We then fall victim to stereotypes and narrow our understanding of not only the past, but also the present and the future. By default history must therefore be presented as a complex subject. This is what Rüsen’s ‘critical’ and ‘genetic’ models of historical consciousness present, where the past is seen as a series of competing narratives, with sophisticated patterns of change and continuity. In turn this requires a focus on teaching history as a discipline, i.e. how we know about the past, how knowledge of the past is contested and open to interpretation. In this approach history becomes, what Michael Young (2011) calls ‘powerful knowledge’ (p.275) as opposed to ‘knowledge of the powerful’ (p.268). A disciplinary approach means we have to teach the subject in particular ways – we have to look at multiple perspectives, we have to explore how the past is constructed by using sources and examining the context in which differing interpretations of the past have been created, and see that the past is open to debate. History is not a single, simple, unproblematic story. This is an absolute essential element of teaching history in a democratic culture. Such an approach is firmly established in many educational contexts, but not everywhere – nor is it fully understood by many politicians who seek to enforce positive nationalistic narratives on teachers as a means of encouraging the populist vote.
Of equal importance however is what is taught – the content of a curriculum is hotly debated and too frequently presents a narrow, nationalistic view of the past, focusing on ‘great’ figures and events celebrating the nation state. Yet this overlooks the fact that nation states are a relatively new ‘invention’. It is also all too easy to forget that the past was inherently diverse and so history should examine that diversity. This was brought home to me in a discussion with a Polish friend – to speak of Poland as a nation is challenging because it has existed at different points in time and in geographical space. It is easier to talk of the people who lived in that geographical space at different periods of time, which forces us to focus more on a ‘people’s eye’ view of the past, and the diversity of people and their existence. In turn, this allows us to explore how people lived together, the variety of cultures and periods of extended cooperation (rather than perpetual conflict which some histories promote).
If we value democracy, then we need to value and cherish history education, but we need to accept a particular model of historical thinking or what has been termed ‘historical literacy’ (Lee, 2011). This means teaching history as a discipline and exploring the diversity of past experiences. This enables us to look beyond a simplistic past. In turn, this pushes us to think in more sophisticated and nuanced ways and to develop a more complex understanding of the present and the future.