- Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century
Four decades ago I had the good fortune to audit a course in the philosophy of history taught by the great William Dray. I remember his comment that few of the professional historians he knew seemed much concerned about [End Page 248] the philosophical significance and implications of their assumptions and methods. Stéphane Lévesque, who teaches History Education in the Faculty of Education of the University of Ottawa, is certainly not a member of that unconcerned tribe.
In his acknowledgements, Lévesque locates the origins of this book in his studies at the University of British Columbia in the 1990s, where he 'was first exposed to the powerful ideas of Peter Seixas, Sam Wineburg, Bruce VanSledright, Pierre Nora, Denis Schemilt, and other prominent scholars working on historical thinking.' Having noticed that their ideas, developed on both sides of the Atlantic and 'divided by nationality, language, and cultural traditions,' had not been brought together, he conceived his book as a 'modest' means of bridging the divide, an attempt to offer 'history educators an additional way of thinking about history in their national and local settings.'
He has succeeded. A chapter on the nature of history and historical thinking precedes informative chapters on five centrally important subjects: historical significance, continuity and change, progress and decline, evidence, and historical empathy. Each of them draws on recent as well as older works by philosophers of history. For example, the views of R.G. Collingwood are much in evidence (Dray would have been pleased). The purpose, in each case, is to demonstrate the differences between 'memory-history' and the kind of critical disciplinary history that Lévesque favours and he believes to be essential to living in the twenty-first century.
He writes well, although I think his copy editor should have advised him to kill most of the French phrases that are sprinkled throughout the text like raisins in a cake, often when perfectly good English equivalents are available. The use of unnecessary phrases like 'tout court,' 'la fin du monde,' 'à l'abandon,' and 'façon de parler' have the unfortunate effect of making him sound affected. This cosmetic flaw aside, Lévesque has written a book that historians and non-historians alike will find thought-provoking and useful.
One of his chief objectives is very unlikely to be achieved, however. Working as he does in a faculty of education, he intends his work to help in the improvement of history teaching at the primary and secondary level, so that young people will learn to think historically. While recognizing the many obstacles to reaching this goal, he remains optimistic. Like politicians of the reformist kind, those involved in the instruction of children and teenagers have to be optimists, otherwise they would never begin. Still, given the demands that critical thinking makes on people, and given the time that would have to be devoted to the study of history in school curricula so that well-trained teachers will be able to inculcate habits of historical thinking, it is difficult to see how changes of the kind that Lévesque wants could ever be incorporated in [End Page 249] those curricula. And yet, 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast.'
Michiel Horn, Department of History, York University