Volume:5, Issue: 1/2

May. 1, 2013

Comparative analysis of debates over History Education in Western European Nations: From the Passionate to the Smooth
Boyer, Eric S. [about]

DESCRIPTORS:  History Education, History as a Discipline, Passionate vs. Smooth Debates, Historical Thinking, Historical Interpretation, Critical Thinking, Habits of Mind, Globalization, Internet.

SYNOPSIS: Debates about History education have traditionally been passionate, concerning national pride or patriotic indoctrination.  Recently however, much smoother debates about how the discipline can be used as a way to mold critical thinking skills and the abilities of academic analysis have emerged.  Interestingly, the course of history has produced new ways of approaching the discipline of history in schooling in Western European Nations, specifically with the advent of the Internet.  Here, I seek to identify a shift in the uses of history education in western European nations, describe these uses as part of the shared western heritage of these countries, and identify how the modern context of globalization assists in molding this marked shift towards more democratic and liberal minded citizens. 

Theories: Why Teach History?

The Roman Historian Titus Livius Patavinus (Livy) lays out a very general notion of what it means to study History.  Simply put, History is a template of human activity that future generations can utilize to examine and draw upon to make decisions for present societal situations.  Within his statement is inherent the notion of the supreme interconnectedness of the personal and the public:

“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid” (Livy, Chapter XLIII (43)). 

Taking in the grand sweep of history it is apparent that one of the fundamental goals inherent in teaching history to younger generations is to produce good citizens, both within the private as well as the public sphere, as a good citizen in the home will presumably be well translated to be a good citizen outside the home.  Great thinkers throughout time have continually espoused this notion of history and its inherent connection to teaching youth the importance of living and working within the human sphere.  In short, an investigation of the multifaceted ways humans interact over time provides youth an opportunity to examine their own personal sphere and their personal behavior. The Renaissance political philosopher Machiavelli once said:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” (Machiavelli, p. 43)

Machiavelli writing in the 16th Century echoes Livy writing in the 1st Century.

These statements taken together are echoed by the Enlightenment thinker and original American statesman Thomas Jefferson writing in the late 18th Century: 

Schooling in America should be chiefly historical." The people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty. History, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future. It will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men." (Jefferson, p. 271).  

A century and a half later another American President, working with the Committee of Ten, Woodrow Wilson agreed that: “History and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power, which we call judgment." (Mitchell, 1981)

It is clear then, that in the Western tradition many of our great leaders and thinkers believed that a democratic-republican form of political organization has a special need for an education of history, because this type of government involves the people. The people must acquire "democratic virtues" and learn through instructive examples from history respect for the rights of individuals, regard for the law, voluntary participation in public life, and concern for the common good.  In this tradition, we see time and again the notion that good history education is for the purpose of developing critical thinking, inquisitive, active participants within the “at present” community of human beings.  “History” here defined really becomes the collective knowledge of how and why people have behaved certain ways, and how this human interaction has influenced further social interaction within certain cultures and regions of the world.  Taken as a base, this notion of historical teaching connects to our modern day understanding of what it means to teach “critical thinking.”

Smooth vs. Passionate Debates Defined

Historical thinking within the discipline of history as a way to teach critical thinking as just described, is however a product of the “western” tradition.  That is, born of the political, economic and social organizations of the histories of England and France as well as their colonial offshoots, the Unites States and Canada respectively.  Determined to free students and subsequently western society from the narrow focus of a single authoritative historical narrative, historians practicing the discipline in the west claim that history is “important because it cannot tell a single approved story.  And this way of doing history opens up the possibility of more serious thought about what history education is and ought to be” (Lee, p. xii).  Namely, the fact that history education requires multiple perspectives, and in teaching students how to approach these perspectives from different angles utilizing various sources to debate the narrative, the skill of analyzing information critically (critical thinking) is nurtured and expanded. 

Examining current debates over history education within western European nations reveals that the core argument has become the how of implementing history as a discipline into the high school curriculum, as opposed to what (in terms of static information) should be included.  How to go about enriching the practices of the history discipline so as to be accessible to the high school (secondary) student is the primary focus of debate, and as such this debate is termed by Lee (2010) as “smooth.”  The “smoothness” implies a shared vision for history education as helping students build a historical framework about the past, enabling them to handle the present (and future) in historical terms, and “embracing a flexible knowledge of history coupled with a constant use of critical thinking skills and competences” (Lee, p. 2).   

Lee (2010) maintains that history education justifies itself by “providing a form of social cement.  This social glue may be thought to arise from its power to bind people to shared values through a particular national, regional, ethnic, political, or religious story” (Lee, p. xi).  The key word in Peter Lee’s (2010) statement is “values.”  And it is with this word I frame the difference between and the movement from, the passionate to the smooth.  The contention here is that countries of the western-European tradition have an evolving notion of the “values” inherent in modern history education. And this emerging value system has been formed by the recent historical forces of globalization.  As western-European nations increasingly identify a shared heritage in terms of political, economic and social arrangements, the need to distinguish themselves along nationalistic lines, inculcating passionate debates over national identity, have been lessened. 

If the value of history education in the west is of enhancing critical thought and an ability to analyze information, there is a marked difference in many non-western countries that centers on the value of maintaining (or sometimes re-creating) an approved story of the past.  Here Lee (2010) terms the debate as “passionate” because history education is conceived as “immediately relating to national history, national memory and identity” (Lee, p. 3).  A quick examination of debates in non-western nations reveals that any historical or educational idea, proposal or state attempt to reform history education (at least in concordance with the newly emerged western model), elicits passionate reactions from the public.  The conceptualization of history education is its use as a means to maintain and further cultivate national identity, not to ask questions about the past but to learn it and maintain it as the roots of the very specific contextual and cultural model.  This maintenance of passionate debates in non-western European nations can be seen explicitly in a group of papers published by the International Review of History Education (ed. Nakou & Barca, 2010) over the role of textbooks as tools for continued political/national narrative and identity construction.  Section III of this volume is titled “Passionate debates over the national past rather than over history education, mainly in political and national terms” (Nakou & Barca, p. viii).  The seven nations represented in this section lie outside the western-European tradition and range geographically from the Middle East, to Asia and Eastern Europe.  Identifying the specific debates within these countries, and the analysis provided by the authors of these papers is beyond the scope of the present work.  However, the overall trend in debates over history education in these nations is made plain by the title of the section.  And the purpose in mentioning them is to bolster the notion that a continued passionate national identity debate seems to continue in countries outside the western-European tradition, whereas the debates within the western-European tradition are distinctly moving away from this.         

Western European Nations: The Smooth Debates

The western tradition, built on a foundation of creating a good democratic citizen who is well informed, critical in thought, and decisive based on rational argument and analysis of perspective has effectively culminated in a crucial understanding of history education.  Thus, the debate about what should be included in the history curriculum in western European nations has given way in the last decade to a conversation about how history education should be taught.  Examining papers published in the last few years by history educators and reformers within western European nations reveals a common conversation about history education within as well as across these countries.  At its core, the renewed focus of history education is on “doing the discipline.”  That is, teaching students how to learn and understand history through the skills, concepts and knowledge historians use while interacting with the discipline itself.  Instead of reading, reciting and rewording the work historians have already laid out for students in a stale, static textbook, the goals of “doing the discipline” immerse the student into the world of the historian.  This world is one where the historian analyzes sources, critically thinks about differing or combative perspectives, forms an argument and actively debates and defends this argument.  A snapshot of statements from educators of history in these countries affirms the overarching goal of utilizing history as a discipline to teach students how to do history as a process, as opposed to how to learn history as a collection of facts. 

Peter Seixas (2010) opens his paper on modern changes in Canadian history education with this statement: “Since early 2006, a Canadian partnership between a university-based research center and a private, nonprofit foundation has promoted the development of historical thinking as a foundational element of history curriculum, pedagogy and assessment” (Seixas, p. 11).  He then goes on to trace the conceptualization, reception of, and prospects for introducing this development of history education and concludes that the only debate within this focus rests on the ways in which this type of education should be introduced, maintained and cultivated.  The contention by Seixas is that despite the very “smooth” debates within the aforementioned partnership for promoting historical thinking in the secondary classroom, the overall consensus was that this type of education “shifts the problem of what to include in the curriculum to an examination of how to handle the different and sometimes conflicting stories of the past” (Seixas, p. 20).  This analysis of recent changes in Canadian history curriculum mirror those of other western European nations.

Ashby and Edwards (2010) discuss the challenges faced in implementing a sound history education curriculum in an increasingly multicultural England.  Great Britain, having enjoyed a glorious past of control, domination and imperialism is often times loathe to rescind the greatness of its “Pax Britannica”.  A Conservative Party politician, Michael Gove, in a 2008 speech to his party stated, “history curriculum makes it possible for children to take pride in our past, the best way we can build Britishness is by making every child aware of the great things we as Britons have achieved” (Gove, para. 9). 

Recognizing this sort of one-sided thinking as antithetical to more modern notions of history education, Ashby and Edwards (2010) maintain that Gove’s statement represents one of the key challenges facing school history today, and contributes to the more “passionate” debates still existing outside modernized nations.  In response to Gove’s statement, Ashby and Edwards (2010) see this type of thinking as counterproductive, and inconsistent with the idea of history education as part and parcel of an open society.  The wider movement in history education within England in the last decade has been a “disciplinary approach to knowledge coupled with an understanding of the importance of this approach for history in an open society” (Ashby & Edwards, p. 29).  Outlining this disciplinary approach, Ashby and Edwards (2010) offer five descriptions of what students should encounter in the history classroom:  “Claims based on evidence, historical questions raised through relative influence, historical hypotheses developed through an examination of sources, an understanding of abstract concepts such as change, continuity and significance, and a conceptualization of the nature of interpretation” (Ashby & Edwards, p. 29).  These identified student outcomes can be viewed as essential components of absorbing and interpreting historical knowledge, and in creating judgments about the inherent value of knowledge.  These five “encounters” represent the move towards an education in history as opposed to indoctrination into the simplistic picture of Britain’s “glorious past” as presented by Gove (2008). 

France is one of the four main western European nations forming the group known as the “Group of Eight” (G8), in which the wealthiest countries in the world participate.  Its historical roots as an initiator of the implementation of enlightenment principles and a democratic-republican form of political organization set France on an early course of educational “excellence” that we now see as the traditional model of schooling around the world.  With this modern and historical context, globalization has placed France (as well as the other “7” of the G8) in a position to continue as a leader in providing equality of opportunity, especially with regard to education.  To ensure “equality,” however, can often come at the expense of “excellence,” meaning ability to constantly and consistently charter a course towards ever-improving student achievement across all populations represented.  As a way to combat this, France has evolved toward less authoritarian pedagogical practices, relying less on memorization and more on the development of critical thinking.  Standardized tests in France do not include multiple-choice questions and focus for evaluation has been on the utilization of written essays.  French pedagogues believe that “the essay approach provides more information on effective capacities and competences of students (quality of expression, capacity of structuring ideas, and so on) than multiple-choice tests” (Orivel & Orivel, p. 217).  In addition, France has adopted the theory of individualization of the learning process. Individualization presented here is taken as a base for the “acknowledgement of the learning process as one inextricable from analysis of multiple sources and perspectives” (Orivel & Orivel, p. 215). 

Turning to the United States, one of the most influential and powerful entities born out of the western European tradition, Peter Stearns (2010) articulates current debate over history education and leads his discussion with an important statement about a transition in America from the ‘passionate’ to the ‘smooth’:

“Passionate divisions in history education have declined during the past decade.  Key issues today involve ongoing discussions of whether and how to do world history, instead of Western civilization, and how to link other elements of the history curriculum to develop assessment and increasing interest in identifying key analytical skills over coverage concerns” (Stearns, p. 47).    

Essential ‘smooth’ debates Stearns identifies in the U.S. are those over teacher-training in the discipline of history, the issue of levels of content coverage versus ‘habits of mind’ in teaching history, and how to effectively and legitimately assess student understanding.  With regard to teacher training, Stearns (2010) notes that high school history teachers have “little or no training in the discipline,” and that the history they end up teaching “differs considerably from the work they had in college” (p. 50).  This becomes an issue if the goal for history education is to move away from the static textbook-based recitation of facts to a more engaged analysis of those facts, and how to mold and shape an understanding of history as a more dynamic, more fluid subject.  An active discussion has ensued between secondary school districts, teacher-training programs, and professional historians to identify, encourage and guide future history teachers towards a model history curriculum reflective of that fluidity.  If we expect critical thought to be a hallmark of history education, teachers must be given the tools of the historian alongside the tools of the teacher.  Here, once again, these discussions are increasingly focused on the how of history engagement as opposed to the what.     

What are those tools of the historian that a teacher needs?  This question connects to the second smooth debate cited above about content coverage versus ‘habits of mind’.  As most secondary history teachers are forced to cover an immense amount of information within a relatively small time period, the curriculum becomes fact drills and student outcomes become simple fact recitation.  Over the last decade groups of historians and teachers have recognized this entrenched form of education, and have been increasingly vocal about the essence of history learning.  These voices maintain “history learning is not memorization of names and dates, but a set of habits of mind that can be uniquely cultivated through training in historical analysis” (Stearns, p. 56).  These habits of mind are of course a cause for debate, but most historians and teachers have been able to agree on certain essentials to form a tentative list. 

The first would be the meat of what historians actually do, interpreting primary sources, analyzing the points of view in those sources and building arguments about the people, places and events presented.  Second would be to gain experience in dealing with conflicting interpretations, and being prepared to either defend or alter one’s own arguments.  And finally, Stearns (2006) cites, “experience in analyzing change over time, analysis of causation, and ability to identify continuities amid change” (Stearns, The impacts of history learning research) as quintessential to historical skills, and as most distinctively attached to the discipline. 


Debate certainly continues over whether or not these habits of mind should in fact replace the more conventional (and seemingly easier) focus on the memorization of facts.  However, an immensely important development in the modern, increasingly globalized world has worked to declare that traditional history education model of fact recitation as almost null and void, namely the advent of the Internet.  Access to information via the web is now limitless, and the ability of the student to search established historical narratives in an instant demolishes the need for a teacher to simply recite information, or what might traditionally be referred to as lecture. 

Globalization coupled with a worldwide Internet culture is the latest development in the course of history to alter the way history is understood and taught.  It is now much less the role of the teacher to deliver historical information, and more the job of the teacher to facilitate student understanding, analysis, interpretation and synthesis of this information.  All of these facilitated capacities connect to the work of actual historians.  And each of these capacities can be seen as essential to the values inherent in the western tradition, creating a good democratic citizen who is a critical thinker in terms of information received, and decisive based on rational analysis of perspective.  

The four western European nations analyzed above have described these capacities of the student as essential to the furthering of a sound historical education.  Thus, the connection between historical thinking, critical thinking, and what it means to be an effective citizen in the globalized world, has effectively culminated in a crucial understanding of the future direction of history education.  What remains in this future is how exactly to go about making sure that teachers of history in the secondary schools worldwide receive training in historical thinking and the requisite skills that go along with this type of curriculum.  It is the hope here that these debates will continue to be “smooth,” and that the training of teachers, and subsequently, students in ‘habits of mind’ will be able to move forward in producing the types of citizens a democratic world needs to see develop.    

Ultimately, the ferocity and passion of earlier divisions of substantive (or nationalistic) history debates in western European nations (and still existing in non-western countries) can be ameliorated by the recognition that students be enabled through the school curriculum to participate thoughtfully in those debates.  Recognizing that providing the tools of the historian to both the teacher as facilitator of information, and the student as a learner of skills and ‘habits of mind’ rather than facts, effectively “soothes” the debate inherent in history education, and taken a step further, places history in the school curriculum as an essential course of study.  Thus, an understanding of the nature of historical interpretation and the use of evidence (i.e. being able to think historically) will inevitably provide a valuable starting point for moving forward with a much more democratic and liberally minded history education, and in turn, a much more democratic and liberally minded citizen.      


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  • Seixas, P. (2010). A Modest Proposal for Change in Canadian History. Contemporary Public Debates Over History Education, Chapter 2, pp. 11-25.  Information Age Publishing. Charlotte, N.C.
  • Stearns, P.N. (2006, June).  The impacts of history learning research:  Achievements, gaps and implications.  Paper presented at the National History Center Conference, Washington, DC.  Retrieved from http://nationalhistorycenter.org/wpcontent/uploads/2008/04/stearnsbriefingpaper.pdf
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