Barton, K. C., and L.S. Levstik. Teaching History for the Common Good. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004.
This thirteen chapter book reviews research on students’ learning of history to evaluate factors that influence students’ historical thinking so as to offer educators suggestions for their teaching. Studies were reviewed within the theoretical context of “mediated action.” The research was evaluated for its potential to educate students in how to participate in a pluralist democracy.
Chapter one outlines the theory of mediated action. The authors conclude that students have ideas about the past that are informed both by what they learn in school and from external sources such as their family and the media. Similarly, in chapter two the authors draw out their theoretical conceptualization of democracy and argue that history education should serve to teach students how to be democratic citizens who participate in deliberations over the common good.
In chapters three through six the authors explore the four principal “stances “ towards history, defined as actions that students are expected to perform when they learn history. Chapter three focuses on the “identification stance” in which students are expected to identify similar aspects of the past and present. The authors argue that this kind of learning is primarily subjective and will not lead to students learning about democratic participation. In contrast, the authors explain in chapter four that the “analysis stance” asks students to explore how the past has led to the present. This is most likely to contribute to students’ preparation to participate in democracy if history is studied as an indeterminate process. Chapter five focuses on the “moral response stance” in which students are asked to make judgements about past triumphs and tragedies. Often, this stance manifests in remembrance or condemnation, and the authors suggest that history education would benefit most from remembrance and thus a reflection of those who lived and died in the past. In chapter six, the authors examine the “the exhibition stance” which includes public displays as well as issues of assessment. The authors recommend teachers introduce students to public exhibitions of history but do so critical of glorification and nation building projects.
The second half of the book explores the primary “tools of history.” Chapters seven to nine explore narrative as a tool. In chapter seven the authors argue that although students do learn best when history is told as a story, teachers should also teach about how narratives are socially and culturally constructed. In the following chapter the authors maintain that although stories about individuals are important to history education, these stories must be situated within their social contexts so that students understand how individual lives are shaped by the collective. Chapter nine examines the story of freedom and progress dominant in the U.S. arguing that this story must be challenged. In contrast, chapters eleven and twelve explore the role of empathy in history education. In chapter eleven the authors first maintain that empathy defined as the ability to take on the perspective of another is insufficient for learning about democratic participation. They suggest that history education must recognize that there exists a multiplicity of perspectives in every era and that all perspectives must be historically contextualized. Second, they continue the discussion from the preceding chapter in which they define empathy as “caring about,” “caring that,” and “caring for,” through which students connect emotionally with the past. The authors maintain that both types of empathy are necessary for a history learning that aims to foster critical thinking about the notion of the common good in democracy.
Finally, in chapter thirteen the authors argue that for teachers to frame history education as preparation for participation in democracy they must have more than just a knowledge of history and rather an understanding of history teaching as offering students possibilities about how to live responsibly with others.