Arbeitsbereich Geschichtsdidaktik / History Education, Universität Hamburg

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

12. September 2011 Andreas Körber 1 Kommentar

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.

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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/​d​o​c​s​S​9​6​.​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://​his​to​risch​den​ken​ler​nen​.user​blogs​.uni​-ham​burg​.de/​2​0​1​1​/​1​2​/​1​1​/​1​3​48/, 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.