Is a Little Knowledge a Dangerous Thing? Young People, National Narratives and History Education

Professor Jocelyn Létourneau, Department of History, Laval University

Dr Arthur Chapman, UCL IoE

Anxieties about national identity and its strengthening and preservation are common in countries around the world, and it is, of course, entirely natural that this should be so in times of great change, challenge and uncertainty.

These anxieties can cause our discussions of history education to tend to the negative and to become counter-productive and even irrational. Public discussion tends, first, to base itself on impressionistic surveys – hardly fitting for matters of consequence. Second, it tends to focus on deficits – on what children do not know. Finding the same absence – repeatedly – is not a constructive act (we learn nothing new by doing it) and, more importantly, a focus on what is not present tells us nothing about what is in children’s heads. Understanding the ideas that children do have is crucial if we want to help them build historical knowledge and understanding and it is more important to know how children think about the past than it is to know which particular fact they do or do not know. Finally, as Sam Wineburg has shown, the habit of repeatedly finding that children know less than they used to has a long history – the obsessive repetition of claims about children’s ignorance of the past generation after generation is evidence of continuity more than change.

What happens if we try and find out what children do know and if we try to do so in a sustained manner and on a large scale?

In the last decade, scholars in a number of places around the world – including this Institute, Quebec, Canada, France, Switzerland (Geneva), Germany, Spain, Australia, and Belgium – have begun to undertake large-scale studies of what young people know about the past.[i] Rather than posing fastidious questions on specific historical issues (such as “Who was Horatio Nelson?”), which usually prove young people’s lack of knowledge, many of these studies invite students to tell what they know (“Tell me the story of your country, as you know  it, from the beginning to the present”). With no constraint on their answers other than an injunction to be serious in responding to the task, most students were able to propose some sort of narrative in the 45 minutes allotted for the task. These narratives often revealed that students had meaningful knowledge and representations about their nation and that they were not ‘empty pots’.

[i] For Swiss, Germany, France and Spain see the Lantheaume, F., and Létourneau J. (2016). Le récit du commun. L’histoire nationale racontée par les élèves. Approche comparative: France, Catalogne, Suisse, Allemagne, Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon. Belgian work is currently in process.

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