“Uses” and “ab-uses” of history. Possible consequences for history teaching at schools

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Kör­ber, Andreas (2011): “ ‘Uses’ and ‘ab-uses’ of his­to­ry. Pos­si­ble con­se­quences for his­to­ry teach­ing at schools”. Talk deliv­ered at the EUSTORY Sem­i­nar (Ab-)Use of His­to­ry, Helsin­ki, August 7th to 10th, 2011. In: http://www.pedocs.de/volltexte/2012/6626/

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Kör­ber, Andreas (2011): ““Uses” and “ab-uses” of his­to­ry. Pos­si­ble con­se­quences for his­to­ry teach­ing at schools”. Talk deliv­ered at the EUSTORY Sem­i­nar (Ab-)Use of His­to­ry, Helsin­ki, August 7th to 10th, 2011.

[jupdf-view­er file=“http://www.pedocs.de/volltexte/2012/6626/pdf/Koerber_2011_Uses_Abuses_D_A.pdf”]


Andreas Kör­ber

Uses” and “ab-uses” of his­to­ry. Pos­si­ble con­se­quences for his­to­ry teach­ing at schools

Talk deliv­ered at the EUSTORY Sem­i­nar (Ab-)Uses of His­to­ry,: Helsin­ki; August, 7th – 10th, 2011

1 Introduction

Use and Abuse of His­to­ry. The terms cen­tral in the sub­ject of this con­fer­ence are both: quite strong and quite unclear – espe­cial­ly when applied to a sub­ject like his­to­ry. When con­front­ed with the sug­ges­tion to con­tribute to the dis­cus­sions, here, I imme­di­ate­ly had some asso­ci­a­tions com­ing to my mind which had noth­ing to do with his­to­ry at all, but with a series of “abuse”-subjects in pub­lic debate of recent years – most­ly abuse of chil­dren by adults in edu­ca­tion­al or reli­gious insti­tu­tions, by par­ents, and so on. Sure­ly, this was not was was meant by the col­leagues sug­gest­ing this venue. So I put these asso­ci­a­tions at bay – but they will play a role in my talk lat­er on.

Of course, I was also remind­ed of pro­fes­sion­al debates not only more close to, but rather direct­ly cen­tral in the area I am work­ing on: the­o­ry of his­to­ry, name­ly the ques­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of truth and objec­tiv­i­ty in our domain. This is some­thing many col­leagues have reflect­ed upon and where some fun­da­men­tal insights have been gained in the last decades. So the ques­tion for me was in this case, whether under the head­ing of “use and abuse” there was to be anoth­er dis­cus­sion of objec­tiv­i­ty. I doubt­ed that this would meet much inter­est, here. So I tried to put this strand aside, too.

There is, of course anoth­er strand of debate, relat­ed to the lat­ter, which is much more prone to the sub­ject of this event, and that is the ques­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ty of pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ri­ans and all oth­ers pre­sent­ing accounts of the past – more con­crete, the ques­tion of what his­to­ry to tell and what not to tell. It is the ques­tion about the cor­rect, not the true, his­to­ry, even though the two ques­tions are strong­ly inter­re­lat­ed, at least from some points of view.

When com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Andrea Sensen­schmidt and Han­nah Kokko­nen – sparse­ly, I must admit – the ques­tion was pre­sent­ed whether I could not say some­thing about his­to­ry teach­ing in the for­mer “Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic”, the Sovi­et-allied East­ern Ger­many. I declined this, part­ly because I am by far no expert on that sub­ject. There are oth­ers who have done first hand research on it, some of them from a West­ern per­spec­tive (e.g. Hans-Dieter Schmied,1 Heike Mätz­ing,2 …, already in times of Ger­man par­ti­tion), and oth­ers with their own edu­ca­tion­al and some­times even pro­fes­sion­al back­ground as didac­ti­cians of his­to­ry in the East, like Christi­na Böttch­er, Marko Deman­towsky,3 Sask­ia Han­dro4 etc., but also because I felt that it would be only half inspir­ing to present a com­plex where the judge­ment that it would fall under “abuse” at least most­ly, was known from the start. In fact the judge­ment on a spe­cif­ic way of “using” his­to­ry on the basis that it is found­ed on a cer­tain ide­ol­o­gy is always prob­lem­at­ic, because we must be aware that our own sys­tem of val­ues may be (and most often is) seen as “ide­o­log­i­cal” by the oth­ers. After the end of the block-con­fronta­tion this argu­ment is not done with. Even though West­ern polit­i­cal thought and val­ues have proved to be supe­ri­or to total­i­tar­i­an ones, we still have to admit and con­sid­er that our val­ues also are con­tin­gent and may be chal­lenged as “ide­o­log­ic”, espe­cial­ly from oth­er cul­tur­al perspectives.

Much more reward­ing, so I thought, would be the sub­jects cov­ered by oth­ers, about how to address con­tro­ver­sial and “prob­lem­at­ic” issues in research and teach­ing. From my point of view, I might already state here at the begin­ning, there is not ques­tion on whether to present a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal account, it is not about prop­er­ly select­ing, but rather about the atti­tudes, the func­tion and the meth­ods. In my view, it is not the what but the how and what for of his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and his­to­ry teach­ing, which mer­it­ed reflec­tion. So “use” and “abuse” are not about whether pre­sent­ing a spe­cif­ic sub­ject, a spe­cif­ic sto­ry, amounts to abuse, but whether there are spe­cif­ic cri­te­ria by which to judge about the “how” of this presentation.

Tow more points of start for my reflec­tion need to be men­tioned. First of all, the terms “use and abuse” are far from well elab­o­rat­ed. They are used quite dif­fer­ent­ly, espe­cial­ly in our domain. This needs to be reflect­ed, first. And here a ref­er­ence needs to be made to the recent dis­cus­sions about child abuse.

Sec­ond­ly, the ques­tion of “uses” of his­to­ry (in the more prop­er sense) has already been addressed by col­leagues. Mar­gret Macmil­lan, the renowned Cana­di­an col­league, has pub­lished a pop­u­lar reflec­tion on it quite recent­ly, and one of the col­leagues present here, Klas Göran Karls­son, has tak­en up the ques­tion of uses and even of ab-use at a con­fer­ence in Novem­ber 2008, the pro­ceed­ings of which have just been pub­lished. It is his very short answer of the ques­tion what defines abuse, which I’d like to ini­tial­ly cite, crit­i­cis­ing one of his ideas, but to final­ly come to a con­clu­sion, which can be read as a sup­port of his.

2 The problem of “use and abuse” I: Terminology

With­in his con­sid­er­a­tions, Karls­son, how­ev­er causal­ly quotes Friedrich Nietzsche’s sec­ond “untime­ly con­sid­er­a­tions”. This famous text, which starts with an appraisal of the ani­mals’ igno­rance of any his­to­ry, their liv­ing only in a present, thus being free from any oblig­a­tions of any past, and of a “super­his­tor­i­cal” stand­point (which in my view, informed by Jörn Rüsen, would rather be an exem­plar­ic use of his­to­ry), and then dif­fer­en­ti­ates between three “uses” of his­to­ry (mon­u­men­tal, anti­quar­i­an, crit­i­cal), all of which are deeply root­ed in present needs, has at least in some Eng­lish edi­tions (although not the bet­ter one used by Karls­son) been titled “Use and Abuse”. This notion is prob­lem­at­ic. Niet­zsche most pro­found­ly did not want to con­sti­tute a spe­cif­ic cri­te­ri­on for prop­er use of his­to­ry lying in its own domain, but reflect­ed upon the advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of his­to­ry (thus the best trans­la­tion, sim­i­lar to that of the edi­tion used by Karls­son: “uses and dis­ad­van­tages”).5 As for the sub­ject of my talk and of the whole con­fer­ence, I take it that we don’t talk about “advan­tages” and “dis­ad­van­tages”, about the “pros” and “cons” of refer­ring to the past, that its is not a ques­tion of whether to “use” his­to­ry in the first place, but that we do talk about the dimen­sion of prop­er and improp­er use.

3 uses and abuses – a question of typology?

In his pre­sen­ta­tion in 2008, Klas-Göran Karls­son dis­tin­guished dif­fer­ent “uses” of his­to­ry, as had Mar­gret Macmil­lan: In short, their reflec­tions, which are both very inter­est­ing and valu­able to read, can be sum­ma­rized as a typol­o­gy of moti­va­tions of pre­sent­ing accounts of the past for rea­sons which lie in the present. There are quite a vari­ety of such moti­va­tions and of spe­cif­ic struc­tures of pre­sen­ta­tions fol­low­ing them. The enu­mer­a­tion here can give just an overview.

      1. sci­en­tif­ic usage: char­ac­ter­ized by inter­nal cri­te­ria of qual­i­ty and valid­i­ty, by the idea of approx­i­mat­ing an ide­al knowl­edge or at least the idea of pro­gres­sive­ly “bet­ter” under­stand­ing, by the reg­u­la­tive idea of a dis­so­ci­a­tion between the authors’ inter­ests and the sub­ject mat­ter researched, and by the idea that teach­ing and telling (Karls­son speaks of “medi­a­tion”, which is by far a too reflec­tive term for the posi­tion sketched here) means “trans­port” of the prop­er knowl­edge into the learn­ers’ or readers’/listeners’ minds (which is thought pos­si­ble because the “true” his­to­ry – even though “valid” and “rel­e­vant” – is con­ceived as inde­pen­dent from the recip­i­ents’ per­spec­tives and inter­ests as from the researchers’.

      2. Exis­ten­tial use of history

      3. moral use of history

      4. ide­o­log­i­cal use of history

      5. “non-use”

      6. “politi­co-ped­a­gog­i­cal use”

      7. MACMILLANS “His­to­ry for Comfort”

        1. His­to­ry as the ulti­mate expla­na­tion for life

        2. His­to­ry as an escape from the present

        3. His­to­ry as a book of exam­ples for good and evil

        4. His­to­ry as the judge for cur­rent politics

        5. His­to­ry as a field of cur­rent pol­i­tics (rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, repen­tance, apolo­gies, his­to­ry wars)

All of the­ses uses – as is made explic­it­ly clear by Karls­son, have their mer­its, their own dig­ni­ty. They can­not be just divid­ed into sup­port­able and insup­port­able, in uses and abus­es. This in part is due, I’d like to sug­gest, that Karlsson’s and Macmillan’s typolo­gies are not “pure” typolo­gies, list­ing mutu­al­ly exclu­sives modes or ways of “using” his­to­ry, but rather rel­e­vant and com­bin­able dimen­sions which need to be dis­cerned with­in any “use” of his­to­ry. It may be true that there is no neces­si­ty for them all to be present in a ran­dom­ly select­ed use, but at least some of them will always be there in com­bi­na­tion: politi­co-ped­a­gog­i­cal use can be high­ly dri­ven by moral con­sid­er­a­tions, or by ide­o­log­i­cal ones, and so on.

For us, glad to say, this is no prob­lem, because Karls­son does not sin­gle out some as prop­er and oth­ers as improp­er. The cri­te­ri­on for abuse, accord­ing to him, is – in a pic­to­r­i­al metaphor – not a divi­sion between some of them and oth­ers, but lying across them, divid­ing fea­si­ble and fal­li­ble ver­sions in each cat­e­go­ry: for him, it is the vio­la­tion of human rights.

But: is this a cri­te­ri­on which is in any way help­ful as to the speci­fici­ties of his­to­ry? Can it be sat­is­fy­ing to refer to a cri­te­ri­on out­side the the­o­ry of his­to­ry, only? Isn’t there some­thing like an inside cri­te­ri­on as to when a pre­sen­ta­tion of his­to­ry, a sto­ry etc. amounts to abuse?

In gen­er­al, I’d like to sup­port Karlsson’s lib­er­al view that there is not one “cor­rect” use of his­to­ry, not one way of “doing it”, which takes all the mer­its, but that the diver­si­ty of “usages” can be fea­si­ble and sup­port­able – espe­cial­ly that it is not just the “sci­en­tif­ic” use or the his­to­ry of the his­to­ri­ans, which has more dig­ni­ty. Mar­gret Macmil­lan also rejects the idea that his­to­ry belongs to the his­to­ri­ans, even though she more strong­ly keeps up the idea that his­to­ri­ans have a stronger capac­i­ty to for­mu­late valid his­to­ries, most­ly because of their pos­si­bil­i­ty to take more time and efforts on the task (because they are trained and paid to do so), but also with a ref­er­ence to the idea that his­to­ri­ans can be more impar­tial, more dis­tanced than nor­mal peo­ple. Through­out her book, the idea is vis­i­ble that there is one cri­te­ri­on for use and abuse which comes from his­to­ry itself, name­ly the appro­pri­ate­ness of the depic­tion of the past: The past itself is the cri­te­ri­on for use and abuse of history.

To a much less­er degree, this cri­te­ri­on is also dis­cernible in Karlsson’s oth­er dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between a genet­ic and a genealog­ic mode of his­to­ry. “Genet­ic” he calls – not as the first – the “per­spec­tive” in which we gain and trans­mit knowl­edge about the devel­op­ment up to now, where­as the term “genealog­ic” refers to the “mak­ing” of his­to­ry “by reflect­ing our­selves and our present sit­u­a­tion in the past” (Karls­son 2011, 133). His (sup­port­able) ide­al is the “bal­ance” of these two modes in what he calls a “reflec­tive his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness”,6 which could “join these two fun­da­men­tal his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives in so far that a genealog­i­cal per­spec­tive can pro­vide genet­ic his­to­ry with agency and cri­te­ria of rel­e­vance, while a genet­ic per­spec­tive is need­ed not only to sup­ply us with his­tor­i­cal con­tents, but also to help us under­stand why his­to­ry is recalled and rep­re­sent­ed the way it is.” (Karls­son 2011, 134). He links this to Kierkegaard’s dic­tum about liv­ing life for­ward, but under­stand­ing it back­ward. Again: Sup­port­able as this view is, it is also prob­lem­at­ic, inso­far as it sums up to dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing between a knowl­edge of the “real his­to­ry” of the “con­tents” (what ever that means: what is the con­tain­er of these con­tents?) and its uses in the present, between the sub­stra­tum and the oper­a­tions. This, to my view, can not hold. I will dwell on this point from anoth­er angle in a few min­utes, but would like to sketch my solu­tion here in advance, first: I don’t think that there is a pos­si­bil­i­ty of any divi­sion between the sub­stra­tum of his­tor­i­cal “con­tents”, of any “real” his­to­ry and the oper­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal think­ing. In my the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, they are linked togeth­er much more pro­found­ly than sug­gest­ed by Karls­son. It is not a ques­tion of join­ing these two per­spec­tives or modes, but whether they can be sep­a­rat­ed from one anoth­er in the first place more than ana­lyt­i­cal­ly. I sug­gest that what Karls­son calls “genealog­ic” is a modus, a mode of ask­ing, of the oper­a­tion which essen­tial­ly turns our adver­tence to things past and their inter­con­nec­tions, in the first place, while what he calls “genet­ic” is a mode of answer­ing to such ques­tions stem­ming from the genealog­i­cal per­spec­tive. “Genet­ic” then can be the type of his­to­ry told when asked for one’s geneal­o­gy. How­ev­er, it is not the only mode for such nar­ra­tive answers. Jörn Rüsen already dis­tin­guished at least four of them in his well-known typol­o­gy lat­er on cor­rect­ed and refined by Bodo von Bor­ries (and me).7 Gene­l­og­i­cal ques­tions, ques­tions asked with a view to the past out of a present need for agency and rel­e­vance, can not only be answered by telling a genet­ic sto­ry high­light­ing and stress­ing a devel­op­ment of fun­da­men­tal changes, but also by refer­ring to rules and laws cov­er­ing sit­u­a­tions occur­ring in quite dif­fer­ent times (the exem­plar­ic mode) or by refer­ring to well-estab­lished tra­di­tions (the tra­di­tion­al mode).

Thus – and this is why I refer to this point here – the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between the his­to­ry and its “use” is erro­neous: His­to­ry, or rather: his­to­ries, do only come into exis­tence by “usage”. They are not a sub­stra­tum already present when the genealog­i­cal inter­est starts act­ing – at least not in the way sug­gest­ed by the title of this con­fer­ence and by Karls­son and more strong­ly by Macmillan.

4 The problem of “use and abuse” II: Conceptualization

I already hint­ed that I think that the idea of “using” his­to­ry is wrong in a cer­tain way. In order to illus­trate this, I’d like to refer to the already men­tioned debate on child abuse: When the media start­ed to be full of this con­cept of “child abuse”, some of the brighter com­men­ta­tors imme­di­ate­ly asked (with­out want­i­ng to play down), whether talk of child-abuse was not a prob­lem in itself, because it forces us to think about what a prop­er “use” of chil­dren would be. Can chil­dren be “used” so that one can dif­fer­en­ti­ate oth­er uses as improp­er, which then are called “abuse”?

The idea behind this chal­lenge of the pub­lic debate and its ter­mi­nol­o­gy is con­cep­tu­al: Who­ev­er uses the term “child abuse” refers to a con­cept of “child use” and in it to a con­cept of chil­dren as being “objects”. Human rights, how­ev­er, demand – at least when based on the ideas of Kant – that no human being be treat­ed only as a means to some out­side aim, that no human being be treat­ed as an object only.

Let’s dwell for a moment on the notion of “usage” and on the con­no­ta­tion of the object implied in it.

Clear­ly, in this under­stand­ing of “usage”, of “emploi”, the object is already there before it is used – we have already seen that point. But more – it also is con­sid­ered of exist­ing as it is inde­pen­dent­ly of the usage. The object to be used is seen to have an exis­tence and a spe­cif­ic con­sti­tu­tion inde­pen­dent from the usage and the user. If to peo­ple e.g. use a book for gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, the book it itself, the mate­r­i­al text, is giv­en and the same for both of them. If they use it for e.g. block­ing a door against mov­ing in the wind, the book also is tak­en as an exist­ing object.

“Using” means to employ an “objec­tive­ly” exist­ing object for some out­side purpose.

For this kind of notion, there can be some cri­te­ria for fea­si­bil­i­ty considered:

Cri­te­ria for fea­si­ble uses of this kind may be manifold:

      1. The first cri­te­ri­on may be whether the object was intend­ed for the pur­pose. Thus to take a book for read­ing may be more fea­si­ble than for using it for block­ing a door against wind etc. But as we can see, this not a nec­es­sary cri­te­ri­on: it may be fea­si­ble to “ab-use” an object for a new, unin­tend­ed pur­pose, if oth­er cri­te­ria apply:

        1. First, that the objects real­ly helps to ful­fill the func­tion. The object must be use­ful. In con­struc­tivist terms, what us cen­tral here, is the viability.

        2. Sec­ond, whether the object is dam­aged in such using. If a book is most like­ly to be squeezed to unread­able sta­tus by the wind-moved door, its deploy for this pur­pose may be ren­dered “ab-use” in the nor­ma­tive sense.

        3. Third­ly, anoth­er cri­te­ri­on can refer to the sym­bol­ic val­ue of the object. Using a book for stop­ping a door against wind may be fea­si­ble for some­one, even though he would call the use of a Qu’ran abuse.

All these cri­te­ria have two things in common:

  1. They refer to cas­es in which objects were used for pur­pos­es for which they were not intended.

  2. They are applic­a­ble – as said before – if his­to­ry is to be con­ceived as a pre-exist­ing enti­ty, unchanged for all of its users.

So we should once more think about what his­to­ry is and what it is made for.

  1. If “his­to­ry” refers to an enti­ty inde­pen­dent from our usage, to the real past or at least our best knowl­edge of it, we should, I think, eas­i­ly con­fer that it was NOT made for any of our uses. It is one of the thoughts stressed in some ear­ly con­cepts of post-mod­ern the­o­ry of his­to­ry: Our pre­de­ces­sors, the peo­ple hav­ing lived before our times, did not do so in order to pro­vide us with “con­tent”, with exam­ples. They may not be reduced to being the sub­stra­tum of our own ori­en­ta­tion. The ques­tion, then, is not that of what kind of use would amount to ab-use, but whether his­to­ry should be used at all. If we take this argu­ment seri­ous­ly (and I think we should), it would for­bid any “use” of his­to­ry for some oth­er pur­pose that to “live it”. “His­to­ry” tak­en as the past enti­ty of real­i­ty and the lives in it, clear­ly have no oth­er pur­pose that to exist.

  2. If “his­to­ry” does not refer to this past real­i­ty, but to our own con­cepts of them, to our con­struc­tions, then we can­not object to such “usage”, because his­to­ry is not used as a dis­tinct object were, but is is cre­at­ed in this oper­a­tion in the first place.

So I clear­ly tend to the sec­ond under­stand­ing of his­to­ry – and I would pre­serve the term for it. The for­mer, the real lives of the peo­ple in the past, for their hopes and val­ues etc., should be called “the past” only.

So again, we arrive at a dis­tinc­tion which is very cen­tral: The real­i­ty of oth­er times is “the past”. It can be used, and maybe also “abused” in the mean­ing of the term used in recent dis­cus­sions: improp­er, con­demnable emploi of an exist­ing object.

But clear­ly, this does not mean that “any­thing goes”, that every­body is uncon­di­tion­al­ly free to cre­ate any his­tor­i­cal account she or he wish­es, that there are no cri­te­ria whatsoever.

So let’s try to take the argu­men­ta­tion a bit further:

His­to­ry in the under­stand­ing just out­lined is a rela­tion­al con­cept. It is not the past in itself, but a cer­tain rela­tion between the past(s) and a spe­cif­ic present – more pre­cise­ly: a spe­cif­ic social, cul­tur­al, nor­ma­tive and tem­po­ral posi­tion. There­fore, cri­te­ria for the fea­si­bil­i­ty of his­to­ries can only be tak­en from the rela­tion. Jörn Rüsen has sug­gest­ed three of them:

      1. empir­i­cal plausibility

      2. nor­ma­tive plausibility

      3. nar­ra­tive plausibility.

Since we do not have any oth­er access to the past real­i­ty as the sub­stra­tum of his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, we can­not com­pare any giv­en his­to­ry to this real­i­ty, but only either to oth­er his­to­ries of the same nar­ra­tive (and that is: selec­tive, par­ti­tion­al, per­spec­ti­val, nor­ma­tive etc.) nature. If we want to test the empir­i­cal plau­si­bil­i­ty of a his­to­ry, then we should test it against the cur­rent acces­si­ble amount of best first-hand data. As for the nor­ma­tive ingre­di­ents, we need to com­pare it to our own audi­ence and society’s val­ues and as for the nar­ra­tive plau­si­bil­i­ty we have to refer to the cur­rent ideas of what is accept­able in terms of explain­ing etc.

But this may not be enough for our pur­pose. I only refer­ring to Rüsens tri­par­tite con­cept of plau­si­bil­i­ties, we have reduced the ques­tion of ab-use of his­to­ry to the ques­tion of “objec­tiv­i­ty”. I don’t think this is satisfactory.

So I think we should take into account anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of “his­to­ry” in the nar­ra­tivist mean­ing: “His­to­ry” – even though an indi­vid­u­al­ly cre­at­ed nar­ra­tive rela­tion to the past – is a com­mu­nica­tive con­cept. His­to­ry unfolds its full capa­bil­i­ty of ori­en­ta­tion if it does not only link us as indi­vid­u­als, qua­si as mon­ads, to a past that is fore­gone, but if it helps us under­stand how our present soci­ety in its com­plex­i­ty has been come about and how it is per­ceived by oth­ers. If we want to be able to act in our soci­ety, we do not only have to clar­i­fy our own rela­tion to the past, but we have to do so with that of our co-mem­bers of soci­ety also. It is not only about who I think I am in my light of the past, and what I make of it, about my inten­tions and moti­va­tions, but also about

  • who the (dif­fer­ent!) oth­ers think they are, in their view of the past, what their per­cep­tions of them­selves are and their pos­si­ble actions,

  • who I think they are and what they could or should do,

  • who they think I or we are, etc.

For this col­lec­tive ori­en­ta­tion, we need to exchange our nar­ra­tives, we need to tell them, but we also need to inte­grate them.

Form this con­sid­er­a­tion, long ago laid out by Kurt Röttgers, we can abstract some oth­er cri­te­ria for use and abuse of his­to­ry. But before I short­ly elab­o­rate on them, I might stress, that from here on, these cri­te­ria do not refer to “his­to­ry” as a syn­onym of “the past”, but that here I refer to the nar­ra­tive rela­tions to the past, which I would reserve the term his­to­ry for.

  1. First of all, if one func­tion of his­to­ries is not only to indi­vid­u­al­ly, but to col­lec­tive­ly ori­en­tate, then they need to inte­grate per­spec­tives. In order to do so, they need to reflect the valid per­spec­tives, i.e. the inter­ests, needs, val­ues etc. of today’s mem­bers of soci­ety. A his­to­ry which does not reflect their dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, ques­tions, val­ues, pat­terns of expla­na­tion etc. would not be ori­en­tat­ing but dis-ori­en­tat­ing. So as a cri­te­ri­on, prop­er his­to­ry have to inte­grate the per­spec­tives of dif­fer­ent par­ti­tions of their audi­ence, not to impose one per­spec­tive on these dif­fer­ent fractions.

  2. Sec­ond­ly, his­to­ries have to offer nar­ra­tive expla­na­tions, con­nec­tions, and atti­tudes to the past as well as con­clu­sions and moti­va­tions. Again it would be improp­er (and here I would start to use the word ab-use in the full sense) if they imposed such con­nec­tions and moti­va­tions. This cri­te­ri­on needs some more elab­o­ra­tion: How can a his­to­ry offer but not impose if it is sup­posed to present such a con­nec­tion. How can a his­to­ry ful­fil its nar­ra­tive task but not over­due it in this direc­tion? The answer I sug­gest here is: By allow­ing the read­er, the lis­ten­er to take his own posi­tion in rela­tion not only to the past but to the nar­ra­tive struc­ture of the his­to­ry itself – by lay­ing open the ingre­di­ents, the inner struc­tures, so that the read­er can relate to them.

If this is what Karls­son meant by not vio­lat­ing human rights, if his cri­te­ri­on was that the audi­ence, the addressees, the pub­lic needs to be tak­en seri­ous­ly in their capac­i­ty to active­ly relate to sto­ry, and that not doing so would be vio­lat­ing human rights – then I ful­ly agree.

5 Using Histories

So slow­ly tak­ing the curve to the last aspect, I hold that there is a “using” his­to­ry in the sense of “using nar­ra­tive struc­tures” in human com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And in this sense, there can be use and abuse – and they can be seen on at least two sides of the communication:

  1. “Using his­to­ry” can mean the oper­a­tions a per­son car­ries out with regard to a giv­en, a pre­sent­ed nar­ra­tive, be it their “(cog­ni­tive) par­tic­u­lars” (Karls­son 2011, 135), the con­nec­tions con­struct­ed in it, the con­clu­sions drawn and offered and the appeals made. It can con­sist in their accept­ing them and in their doubt­ing, their dis­tanc­ing from them, their critique.

    On the recipient’s side, then, prop­er use of his­to­ries would be to rec­og­nize and accepts one’s own capac­i­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty, one’s enti­tle­ment, but also oblig­a­tion to active­ly relate to his­to­ries. It means to lis­ten and read thinking.

  2. On the author’s side, prop­er use of his­to­ry the means a way of address­ing the recip­i­ent in a way which again rec­og­nizes his com­pe­tence, it means to not trap him into a sit­u­a­tion where he can­not active­ly relate, he may not be over­pow­ered or over­whelmed.8 This requires to

    1. iden­ti­fy rather than hide the con­struc­tion­al sta­tus of the present his­to­ry, the fact that it has been cre­at­ed by a spe­cif­ic, per­son­al authors, with spe­cif­ic ques­tions in mind, a spe­cif­ic back­ground etc.

    2. to make vis­i­ble his per­spec­tives and val­ues etc.,

    3. to dis­cuss the ingre­di­ents of the sto­ry, the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al used, the con­cepts applied etc.

    4. to at least acknowl­edge, bet­ter: indi­cate, best: present and dis­cuss con­trast­ing and con­tra­dic­to­ry mate­ri­als, con­clu­sion, judgements,

    5. to at least indi­cate those parts of the sto­ry, which are more infer­en­tial than oth­ers – in a pic­to­r­i­al metaphor: which might be drawn in black and white or greyscale rather that full colour.

    Mis­use, or abuse then clear­ly would be to hin­der the recip­i­ent to make up his own mind, to reflect his/her own sit­u­a­tion towards the sto­ry told, the “con­tents”, the val­ues and con­cepts applied etc. Again: to vio­late the human right to self-determination.

Two small remarks to the side:

  1. Using these cri­te­ria, we might eas­i­ly arrive at con­demn­ing much of East­ern Ger­man his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and his­to­ry teach­ing – but I am sure that lots of his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and teach­ing in the “free west” would look meek, too).

  2. The con­cept of “medi­a­tion” used by Karls­son and crit­i­cised by me above, can be regard­ed from here, too: If “medi­a­tion” is con­sid­ered as “trans­mis­sion” of a sto­ry to an audi­ence, their heads and minds only, in a way where it has to be unchanged, this would be ab-use. The term “Ver­mit­tlung” in Ger­man clear­ly has the same prob­lem. In most cas­es it is tak­en as “trans­fer of knowl­edge” to the stu­dents, where­as a prop­er con­sid­er­a­tion not only from ped­a­gog­i­cal per­spec­tive9 but also from ter­mi­nol­o­gy would yield that it has to make dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and under­stand­ings, dif­fer­ent posi­tions towards an object, a “con­tent”, here: a his­tor­i­cal account meet and rec­og­nize each other.

6 Use and abuse in History Teaching

This leads over to the last aspect: For didac­tics, use and abuse of his­to­ry can also be dis­cussed on the basis laid down above.

Any his­to­ry teach­ing which only focus­es on pro­vid­ing stu­dents with (at least parts of) the one sto­ry in a fash­ion where it is best unchanged, any teach­ing which con­ceals from learn­ers the nature both of the spe­cif­ic his­to­ry at hand (includ­ing those in the text­books) and of his­to­ry as such as a nar­ra­tive con­struct, with strengths in ori­en­tat­ing offer but also with lim­its, which con­ceals that these his­to­ries do not just rep­re­sent the past, but have a func­tion in today’s soci­eties and that they need to be assessed, relat­ed to, analysed and scru­ti­nised, amounts to ab-use.

His­to­ry teach­ing not abus­ing his­to­ry (or bet­ter: his­to­ries) then has to focus on the learn­ers acqui­si­tion of the capac­i­ties, the com­pe­ten­cies to rec­og­nize and accept their own respon­si­bil­i­ty and enti­tle­ment towards pre­sent­ed sto­ries. Learn­ers must not only learn to tell sto­ries (in a prop­er way) but also to active­ly act as crit­i­cal recip­i­ents. This is not only valid with a view to the individual’s human right of self-deter­mi­na­tion, but also with a focus on soci­ety and on his­to­ry as such: Abuse can only work if recip­i­ents do not rec­og­nize and active­ly take their crit­i­cal role.

His­to­ry teach­ing which is about hin­der­ing ab-use, then, is about

  1. empow­er­ment – about empow­er­ment of the learn­ers to acknowl­edge and assert their own entitlement

  2. It is about not just teach­ing “the his­to­ry”, but also the nar­ra­tive, con­struc­tive log­ic of his­to­ry from the start,

  3. It is about active­ly address­ing his­tor­i­cal debates and his­to­ry wars – but not cre­at­ing the impres­sion that these his­to­ry debates and wars as such were abuse, but that maybe one side, more often some par­tic­i­pants on all sides, have bet­ter and worse argu­ments, which may be abuse,

  4. it is about con­sid­er­ing the role of his­to­ry and of spe­cif­ic argu­men­ta­tions in such debates and his­to­ry wars,

  5. it is not about avoid­ing to take sides and stands, but to make clear on what grounds they are tak­en – and about let­ting the learn­ers to take their own stands (but of course not with­out prop­er argumentation).

It would be abuse to hin­der learn­ers to get insight into the func­tion and role of his­to­ry and his­to­ries in soci­etal debates and to take their own reflect­ed position.

Thank you.

1E.G. Schmid, Hans-Dieter (1979): Geschicht­sun­ter­richt in der DDR. Eine Ein­führung. Stuttgart (Anmerkun­gen und Argu­mente 25); Schmid, Hans-Dieter (1982): „Die Entwick­lung des Geschicht­sun­ter­richts in der SBZ/DDR.“ In: Bergmann, Klaus; Schnei­der, Ger­hard (Hgg.; 1982): Gesellschaft — Staat — Geschicht­sun­ter­richt. Beiträge zu ein­er Geschichte der Geschichts­di­dak­tik und des Geschicht­sun­ter­richts 1500–1980, Düs­sel­dorf 1982, S. 313–348.

2Mätzing, Heike Christi­na (1999): Geschichte im Zeichen des his­torischen Mate­ri­al­is­mus. Unter­suchun­gen zu Geschichtswis­senschaft und Geschicht­sun­ter­richt in der DDR. Han­nover (Schriften­rei­he des Georg-Eck­ert-Insti­tuts für inter­na­tionale Schul­buch­forschung, Bd. 96). Heike Mätz­ing is also Co-Edi­tor (to Ver­e­na Rad­kau) of a bib­li­og­ra­phy on His­to­ry Teach­ing in the GDR: Mätz­ing, heike Christi­na; Rad­kau, Ver­e­na (Eds.; 2000): Die DDR-Geschichts­di­dak­tik im Spiegel der Pub­lika­tio­nen seit 1990. Eine Bib­li­ogra­phie. In: www.gei.de/docsS96.htm (Stand Dezem­ber 2000).

3Demantowsky, Marko (2000): Das Geschichts­be­wußt­sein in der SBZ und DDR. His­torisch-didak­tis­ches Denken und sein geistiges Bezugs­feld unter beson­der­er Berück­sich­ti­gung der Sow­jet­päd­a­gogik (1946–1973). Bib­li­ogra­phie und Bestandsverze­ich­nis. Berlin (Bestandsverze­ich­nisse zur Bil­dungs­geschichte, Bd. 9). Deman­towsky, Marko (2003): Die Geschichtsmethodik in der SBZ und DDR – ihre konzeptuelle, insti­tu­tionelle und per­son­elle Kon­sti­tu­ierung als akademis­che Diszi­plin 1945–1970. Idstein (Schriften zur Geschichts­di­dak­tik, Bd. 15);

4Handro, Sask­ia (2002): Geschicht­sun­ter­richt und his­torisch-poli­tis­che Sozial­i­sa­tion in der SBZ und DDR (1945–1961). Eine Studie zur Region Sach­sen-Anhalt. Weinheim/Basel (Schriften zur Geschichts­di­dak­tik; 13).

5Karlsson (2011), p. 132 cit­ing Niet­zsche, Friedrich (1983): „On the Uses and Dis­ad­van­tages of His­to­ry for Life.“ In: Niet­zsche, Friedrich: Untime­ly Med­i­ta­tions. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge, UP, pp. 57–124.

6Reference to the FUER project and the dis­cus­sion about whether his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness were not reflec­tive by default or by def­i­n­i­tion (Pan­del, Schöne­mann) in Ger­many? Sup­port for Karlsson’s position.

7On this, see Kör­ber, Andreas (2011): “Ger­man His­to­ry Didac­tics: From His­tor­i­cal Con­scious­ness to His­tor­i­cal Com­pe­ten­cies – and beyond?” In: His­torisch denken ler­nen. http://historischdenkenlernen.userblogs.uni-hamburg.de/2011/12/11/1348/, p. 13f.

8This aspect is of course not only rel­e­vant for his­to­ry. In teach­ing con­texts, it has been for­mu­lat­ed with ref­er­ence to social stud­ies as the first aspect of the „Beu­tels­bach­er Kon­sens“ – the „Über­wäl­ti­gungsver­bot“.

9Oelkers? Girmes.


Ein Gedanke zu „“Uses” and “ab-uses” of history. Possible consequences for history teaching at schools“

  1. Danke für diesen schö­nen Artikel, den ich allen Geschicht­slehrern als Grund­la­gen­lek­türe empfehlen möchte.
    “Dieser Miss­brauch (sic!) des Holo­causts (sic!) ist inakzept­abel und ver­stößt gegen grundle­gende jüdis­che Werte”, sagte der Leit­er von Yad Vashem gestern über die ver­quere Holo­caust-Analo­giebil­dung ultra­ortho­dox­er Demon­stran­ten in Israel …
    Nicht nur für Lehrer, son­dern auch für His­torik­er wäre Dein Artikel wichtige Lektüre 🙂

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