In a recent contribution to Public History Weekly, titled “Removing the ‘Past’: Debates Over Official Sites of Memory” 1, Stéphane Lévesque from Ottawa, Canada, presented a new model for monument-related competencies of historical thinking, using Jörn Rüsen’s types of historical narrating.
The graphic version of the model consists of four “competences”, visualized as smaller cogwheels arranged around and interacting with a central cogwheel titled with “historical consciousness”. For each of the four competencies, a short, monument-related definition is given.
Prompted by a commentary by Gabriel Reich of Virginia Commonwealth University, who also works extensively on monuments in memory culture, Stéphane Lévesque added a (more general) table version (a Spanish translation by Elizabeth Montanares Vargas has been presented on facebook, meanwhile) in an answering comment, further detailing the competencies in his model. 2.
As much as I appreciate this new model of competencies in general, I have also added a few comments to it (and to one point of Gabriel Reich’s comment, which is not in focus, here). The space provided by Public history weekly for commenting is limited and graphs are (at least not easily) allowed. I therefore use this my own blog for repeating my comment to Lévesque’s model, and to detail it a bit further.
First of all, I strongly support the initiative to analyse monuments as an expression of and factor for historical consciousness. Indeed, we need both a) to analyse them as experts by using our repertoire of historiographic methods and concepts in order to stimulate and support informed public discussion about whether a particular monument is still desirable (or at least acceptable) or whether it needs to be changed (and how) or even removed, and b) to develop people’s competences to address these issues themselves, i.e. to reflect on the nature, meaning and message of a monument both at the time of its construction and today (e.g. through preservation, maintenance, alteration, commenting or removal).
For this reason, I greatly appreciate Stéphane’s proposal for a competency model, especially the table version from the commentary above. This does not mean that I fully support the concrete model, but it has enriched the debate. Three comments on this:
(1) I doubt that competence as such can be “traditional”, “exemplary”, “genetic”, “critical” or “genetic”. These patterns, both as I understand Rüsen and for myself, characterize the logic of narratives. I would therefore rather read the table as “the competence to query in the traditional mode” … “the competence to narrate in critical mode” etc.
(2) This again raises the question of whether the four patterns actually constitute a distinction of competence niveaus. While I agree that the genetic mode of narrating history is the historically most recent, complex and suitable for explaining changes, I doubt – this time against Rüsen (cf. Körber 2016) – that the typology can describe competence levels.
The competence progression would need to be defined transversally: From (a) a basic level of non-distinctive (and thus unconsciously confusing) forms and patterns, via (b) the ability to perform all these forms of operations in the various patterns of Stéphane’s table (which would this describe a fully developed intermediate level), to © an elaborated level of (additional) ability to think about the nature of these distinctions, etc.
For this, the model is very useful, full of ideas. It can help to think about what it takes to describe monuments neither as “the past” nor as “simply old”, but to identify and “read” them as narratives (or narrative abbreviations) from a certain time, whose current treatment adds new narrative layers to them, so that their existence (or absence), form, and treatment of them can always be seen and evaluated as contemporary statements about the respective past. To recognize this and to deal with it in a socially responsible way requires these competences.
As far as Gabriel Reich’s commentary is concerned, I only ask whether his characterization of an attitude to the confederation monuments can really be addressed with Rüsen as “exemplary”, since this mode is not concerned with the maintenance and support of a conventional identity, but with the derivation of a supertemporal rule. I would refer to the example as “traditional”. An “exemplary” attitude towards retention would be more likely to be: “At all times, monuments of one’s own heroes have helped the losers of war to hold on to their cause. Then that must be possible for us too.” Or something along that line.
So far the comment already published in Public History Weekly.
That said, I might add, that I don’t mean that the “genetic” way of sensemaking is not in some way superior to the others, and more apt for historical meaning-making, especially in its integration of a notion of directed change over time. My scepticism focuses on the idea that today’s people’s (“ontogenetic”) competencies of historical thinking progresses along the same line as the cultural (“phylogenetic”) development of Rüsen’s patterns of sensemaking throughout the history of historiography. Today’s youth simultaneously encounter manifestations of historical thinking using all three (rather than four) 3 patterns of sensemaking. While there is a kind of “development” of power of historical meaning-making and explanation from traditional via exemplaric to genetic, I doubt that people and students have to move from the former to the latter — or do so.
My own idea of development of competencies of historical thinking can rather be visualized as follows (adopting Lévesque’s table):
- A “basic” niveau (and possibly early stage) would be defined by the inability of distinguishing different modes of historical narrating in general and referring to monuments in this specific case. (Young) people on this niveau (at this stage) will relate to them. They will ask questions (and thus exercise their “inquiry competence”), think (“historical thinking competence”), orientate themselves (“orientation competence”), and narrate (“narrative competence”). But this basic niveau will not be defined by being “traditional”, but by an uninformed mixing (possibly only half-understood) forms of all three patterns. This performance will be both instable and inconsistent. Half-baked traditional questions will stand next to unreflected exemplary statements, and so on. In the graph above, this is symbolized by the blurred table below.
- The ability to apply the different patterns in a somewhat clarified way, to distinguish them and select one, to identify inconsistencies in their mixing, etc., then marks the intermediary niveau, and possible a major stage in the development of these competencies. On this niveau, at this stage, people will be able to discuss about the message a monument expresses and the meaning it has for us today, but they might disagree and even quarrel because they apply different patterns of meaning-making.
In a way, Lévesque’s table describes this intermediate niveau, the different forms of historical inquiring, thinking, orientating, and narrating can take, depending from the general pattern of sensemaking. The table (the middle one in the graph above) clearly points at something, I have also tried to express in my German article challenging Rüsen’s own idea of the different patterns forming different nivueaus of competencies 4: Each of the different operations (inquiring, narrating, orientating) will take on a specific stance of narrating. It is a difference whether I ask for a tradition or for a rule to be derived from past examples, or about a patterns of change across time. These questions are informed by more general stances and understandings of history (maybe coded in Lévesque’s central cogwheel of “historical consciousness”) and will generate different forms of orientation and narrating. This does not mean that the initial stance determines the outcome of the story, rendering historical thinking a matter of self-affirmation — not at all. A person inquiring in traditional will look for an origin for something valid and might — via historical thinking and research — learn of a quite different origin. The mode of meaning-making will still be traditional, but the concrete history will have changed. But people might also be forced to change their pattern in the process, e.g. learning of the limits of exemplary thinking when gaining insight into fundamental change, and thus “progress” in a way from exemplary to genetic sensemaking.
- The highest niveau, however, will be reached not by finally arriving at the genetic forms of thinking and the respective competencies, but by complementing the ability to recognize, distinguish and apply the different forma with a transgressing ability to reflect on the nature, value and limits of this (and other) typologies themselves. Only on this niveau (at this stage) are people fully at command of their historical reflection. They can address the limits societally accepted concepts and terminology pose and suggest new or amended ones, etc. In the graph above, this is symbolized by the additional focus to the rubrics of Lévesque’s table, marked by the blue rings.
- Lévesque, Stéphane: Removing the “Past”: Debates Over Official Sites of Memory. In: Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 29, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018 – 12570. There also is a German and a French version.
- The table can be found under the same address as the original contribution, down the page
- Rüsen’s “critical” type of narrating does not really fit into the typology, presenting not a new logic of interconnecting temporal information, but merely de-elgitimizing others. In 1988 already, Bodo von Borries commented on this and presented a graphical concept of the interrelation of the different types, in which a “critical” type was placed between both the traditional and the exemplary and the latter and the genetic, thus assigning it the function of a catalyst of development (Borries, Bodo von (1988): Geschichtslernen und Geschichtsbewusstsein. Empirische Erkundungen zu Erwerb und Gebrauch von Historie. 1. Aufl. Stuttgart: Klett, p. 61; cf. Körber, Andreas (2015): Historical consciousness, historical competencies – and beyond? Some conceptual development within German history didactics. Online verfügbar unter http://www.pedocs.de/volltexte/2015/10811/pdf/Koerber_2015_Development_German_History_Didactics.pdf, p. 14f.). In the new version of his “Historik”, Rüsen presents a similar version. Cf. Rüsen, Jörn (2013): Historik. Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft. Köln: Böhlau, p. 260. English: Rüsen, Jörn (2017): Evidence and Meaning. A Theory of Historical Studies. Unter Mitarbeit von Diane Kerns und Katie Digan. New York, NY: Berghahn Books Incorporated (Making Sense of History Ser, v.28), p. 198.
- Körber, Andreas (2016): Sinnbildungstypen als Graduierungen? Versuch einer Klärung am Beispiel der Historischen Fragekompetenz. In: Katja Lehmann, Michael Werner und Stefanie Zabold (Hg.): Historisches Denken jetzt und in Zukunft. Wege zu einem theoretisch fundierten und evidenzbasierten Umgang mit Geschichte. Festschrift für Waltraud Schreiber zum 60. Geburtstag. Berlin, Münster: Lit Verlag (Geschichtsdidaktik in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, 10), S. 27 – 41.