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November/December 2005 · Historically Speaking 17 Collective Memory, History Education, and Historical Consciousness Peter Seixas Historians have shown considerable interest in both the study ofcollective memory and of history education. The former examines how ordinary people understand and use the past; the latter how students learn about the past. At first glance there should be considerable overlap and interplay between the two. But, in fact, there has been relatively little. The study of collective memory has exploded in the past decade and a half. "Memory," as Nancy Wood notes, "is decidedly in fashion."1 Drawing from notions rooted in the work of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, scholars have examined the structures that enable societies to hand down beliefs about the past from one generation to the next, the purposes for which those beliefs are mobilized, their nature and shape, and the ways they change over time.2 While one may find an underlying nostalgia (as in Pierre Nora) or a critique of nostalgia (as in Kerwin Klein and Gabrielle Spiegel), one can study collective memory without an explicit normative stance; The goal is to understand how institutions of memory worked in the various historical circumstances in which they were constructed and maintained. The study of history education has also experienced dramatic growth in recent years. It, too, is very much concerned with the question ofhow people—specifically, students and teachers—think about the past.3 Yet there is a fundamental difference in scholarly orientation between the study of collective memory and of history education: normative policy questions are always close to the surface in the latter. What should people know? How can we improve history education? What constitutes improvement? Answers to these value-laden questions form a considerable portion of the literature on history education. The normative dimension is inescapable. It seems limited, to put it politely, for scholars to offer answers to the normative questions ofhistory education without considering the literature on collective memory. Similarly, it is narrow for those who devote their scholarly lives to the study of collective memory to ignore how the past is currently taught and transmitted to the next generation. The best responses to policy questions should take into account the many ways of understanding the past, as well as the dynamics of inertia and change that collective memory studies explore. To do so, however, requires a conceptual typology of collective memory in order to provide guidance for contemporary history education with its normative demands. Along with a number of other scholars, I believe that the notion of historical consciousness can serve as the conceptual link between these two fields of study. But there are problems , not the least ofwhich is ambiguity in the usage of the term. Some scholars' references to historical consciousness appear to be synonymous with collective memory. For example , in an influential essay written before the recent outpouring ofcollective memory scholarship , Herbert Gutman used historical consciousness to refer to how Americans think about the past.4 An important contrasting usage comes from Hans-Georg Gadamer, who considered the appearance of historical consciousness "likely the most important revolution among those we have undergone since the beginning of the modern epoch."5 For Gadamer, historical consciousness is a specific cultural development located in the modern era. Its achievement is "the full awareness of the historicity of everything present and the relativity of all opinions" and thus the breaking oftradition's hold. Modern consciousness—precisely as historical consciousness—takes a reflexive position concerning all that is handed down by tradition. Historical consciousness no longer listens sanctimoniously to the voice that reaches out from the past but, in reflection on it, replaces it within the context where it took root in order see the significance and relative value proper to it.6 Historical consciousness here becomes a specific form of memory characterized by modernity and informed by the tools developed by professional historical scholarship (e.g., a critical stance toward sources and an appreciation for the foreignness of the past). From the standpoint of history education, these tools stand as a legitimate and virtually uncontested goal. But this definition ofhistorical consciousness, when it is used to frame intercultural comparison, suggests that only certain groups...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 17-19
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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