Questioning history is critical to challenge exclusion and imperialism – this evidence is specific to high school students and colonial nation state histories
[Brenda, Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois, The Social Studies, Sept/Oct]
The debates about the overwhelming problems, limitations, and disadvantages of social studies education noted in the Fordham report attempts to reconcile and advance the idea of nation through a collective history. Our more pressing role as educators, in light of the Fordham report, is to discuss a more nuanced understanding of the U.S. history. This would advance, as noted in La Pietra Report, an understanding about “the complexity and the contexts of relations and interactions, including the ways in which they are infused with a variety of forms of power that define and result from the interconnections of distinct but related histories” (OAH 2000, 1). Taking the U.S. nation as only one example of social analysis involves recognizing the meanings and conditions out of which nations are formed. There is no one experience of belonging to a nation, no single understanding or enactment of sovereignty, and certainly no one meaning or experience of colonization or being colonized. There is, then, a need for these issues to be realized and to be a part of the questioning occurring within our classrooms. That would allow for the substantial reframing of the basic narrative of U.S. history (OAH 2000, 2).
Toward a More Global Sense of the NationKnowing how history is a site of political struggle, how we engage in social studies education means emphasizing how power, processes, and practiced bear tangible effects on forging a national (and common) history by reproducing and vindicating inclusions and exclusions. Such a critique requires questioning how a singular, fixed, and static history celebrates the U.S. nation and its place in the world as that “common base of factual information about the American historical and contemporary experience” (27) argues for in the Fordham report. Our world history courses are central to defining, understanding, and knowing not only other nations but also the position of each nation in relation to the United States.
The centrality that the west holds (notably the United States as an imperial power) is ingrained and willful in framing specific representations of the west that normalize the imperial practices that established this nation. The role that the United States holds on the world stage frequently remains unquestioned in social studies classrooms. Certainly, we engage with various images and tropes to continue to advance how the colonialist past continues to remain present in our historical sensibilities. Moreover, the increasing number and choices of archival sources function as a complement to further understanding the nation. If students are left to rely on the variety of historical resources rather than question the uses of such resources, then the most likely outcome of their learning will be the reflection on the past with nostalgia that continues to celebrate myths and colonial sensibility. To evaluate the history narrative now is to reconsider what it means and to develop a historical consciousness in our students that goes beyond archival and nostalgic impulses associated with the formation of the nation and U.S. nation building. We need to insist that the nation, and the past that has contributed to its present day understanding, is simultaneously material and symbolic.
The nation as advanced in our histories cannot be taken as the foundational grounds. The means by which the nation is fashioned calls for examining the history through which nations are made and unmade. To admit the participatory nature of knowledge and to invite an active and critical engagement with the world so that students can come to question the authority of historical texts will, I hope, result in students’ realizing that the classroom is not solely a place to learn about the nation and being a national, but rather a place to develop a common understanding of how a nation is often formed through sameness. We need to continue to question how a particular national history is necessary as an educational function, but especially how that element has been, and remains, useful at specific times.
My hope is to extend the current critique of history within social studies, to move toward understanding why history and nation still needs a place in social studies education. In understanding how the historicity of nation serves as “the ideological alibi of the territorial state” (Appadurai 1996, 159) offers us a starting point. The challenge facing social studies educators is how we can succeed in questioning nation, not by displacing it from center stage but by considering how it is central. That means understanding how powerfully engrained the history of a nation is within education and how a significant amount of learning is centered around the nation and its history. History is a forum for assessing and understanding the study of change over time, which shapes the possibilities of knowledge itself. We need to reconsider the mechanisms used in our teaching, which need to be more than considering history as a nostalgic reminiscence of the time when the nation was formed. We need to be questioning the contexts for learning that can no longer be normalized through history’s constituted purpose. The changing political and social contexts of public history have brought new opportunities for educators to work through the tensions facing social studies education and its educational value to teachers and students. Increasing concerns with issues of racism, equality, and the plurality of identities and histories mean there is no unified knowledge as the result of history, only contested subjects whose multilayered and often contradictory voices and experiences intermingle with partial histories that are presented as unified. This does not represent a problem, but rather an opportunity for genuine productive study, discussion, and learning.