Historical Consciousness of Young People


A review of An Illusion That Makes the Past Seem Real: The Potential of Living History for Developing the Historical Consciousness of Young People, by Ceri Jones.

The dissertation explores the impact of living history on the development of the historical consciousness of young people (secondary school students aged 11-16). To address this, Jones applies Jorn Rüsen’s theory of historical consciousness (Rüsen, J. 2004. ‘Historical Consciousness: Narrative structure, Moral Function and Ontogenetic development’ in Seixas, P. (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo and London, pp. 63-85.) to the context of museums and historic sites and examines living history sessions as performances, by drawing mainly upon Anthony Jackson’s theory on the framing of the performance (Jackson, A. 2007. Theatre, Education and the Making of Meanings: Art or Instrument?  Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.)

In the first chapter, Jones examines the main issues concerning the effectiveness of history education, focusing on the state of history education in English schools. In doing so, she outlines the main areas of debate over historical education in the English formal education system, especially concerns over society’s detac hment from history, while extending her literature review to the issues that emerge: an emphasis on the cognitive aspects of history education versus the importance of a cognitive, affective and emotional engagement during the learning process. Additionally, she highlights the significance of history education in the construction of identity. Consecutively, Jones presents five interlinked themes that aim to explain the reasons behind the loss of meaningful narratives that could support the significance of the past as well as its value to the present day. The first theme acknowledges the conception of an “abstract” and fragmented past, unrelated to the present, the exclusion of issues that could provoke discussions, as well as the mistreatment of issues of identities as they emerge in a globalised environment. The second theme refers to two pedagogical approaches that lead to an “uneasy compromise” between two ways of teaching history: the chronologically-framed, narrative-based history and that focused on the processes, skills and concepts that enable historical thinking. Then Jones refers to the emergence of popular or public histories that incorporate the philosophy of progressive pedagogy, an idea which those that ascribe to the notion of the public as passive receivers of messages find threatening.  The fourth theme addresses the “distance” in the conception of history and memory: history is considered as “objective distance” and memory as a “subjective closeness”. The fifth theme discusses the potential of History as an academic discipline to provide a meaningful account of the past.

Following this introductory chapter, chapter 2 discusses the ways through which young people form historical consciousness.  Jones draws mainly on German pedagogical theories in order to link thinking about the past with historical thinking:  the notion of history as “life world” and the idea that historical consciousness is present-oriented while being understood in specific spatial and temporal contexts. In order to link history as life world and the process of teaching history, Jones turns to cognitive development and specifically to the work of progressive educators, who developed a child-centered pedagogy and saw children as active interpreters of their environment and its various dimensions. Young people form their ideas of the past through the influence of their social milieu and their personal “schema.” Every day ways of thinking about the past are explored through the research of Dickinson and Lee (Dickinson, A. K. and Lee, P.J. 1978. ‘Understanding and Research’, in Dickinson, A. K. and Lee, P. J. (eds) History Teaching and Historical Understanding, Heinemann, London, pp. 94-120) who, among others,  observed some variables, such as religion, ethnicity and social status, and the tendency for generalizations  in children’s and young people’s understanding of historical narratives. The articulation of young people’s ideas about the past is often constructed out of a range of miscellaneous material about the past, often blurring history, memory and myth.

Jones brings into discussion Rüsen’s four types of historical consciousness: the traditional, the exemplary, the critical and the generic. The traditional and the exemplary types are “closest to memory and use the past as a means of informing the present” while the critical and the generic types are “closest to history and challenge the other two ways of thinking about the past” (p. 283). Rüsen’s types place their value in the recognition of diverse forms of historical consciousness. However, there is limited understanding on the way students progress within these types, as well on the way they may appear in various contexts. Research on the application of theories of historical consciousness on young people is relatively recent.  However, previous studies suggest that young people are interested in learning about the past on their own terms and for their own needs. Furthermore, beliefs about the past are formed via experiences in the present and are influenced by social status, ethnicity and age.  People make use of the past in order to inform their beliefs and values, using their previous experiences as lessons for the present. Jones draws a line between academic history which tends to isolate the past from the present, and history interpreted in the everyday life that serves as a means of understanding the present.

In the third chapter, Jones explores the way museums and historic sites provide a link to the past and the way they influence the development of historical consciousness. Material culture of the past is seen as holding a double power of attracting the public: its material characteristics and its embedded sense of authenticity as well as any social and cultural meanings attached to its function and use. Museums and historic sites make objects part of narratives in order to assign meaning to them. Jones links O’Neill’s taxonomy of current discourses on museum’s roles and purpose on the society (the essentialist, the adaptive and the ideological) to Rüsens’s types of historical consciousness. Furthermore, Jones gives an overview of the popular learning theories in museums over the past 50 years, underlining the active engagement of the public in the interpretation of the museum exhibitions according to personal experiences, beliefs and ideas. However, a fundamental issue in museum interpretation is the authority of the narrative which is subsequently echoed in the public’s interpretation. However, museums and historic sites follow a different learning approach to schools, providing multi-sensory experiences that appeal to mind and body.

The fourth chapter introduces us to the ways living history might impact on the historical consciousness of young people. Describing living history and its various incarnations, Jones firstly underlines the specific issues that arise in the interpretation of the past that are mainly linked to its performative aspects: authenticity, immersion, aesthetic distance. Issues on interpretation are also addressed: a fragmented view of the past that is often presented as the real past, a sanitized version of the past. At the same time living history is considered as having significant potential for challenging perceptions and provoking the viewer. In this chapter, Jones introduces the debate over the potential of living history, which is considered a dynamic means of interpretation due to its ability to influence the values and attitudes of young people as it provides a way of multi-level engagement.

Chapter 5 outlines the methodological framework, followed by Chapter 6 which details the nine month fieldwork, involving two sites as case studies and six schools. Jones adopts an interpretivist, qualitative approach following the principles of grounded theory, privileging the voices of the participants (students, museums, teachers) and offering an in-depth insight into their perspectives. Jones looks at the appropriation of knowledge (“when a text is made one’s own and acquires a personal meaning” p. 168) rather than its mastery (“the instrumental understanding of when to use sources, historical skills and so on” p. 168). The secondary school students, aged 11-16, were from six atypical state schools, independents or grammar schools.  They were primarily white British and considered to be of higher academic ability because of the entry requirements of their schools. All students were familiar with at least some elements of the Medieval Age but not all groups linked their visits to the curriculum.

Jones used The Tower of London (ToL) and the Museum of London (MoL), as her two case studies. She then collaborated with a minimum of two schools per site.  After contacting the museum or the historic site and interviewing the interpreters and the staff, Jones visited the school in order to explore young people’s initial perceptions. She accompanied them in their visit to the museum and the historic site and after the visit, interviewed the teachers and the students regarding their experience. At the MoL, two school groups attended two day-long sessions titled “Chaucer in Context” and “The Medieval Study Day,” which included a living history performance, object – handling and independent research time to be spent in the respective galleries. The second case study, the ToL, involved observation of four schools during the “Medieval Chest” and “Medieval Monarchy” sessions, which included a living history performance in the form of a guided tour, in third person, that tried to cover 200 years of history. Three of the schools took part in further evaluation.

The primary method of data collection was through prior and post- visit semi-structured interviews. Meaning-mapping was also used while the whole research structure remained loose in order to “overcome unexpected practical difficulties” (p. 175). Open-coding process was primarily used for analyzing the data and the following analysis process was based on two conceptual models: Rüsen’s four-type model of historical consciousness and the Generic Learning Outcomes (GLOs). The whole process of analysis was “evolving and dynamic” (p. 177), with the researcher encountering and acknowledging a number of limitations and obstacles due to the “real world context” (p. 179) of the research.

Teachers interviewed gave an overview of their approaches in the classroom, which included a variety of means like visual images, use of artifacts, visits to museums and historic sites and role-play. Furthermore classes had a small number of students. Teachers acknowledged the importance of history in the formation of identity as well as in supporting critical thinking. Challenges met by the teachers in teaching the history of Middle Ages included limited resources, the possibility of the students having a deficit view of the past, and the fact that an emphasis of the most exciting aspects of this period may result in a distorted view of history. However, positive gender examples and minority stories were used to provide a link to the present and reinforce a certain kind of “moral education.” Most of the students interviewed before their visit had an interest in history but their ideas of the past were formed through their present experiences and interests and had mostly a deficit view of the past. Some gender differences were also noted on what was considered important or exciting. Additionally, all students were familiar with museums and historic sites as well as with the specific educational means used in the MoL and the ToL.

In chapter 7, Jones explores the way the construction of characters of the past impacts on young people’s learning of history by highlighting the differences between the two case studies: the performances taking place at the MoL were in first person, by an actor placed into a modern environment, while the performance at the ToL was performed in third person in an authentic environment by an educator. The analysis of the student interviews also showed that learning outcomes were primarily influenced by the format of the performance, reasserting Jackson’s theory on the importance of the framing of the event in the learning process. After describing in detail the two performances that took place at the MoL, which were performed by costumed interpreters, focused on specific events and historical figures, Jones refers to the assumptions of museums professionals that living history is more suitable for younger students, as older students have a hard time suspending their disbelief. However, no such observation was made by the researcher. Acceptance of the performance by the students is attributed to the “appearance of character in costume”, to the “extensive knowledge of the era” and to the “context of the performance.”

Jones provides a detailed description of the cultural frame, the theatrical frame and internal frame, according to Jackson’s terminology, in order to examine the relationship developed between young people and the performance. The success of the two performances is attributed to the fact that the historical characters personified wider issues in a focused drama, so that young people’s abstract ideas of the past were easier consolidated. Exploring the meaning of “real” in the experience of the two schools at the Museum of London, Jones’ findings point at the visualization that living history can offer as a significant part of the engagement with the performance as well as of the learning process. Enjoyment was also found to be a part of the young people’s experiences. However, further research revealed a variety of emotions like, for example,   the feeling that the performer personalizing the “authority” of the museum or the feeling that they could grasp the sense of people’s emotions in that era, that could not be covered at school.

The second case study at the ToL, had a very different format: a guided tour, covering 200 years of history, with costumed interpreters performing in third person in an “authentic” historical environment. The “real thing” was found to fascinate the students, while the fact that the three out of the four schools that were involved in the study visited the ToL as a part of their leisure activities put the emphasis on “enjoyment” rather than “learning”. Students were actively engaged during the sessions; however the teachers considered a first person interpretation to be more effective. Teachers and many students found the session to be “over-intensive” and overloaded with information. They did enjoy their experience but they were also disappointed by the format. Jones uses the term “dissonance” to describe the teachers and young people’s confusion because the performance did not meet their expectations. The school groups’ previous experiences had formed their expectations: they preferred interactive and hands-on experiences more than an “investigative” frame, as well as a more “immersive” experience.

Jones also explores the issue of “engagement versus distance” that forms an area of debate concerning the approach to history learning. Quoting Ankersmit (Ankersmit, F. R. 2005. Sublime Historical Experience, Stanford University Press) as well as Jackson (2007), Jones argues that a balance between distance and engagement for both history learning and living history is essential for their effectiveness.  As shown by the research results, this balance was met during the performances at the MoL. Concluding chapter 7, Jones highlights the aspects of framing and structure as critical in understanding the impact of the performance. The first person interpretation at the MoL succeeded in balancing these two features by focusing on providing a dramatic performance around the life of a historical character rather that telling the students what happened in the past via a didactic, information-dense approach in third person, as was the case at the ToL, that proved to be too ‘distancing’ for the students to engage with. The challenges encountered by teachers, historians and students in understanding the Middle Ages are described in Chapter 8. Young people’s prior conceptions of the Middle Ages, explored through mind mapping techniques, showed a strong factual knowledge but a vague and simplified image of the medieval society.  Young people kept a deficit view of the society in Middle Ages, which reinforced their idea of progress, as they believed that life in the present is much better.

The museum professionals are aware of the negative preconceptions held by the public which they tried to challenge by giving alternative, humanized perspectives through living history interpretation. The analysis showed that the use of first person in the MoL case proved to be more effective. Teachers accompanying the school groups believed that the sessions succeeded in giving “a more complex” view of the past that they could not give in the classroom. The object-handling workshop that followed, which included objects connected to “games and sports and ice-skating,” added the perspective of people also having fun during the Middle Ages. On the other hand, discussion on the performances at the ToL revolved around the format of the live interpretation. Teachers believed that the sessions they attended helped the students see a different side of the Medieval ages, which was more positive, more informative of the Tower’s past and also revealed a “glamorous” perspective. Indeed, data derived from the meaning mapping method, revealed a change in young people’s perception of the Medieval past, a shift that was not evident during their interviews. The sessions influenced  students in the ways in which they contextualized their narratives on Medieval times in terms of life and society, and added new perspectives in their views. At the same time, negative views of the Medieval past, formed in the present were not altered but they were rather reinforced. Some gender differences were also evident: boys tended to focus on the “gruesome” aspects of the past that girls found “scary” or “depressing,” while girls were more interested in the social aspects of life in the past. Different strategies through which young people embedded the new narratives into their existing “schema” were also explored. The past seemed “real” mainly because of the realization that people living in that era also had feelings and emotions. Young people could realize the difference of perspectives between people then and now. However the tendency towards a deficit view of the past as well as an understanding of the past through the present was strong. The authority of the museum was also accepted unquestioningly by the students.

The concluding Chapter 9 summarizes the research results: living history, when it is engaging, can have an impact on young people’s understanding about the past. Key concepts that emerged from this research are the role of living history in developing ideas about society and life in the past, the visual depiction it offers, making abstract concepts concrete and dealing with notions of sameness and difference between the past and the present. Jones shows that different types of historical consciousness can co-exist. Students were found to move more often between Rüsen’s exemplary and genetic type while teachers sought opportunities for critical engagement with the past, not only cognitively but emotionally and affectively as well.

The two case studies seemed to promote all four types of Rüsen’s model.  However, it is interesting that all students reflected the exemplary type of historical consciousness but only some students from the groups that attended the performances at the MoL reflected the genetic types in some of their responses. The museum environment was valued by the teachers for offering a “concrete and embodied approach to history” which was further reinforced by the experience of the living history sessions. Important variables in the development of young people’s historical consciousness were the framing of the performance, the use of distance and immersion and the relationship between the performer and the audience. Further research is needed to understand these variables while there is a need to develop a theory of historical consciousness and the performative aspects of living history in relation to the development historical consciousness. Living history is an interdisciplinary field. Jones explores its learning potential in different areas of study: the teaching and perception of history, museum education and performance studies. The fact that the field of living history is significantly under-researched makes this contribution even more important for the existing body of literature as well as for future research.

Foteini Venieri
PhD Candidate in Museum Theatre
University of Thessaly, Greece

Primary Sources

8 months of research that included observation
Meaning mapping
Semi-structured interviews and focus groups with the students
Semi-structured interviews with the teachers and the related museum professionals.

Dissertation Information

University of Leicester. 2011. 403 pp. Primary Advisor: Sheila Watson.

Image: Young woman thinking. Wikimedia Commons.

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