakhtin’s understanding of ‘internally persuasive dialogue’, Halpern’s suggestions about how to increase empathetic understanding, ‘collective memory’, ‘imagined communities’, ‘historical consciousness’ (p. 22-23). All the above helped them to make sense of the data and to meditate on the development of a history curriculum that would help Irish students to overcome their country’s traditional political and religious division. As in Levesque & Létourneau study above, the main findings of their research were the constraining role of the communities’ narratives on students’ historical thinking, and teachers’ resistance as regards the teaching of the national controversial issues in history classes or their tendency to teach controversial topics in noncontroversial ways.

Likewise, Peck is interested in the connections between students’ ethnic identities and their historical thinking about Canada’s past (Peck, 2018: 216). Levesque & Létourneau, Peck and McCully & Barton seem to be interested in the relationship between school history and community narratives. Peck and Levesque & Létourneau, also share the experience of living in ‘settler’ states, where there are ethnic divisions and subdivisions, e.g. English speaking and French speaking Canadians, also a complex relationship with indigenous people, the ‘First Nations’. Her argument and thinking context remind me of Epstein’s ‘old’ research about ‘students’ racial identities and experiences and their historical perspective taking’ (Epstein, 1997: 29). In the same way Peck is interested in how students ‘situate’ themselves in the country, from the racial and ethnic point of view, and how they therefore connect to Canadian history, also its school version. In the end, she notes how important it is for teachers to know how students think of themselves (their identity) in order not to make teaching choices that may ‘exclude’ students not feeling any relevance to history.

  1. Intimate Approaches

Seixas, Clark and Li share similar historical consciousness and methodology approaches: they study the intimate, family and popular past of Canadians, Australians and Chinese people, as opposed to the formal, public past. Seixas referring to previous literature concerning the concept of progress in historical thinking exclaims, ‘Who we are to judge, how people understand and use the past […]’ (p. 105). Thus, in 2006 he conducted a 3419 participants telephone survey with the title ‘Canadians and their past’ drawing on the Rosenzweig and Thelen one ‘The presence of the past’. There were findings similar to the 1998 survey of Rosenzweig and Thelen.

Clark conducted the project ‘Private lives, public history’ in Australia, also inspired by the Rosenzweig and Thelen survey but following another methodology: she conducted small affinity group interviews from a sample of 100 participants originating in five different Australian communities and exercised ‘situational analysis’ (Clarke, 2005). Her research question was: how would the Australians engage with the nation and how would they articulate their own historical consciousness in the context of powerful public historical narratives? The findings indicated that official narratives did not speak to Australians’ experiences while they engaged with more intimate parts of the past.

Li drawing on all the above, USA., Canadian and Australian studies, conducted a similar survey in China under the title ‘Chinese and their pasts’. The sample comprised the main Taiwan sample of 425 participants and additional subsamples originating in different Chinese cities. The method of data collection was interview surveys.

Her findings were similar to the studies referred to above in the current section: places and sites of public history were highly evaluated in Chinese people’s learning about the past while there was ‘a strong push towards personal, family and local history’ (p. 138).

  1. Can We Discern Periods in Historical Consciousness?

Rüsen (1987: 281) saw in the turn of history education to historical consciousness in the 1970s’, the realization on the part of historians and history educators that if history were to remain in the curriculum, it should also serve extra disciplinary criteria. In Ahonen’s (2004) words ‘The progressive pedagogy of the 20th century required personal and social relevance from history. Thus, in addition to their pursuit of “literacy”, Americans have traditionally expected ethical and citizenship education from history’.

As for the 2004 volume about historical consciousness, Ahonen also notices that ‘the organization [of the chapters] reflects well the underlying idea – that people’s relation to the past is not only a matter of formal education but a broad social phenomenon’ (Ahonen, 2004: 3). The same is noted by Clark & Peck in the introduction of the 2018 volume (p. 2): ‘Taken together, this corpus of work into history-making, from the most powerful public narrative to the most intimate memoir, has come to be defined as “historical culture”’. On the other hand, according to Nordgen (2016: 481), ‘historical consciousness guides the use of history and is influenced by historical culture’. In a way historical culture facilitates historical consciousness, especially as the latter is seen as ‘uses of the past’ (Lévesque in Clark & Peck, 2018: 2).

In other words, and as Chapman and Green have also noted in this volume, historical consciousness was conceived to be something ‘more than historical literacy’ (Ahonen, 2005: 697). Despite the fact that Rüsen differentiated between disciplinary and non-disciplinary uses of the past, and even though Lee (in Clark & Peck, 2018: 4) noted that ‘Indeed, people may hold different types of historical consciousness in tension simultaneously’, one can note on the 2004 volume a tendency on the part of the authors to display their own stance as regards the dilemma historiography-memory. Thus, we have the dialogue among Simon, Lee, Rüsen and Seixas about historical consciousness and its relation with narrative and memory (Den Heyer, 2004).

In this volume, the focus rests on the different uses of the past, cognitive, political, intimate, while new dimensions occur as the ‘spatial’ one. The sections ‘Historical consciousness within and beyond borders’ and ‘Historical consciousness and cultural identity’ are indicative of the latter tendency. I would suggest that the contributors to this volume are immersed in different possibilities of making sense of the past, possibilities enabled by historical consciousness, while the contributors of the 2004 volume are more hesitant and yet focused in defining the concept, thus the references in memory’s relationship with historical consciousness and the discipline of history.

As for the ‘third period’ of historical consciousness, it may not have happened yet according to both Ahonen and Grever. Ahonen ends his 2005 review saying that ‘The culture of history is a strong shaper of people’s historical experience and consciousness: the structure and meaning-attribution in the culture deserve a coordinated study’. Grever instead refers to ‘the expanding field of virtual popular historical culture with huge audiences: video games, augmented reality, selfies, instagrams, and YouTube vloggers. These new media stimulate what Jerome de Groot calls historioglossia: a multiplicity of hybrid discourses accruing around a single historical person or event, with overlapping genres all of which might be simultaneously in operation’ (p. 228). Nordgen, when referring to ‘culture’, means the different ways and environments in which one comes in touch with the past. He therefore refers to Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research about the family experience. The latter more intimate relationship with the past is materialized in three different contributions of this volume (Seixas, Clark and Li). Grever’s reference to the means that nowadays allow contact with the past, and mediate it, the new technologies, would need another volume to discuss.


1 and-projects/nwo-program-heritage-education-1 (15.06.2019).


Ahonen, S. (2005) ‘Historical Consciousness: A Viable Paradigm for History Education?’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37 (6), 697-707.

Den Heyer, K. (2004) ‘A Dialogue on Narrative and Historical Consciousness,’ in P. Seixas (ed) Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto: Toronto University Press, 203-211.

Epstein, T. (1997) ‘Sociocultural Approaches to Young People’s Historical Understanding’, Social Education, 66 (1), 28-31.

Lee, P. (2004) ‘Walking Backwards into Tomorrow: Historical Consciousness and Understanding History.’ International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 4 (1), 1-46.

Nordgen, K. (2016) ‘How To Do Things in History: Use of History as a Link Between Historical Consciousness and Historical Culture’, Theory and Research in Social Education, 44 (4), 479-504.

Rüsen, J. (1987) ‘The Didactics of History in West Germany’, History and Theory, 26 (3), 275-286.

Rüsen, J. (1993) ‘The Development of Narrative Competence in Historical Learning’, Studies in Metahistory, Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, 63- 83.

Eleni Apostolidou

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