Providing orientation through history

“Only when we learn to see things in their context will historical worlds be opened up to us. Understanding issues in their historical context raises the sensitivity to temporal dimensions and development processes, to what has come about and to what may come about in the future. Historical context thus opens the door for the future. […] Not facts and figures, but orientation – education as the ability of self-orientation in intellectual and historical worlds.”

Providing orientation through history

Historical amnesia as a programme

by Carl Bossard*

From the point of view of school reformers history as a subject taught at school appears to be dispensable. In the best case, this trend will remain only a footnote – in history. Observations on a misguided path.
When you deal with young people you are aware of their interest in history and can experience their fascination with times and cultures. You know their desire to understand familiar and unfamiliar worlds. But their knowledge of the subject is small and their understanding of how issues relate to one another is rather limited. Turning a blind eye to this fact is not a solution; rather the schools ought to take appropriate counteracting. Instead they abolish history as a subject in its own right.

The pervasiveness of the present

“Young people’s lives are now largely networked, they are living in the horizontal”, the Zug writer Thomas Huerlimann writes. And he adds: “They are at the same time in Tokyo, New York and Berlin, but history for them is merely a Wikipedia entry.” The present pervades everything.
What cannot be brought to mind does not exist. So at least one could think. Again Thomas Huerlimann: “My generation, by contrast, grew up in the vertical: In the beginning there was the Old Testament, there was Rome, there was the history of the Old Swiss Confederation, and people recognised themselves as an extension of the past.”1
As Thomas Huerlimann quite rightly said, data and information inhabit the horizontal.

Knowledge does not arise casually

Data and information are the signatures of the present. Knowledge and education, by contrast, are characterised by a vertical quality. There are, therefore, major tasks ahead of the schools. While one can distil useful information from great quantities of data such as big data, they are merely additive. They scarcely generate any knowledge. Knowledge does not arise casually, it is the result of serious study rather than the effect of whatever we may happen to pick up and find. Ultimately, it is up to the students themselves to learn and comprehend.
These are strenuous activities. They require stimulating instruction, a dialogical discourse and dedicated teachers. It is vital that there are teachers demanding a great deal from their students and confronting them with structures young people would never get to know in their own present-tense worlds. In short, teaching as a countervailing force with the courage to provide an antidote. The horizontal needs the vertical.

Teaching educational contents without expiry date

With regard to the task of helping students to develop their learning ability schools are more important than ever. Thus, rather than on actualities the curricula should focus on those educational contents and basic skills that enable to remain capable of learning on a sustained basis – in short, on educational contents without expiry date. In a communicatively connected service-providing society we need persons who have a good oral and written command of their mother tongues. Equally important are basic mathematical and scientific competences and, as a compulsory requirement, foreign language skills.
Another key element for education is the knowledge of one’s own history and thus the ability to connect origin and future. In our modern civilisation such a historical awareness is more necessary than ever. Only then will we be able to place ourselves in a relationship to the foreignness of others that have drawn closer to us and to the foreignness of our own past, from which we become detached ever more rapidly as a result of progress. Such an attitude enables us to cooperate and makes us ready for the future. Historical thinking is the basis.

History must be present as a subject in its own right

In Swiss schools, however, history has been abolished as a subject in its own right. History is meandering as a nebulous swarm, made up of disconnected fragments, through the field of “human beings and the environment”: a bit of pile-dwellers, a modicum of Romans, a pinch of chivalry, but no overview, no contextual knowledge, no structures, not even on the temporal level. History has been systematically devaluated.
There is no guaranteed number of lessons and hardly any control. Curriculum 21 does not take any corrective measures, either. On the contrary, it replaces history even in secondary schools. Along with geography, it becomes part of “Räume, Zeiten, Gesellschaften” (“Spaces, times and societies”). It specifies twelve basic requirements, with the result that history is revealed only through isolated fragments. Its status is not clearly defined. It is largely a matter of personal discretion and thus remains at the whim of the teachers. In the face of such constructs history as a subject will hardly gain new importance.

Spaces, times and societies

However, as soon as a discipline disappears as a subject in its own right, its content also disappears, especially from the minds of the children. “If history does not become visible as such, it simply does not exist in their heads”, says an expert on history teaching methods. “The term ‘history’ programmatically points at the core activity of the science of history, its way of dealing with temporality and the nature of its reflection and analysis of the past”, criticises the historian Lucas Burkart.2 Under the subject name “Spaces, times and societies” all this will be lost, he adds. History imparts the ability to establish connections on a wide range of issues, but also the ability to bring the past to bear upon the present.
The renowned developmental psychologist and vice-president of the Max-Planck Society, Professor Franz E. Weinert, has already warned against such collective subjects: “As knowledge systems subjects are indispensable for cognitive learning. There is absolutely no reason for a heterogeneous mishmash of subjects.” As an exception to this rule, he identified project instruction, where real phenomena and problems of our world are the starting point.

A compass in a complex world

The dynamics of civilization continues unchecked. But the gaze forward needs the rear-view mirror. The faster society changes the more important becomes the knowledge of one’s own history and the awareness: “That is where we come from”. If we completely lose this dimension, we also lose the vertical. If we betake ourselves into the horizontal, and if the present becomes our only point of reference, we lose our relationship to history and thus our orientation – without orientation no basic values of social cohesion and no clue about Switzerland’s raison d’être. School conveys the gaze back but at the same time it is always forward-facing. In fact, a future always needs a past, to borrow Odo Marquard’s much-quoted phrase.
That is why history is so important. It tells fascinating stories. Human beings need good stories, arousing their interest. They take us, for instance, to such events as the French or Helvetic Revolution of 1789 respectively 1798 or to the emergence of the Federal State of 1848, not as isolated events, as an assembly of disconnected incidents, or a juxtaposition devoid of concepts. Of course, it is not simply a matter of imparting year dates and facts, learnt by heart and mechanically reproduced. No, but every occurrence stands in a wider relationship to the present.
This is shown, for example, by the period between 1798 and 1848 – one of the most exciting periods of Swiss history, even for young people. It was the struggle for the modernisation of Switzerland and its path into the future, the conflict between unitary state and confederation, the contest between French Napoleonic centralism – symbolised by the apple – and the particularism of the Old Swiss Confederacy – in the shape of the grape. The fifty-year struggle between the apple and the grape was intense. A war was going on that caused bloodshed, and Switzerland almost broke apart. The Federal State of 1848 brought about a compromise in the form of the orange: a diverse country, consisting of member states with as much independence as possible thanks to the federal structure of the government.
The parallel to the present is evident – and thus also the claim of the astute Swiss historian Herbert Luethy that “all history is history of the present, because the past cannot be experienced as past, but only as something present from the past”.

Historical context as a door opener

Only when we learn to see things in their context will historical worlds be opened up to us. Understanding issues in their historical context raises the sensitivity to temporal dimensions and development processes, to what has come about and to what may come about in the future. Historical context thus opens the door for the future. It was not without reason that the philosopher Hans Blumenberg many years ago coined the phrase that education was not an “arsenal”, but a “horizon”. Not facts and figures, but orientation – education as the ability of self-orientation in intellectual and historical worlds.
Of course, that does not come by itself. Any significant finding, and also any historical insight, is the result of an intellectual effort that has to be taken in the vertical. No computer will save us such an effort, not even in the future. And the school subject of history is a sort of basic insurance. The progressive federal state Hesse abolished history as a subject taught at school. In the meantime, it has reintroduced it – disabused by its timeliness.    •

1    Alexandra Kedves. Thomas Hürlimanns Kirschgarten, in “Tages-Anzeiger”, from 5 June 2015, p. 25
2    Lucas Burkart. Jugendliche sollten eine Faszination für andere Zeiten entwickeln, in “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, from 18 March 2012.


(Translation Current Concerns)

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​