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Conway, Michael: Problem with history classes

Conway, Michael

The problem with history classes‘, The Atlantic, 16 March 2015

Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high …

History may be an attempt to memorialize and preserve the past, but it is not memory; memories can serve as primary sources, but they do not stand alone as history. A history is essentially a collection of memories, analyzed and reduced into meaningful conclusions—but that collection depends on the memories chosen …

History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself. Conflict does not necessarily demand a resolution. Disagreements among highly educated, well-informed people will continue. Why should history ignore this reality? There is no better way to use the past to inform the present than by accepting the impossibility of a definitive history—and by ensuring that current students are equipped to grapple with the contested memories in their midst.

The article is very relevant to discussions in Australia about the teaching of history and the development of curricula in history. Search the Honest History site under headings like ‘Pyne’ and ‘history wars’.