Anna Zalewska – Fickleness of memory: Why we teach our children our own ‘Myths’ despite ‘History’ ?

Kultura i Historia nr 1/2001

Anna Zalewska
Fickleness of Memory: Why we teach our children our own ‘Myths’ despite ‘History’?

Trees have an identity. Particular identities and types can be specified. The unity of tree-order is an organic and internal one. The tree grows in its wood or field separate and with its own identity. Chain-saw the trunk or axe the roots and the tree dies; order is no more. And it is internal – the order is fixed according to relations within and between the different branches, roots or parts. This fixing order and plotting of points depends on a principle of identity.
(M. Shanks, 1992)

The aim of this article is to show that contemporary way of thinking about history involves a reformation of historical education as a reformation of temporality. While unsetting questions about aptitude of the Knowledge about the Past have long been raised in contemporary science as well as in postmodern narrative writing, most theoretical treatments still either ignore temporality altogether or take old habits for granted in discussing it. Philosophers disagree about what knowledge is, about how you get it and even about whether there is any to be gotten. Until the present philosophers and logicians attempt to separate from the problems of the nature of knowledge and the nature of warranted belief from the nature of truth “which is neutral with respect to epistemological questions, and even with respect to the great metaphisical issue of realism versus idealism” [1]. The question “What is knowledge?” will be the additional subject of this paper while the primary subject is the question “What knowledge about history means in practice” and how to achieve this Kind of knowledge which without any doubts will be useful?

All agree that knowledge is valuable, but agreement about valuation of historical knowledge tends to be difficult to achieve. Why approach the theory of knowledge by asking these questions? Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and metaphysics, the theory of reality, have traditionally competed for the primary role in philosophical inquiry. Sometimes epistemology has won, and sometimes metaphysics, depending on the methodological and substantive presuppositions of the scholar [2]. The epistemologists asks what we know, the metaphysicians what is real, but who asks about what for we know and how knowledge shapes our reality? Maybe some scholars and teachers… but for sure students and pupils. While philosophers have begun with an account of the nature of reality and then appended a theory of knowledge to account for how we know that reality, students and pupils begun with the reflection of what they want to know and how useful it will be. These are few samples of different uses of the word ‘know’ describing different sorts of knowledge. In one sense, ‘to know’ means to have some special form of competence. If I say I know the way to Kozlowka I mean that I have attained the special kind of competence needed to get to Kozlowka. If I say that I know the consignment of propaganda poster from 1968, I mean that I have the special competence required to recall or to recite the essence of that propaganda poster. Another sense of ‘know’ is that in which the word means to be acquainted with something or someone. When I say that I know Ian it means that I am acquainted with Ian. The other sense of ‘know’ is that in which ‘to know” means to recognize something as information. If I know what the term Holocaust or Shoah means then I recognize something as information, namely, that the atrocity happened among Human Being. These examples patterned by Keith Lehrer’s conception illustrate the important fact that the senses of ‘know’ that we are distinguishing are not exclusive; thus the term ‘know’ may be used in more than one of these senses in a single utterance.

In our teaching History, we are mainly concerned with knowledge understood as information which is spread as the “prosthesis” of historical knowledge to general public as well as to students and pupils. It is precisely this sense that is fundamental to human cognition and required both for theoretical speculation and practical sagacity. This restrictive conception of knowledge is sustained by a dilemma: either a theory of knowledge in common sense is sufficient enough as theory of historical Knowledge. To do historical “science”- even if a lot of scholars do not believe in “scientific status” of history, we must engage not only scientific ratiocination but as well our Memory, Ethic, Esthetic and other often unconsciousness fields which goes beyond the mere possession of information. To simplify our way of thinking let’s identify informative contest of our knowledge about the Past with our ‘consciousness’. This term includes our knowledge constructed by the information about what happened, our memory, identity, tradition, morality and stencils of our behavior. It includes mainly our Everyday Conception of causality, under which causes are themselves really thought to exist. When we seek to understand how one state of affairs (A) gives rise to another state of affairs (B), our natural tendency is to follow our folk psychological instincts in search of ‘an A makes B happen’ type of explanation [3]. The kernel of the explanation, or causal nexus, is believed to lie in some kind of necessary connecting link between A (the ground) and B (the outcome). Our feeling of understanding is a state of mind, which depends on thinking, we have located this causal nexus [4].

All what composed our “treasure of ‘consciousness’ or identity” even if it is difficult to gauge could be treated as the result of our direct and in-direct ‘experience’ (understood as everything done or undergone by a group or people in general etc). General meaning of history treated as human being experience, sounds simply, while the effect on a person of anything, or everything that has happened to that person (or around that person) produce individual reactions to events, personal feelings, inferences and motions. etc. The main source of historical education’s complexity is its unexpected and sometimes unpredictable result. We have never been sure if the information which we spread during historical lesson will be productive and used in proper way. Personal historical knowledge is derived not only from information about the Past but from infinitude elements which follow in the wake of contact with the Past. Without any doubts “history should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty” [5], but people live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. Can history really help us understand the actions of people by providing us with a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave, helps us to understand the operations of people and societies.

An exclusive reliance on current data would needlessly handicap our efforts. Children are sometimes said to be responsible for their actions when they are old or reflective enough to know the difference between right and wrong. Studying History can make you uncertain that anyone of any age knows the difference between right and wrong. So many philosophers, religious thinkers and political theorists have come up with such a welter of contradictory ideas about right and wrong. If these excellent thinkers cannot agree on what the difference is, how can the rest of us have a hope of knowing it? [6]. How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace? How can we appreciate soldiers if we do not know how their fear or prowess were extensive? Our assertions about valence/morality/emotions/beauty, are not true or false sentences, but just expressive noise. According to our typical historical education they are not statements but commands, so that to say that war is wrong is to say: ‘Do not fight’, or to say that someone is Hero, is to say: ‘Esteem him(her)’. Even if an error of morality were right, many moral beliefs could still count as knowledge. The error theory of morality, holds that our beliefs about morality are kind of a myth. We find it useful to act as if there were a real difference between right and wrong, and so we invent words for moral qualities and use them to make complex judgements, while in reality these words do not describe any objective facts [7]. It results in the conclusion that we teach myth rather than history. The question is: if we should get it round. What kind of History should we teach? Historians and the general public alike can generate a lot of heat about what specific courses of history should include, in what part of curriculum. Many of the benefits of history derive from various kinds of history, whether local, or national or focused on one culture or the world. Gripping instances of history as storytelling, as moral example, and as analysis come from all sorts of settings [8].

While history is still associated mainly with ‘practical construction’ which is composed of the so-called “facts” and based on “sources/evidences/traces/ etc.” Our historical “substance” is often treated as “containers which preserve Truth”. This kind of attitude in historical learning provide to unreflective, passive perception. Our students can feel safely just memorized dates, surnames, terms. After this kind of learning they are completely defenceless, because they do not know how to “use Past” for their future live. They are likewise exposed for manipulation, propaganda and strong leaders ascendency. Very often when evidence is produced it is in order to convince someone to change their mind, from belief to disbelief, from disbilief to belief, or from neutrality to either. The evidence then has to be believable by the people who are to be convinced, and in addition has to be such that when they think about it, they will, if they are rational, find some tendency to change their beliefs. So evidence produced by the defence in a court case might be testimony that even a juror who was inclined to convict would take seriously. When evidence supports a belief, it makes people think that the belief might be true. Because of the evidence, they perform some reasoning that tends towards the belief [9]. It suggest that we have not withdrawal from the statements that “We teach our children and students not history, but own myths about history”.

Let’s list and exemplify only few of them to make things clearer:
1) ‘progress’ suppose to be the conceptual scheme [10] of historians description, even if we do not realize it, for example we suppose that live at the primaeval period was easy and the way of thinking was boorish and loutish.
2) general public is on the whole unreflective and used by the leadership as a tool to achieve their goals, and as a passive group could not influence leader’s activities;
3) Knowledge as their is constructed by information give us apprehension. “The less you know the worse you are – the more you know the better you are”.

Using first ‘myth’ we can see that national historiographies and ethnographies drew the picture of ‘pure’ and ‘free’ upland people. These people had allegedly developed rather autonomous social relations in the plains. Primaeval people were rather easy going and focused only on casual and hasty actions. School education and the abundance of popular legends and folk songs gives people substance to ‘construct’ the past. Evidence involved into those constructions could be present not only in the academic discourse but also among the ordinary people especially Kids. They have indescribable empathy skills, which gave them possibility to “rethink” the Past. Illustration number 1 shows how extensive could be this imaginary [11].

One can see that the first myth I have mentioned above was utilized by national historiographers and ethnographies as a vehicle for creating the picture of ‘pure’ and ‘unreflective’ upland people. These people had allegedly developed rather autonomous, primitive social relations. It can provide us to another line of criticism, which has been that of ‘ideology critique’ [12]. In part this is an extension of the argument that facts and values are inseparable, that subjective and objective are much more closely related than some might wish. We must remember about it teaching history. Past and present are treated no longer as separate temporal realms but as informed by each other. The past exist as a part of the present in terms of the aims, assumptions and conceptual frameworks of the archaeologists/ historians/ anthropologists; and these may be political- when we celebrate national or cultural identity, or social -when a social interest are controlling (with past as object and stuff of manipulation). Such a use of reason is described as ‘instrumental’ and is the dominant form of reason in contemporary teaching history. In that context the question: how and why we use ‘the myth of progress’ increase. The possible answer is: we must teach our children that they owe their contemporary live to our ancestors, by using any methods to make pupils more bond to the Past.

Celebrating our national identity (to appreciate immediate forefather) we use mainly hero, politicians, social leaders. To show their intellectual and social progress we often use common people as the background only. Simplifying their designation (for example by one-side description: ‘only bad/ only good’) we achieve contemporary aim which are far fetched ‘taradiddle’. How to change it? Let’s apply the simplest tactics: teaching by doing. Illustration number one exemplify simply exercise with children between 12-16 years old, they were encouraged to describe cheers/gladness/joy and grief/sadness/sorrows of mediaeval people [13].

Effects were extraordinarily acceptable, kids using imagination shown a lot of interesting ideas about the mediaeval past. They experienced the Past by few ways: intellectual, emphatic, artistic etc, and the effect was fruitful. The conclusion is: Even if we could not set free from our myths let’s suggest children to create their own myths which could be less proper and sophisticated, but own and for it appreciated. As the illustrations number 2 shows children are plenty of imagination and even if it is not our concept (means adult ‘conceit scholar’s fantasy), it could be treated as valuable as our.

IL1 i IL2

By the second ‘myth’ we can see that national historiographies drew the picture of ‘unreflective mass” as excuse for what happened in the past. One is justified in claiming that the 20th century has been the age of mass murder: the American genocide, Stalin’s “terror famine” against the peasantry, the Cambodian killing fields, and, more recently, the slaughter in Bosnia or Rwanda. How to justify it? How explain to innocent what the culpability means?

In that context of problem recently in Poland the important debate burst: How to teach children about what happened in six killing centers in Poland: Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz, where the gas of choice was hydrogen cyanide known by its trade name Zyklon B? Even if the Jewish tragedy is hardly unique, in Poland is the most substantial. The problem is that pupils do not want ‘to know’, they fetch ‘to understand’.

Using the quotation from the beginning of this article we can see that “Tress are genealogical. Family tress, lines of descent, roots and ancestors. In tree-thinking we need to dig deep to find origins and our identities. Authenticity comes with depth. And this entails that there are only a limited number of authentic entry points, the tree begins in the roots. Trees cannot be grown from dry leaves” [14]. So, nobody is innocent! How to deal with such a harsh ballast when you are fifteen or sixteen? Teaching our ‘general public as a tool’ myth – we offer our students not only a sense of onus but as well sense of passivity. “If it happened once it could happened again and you will be only tools under control?” That way is not constructive.

“In tree thinking the world is reproduced in thought” – so our ‘myth’ is dangerous.
Let’s again apply the simplest tactics: teaching by doing. Illustration number three exemplify simply exercise with children between 16-17 years old, they were encouraged to propose a “poster to stop the Devil” [15]. Even if the suggestion sound childish pupils were impressed with the idea that they can do something to change the ‘bad sides of the moon.’ The exercise was provided as the championship form and was really successful. Illustration number three present on of those works: “We are equal. We are humans. Don’t let this to happen again. Say “no” to race discrimination”.


The third myth is appears from our confidence for knowledge. “The less you know the worse you are – the more you know the better you are”. Using illustration number four it can be stressed that this statement suppose to be only theoretical construction useful to our tutorial occupation. Cartoon on the Top suggest broad informative cognizance of pupil, while the cartoon down suggest infantile absence of comprehension. How it can be explained?

The importance of history in explaining and understanding change in human behavior is no mere collection of information and no mere abstraction. Historians have in fact greatly contributed in recent decades to our understanding of trends (or patterns of change), moods and evolving social problems. They create our future by using the past constructions but they must be reflective enough. Contemporary way of thinking about history involves a reformation of historical education as a reformation of temporality. Unsetting questions about need of the Knowledge about the Past should be treated as one of central points in our reflection, which is not only the grimace of the postmodern narrative writing but our obligation.




Putnam Hilary, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, International library of philosophy and scientific method, Routladge, 1978, pp. 9


Lehrer K., ‘The Analysis of Knowledge’, in: Theory of Knowledge, Dimension of Philosophy Series, Westview Press, 1990, pp. 1-19.


Rosch, E., ‘Is causality circular? Event structure in folk psychology, cognitive science and Buddhist logic’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1 (1), 1994, pp. 50-65.


Priece, M.C., ‘Should We Expect to Feel as if We Understand Consciousness?, in: Explaining Consciousness- The ‘Hard Problem’, ed. J. Shear, The MIT Press, 1997.


Stearns, P., ‘Why Study History’, American Historical Association,, pp. 1-7.


Morton, A., ‘Moral Knowledge’, in: A guide through the Theory of Knowledge, Blackwell, 1997, pp. 160-177.


Ibidem, pp. 161.


Stearns, P., ‘Why Study History’, pp.5.


Morton, A., A guide through the Theory of Knowledge, Blackwell, 1997, pp. 6-7.


Even if some thinkers rejects a ‘dogma of dualism between schema and reality’ from which we derive the bogey of ‘conceptual relativity, and of truth relativity to a scheme’; regard: ‘Conceptual Schemes’ in:Hollis M., Lukes S., Rationality and Realtivism, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982, pp.61-62.


Pictures are drawn by 12 years old kids from common polish school.


Shanks, M., Experiencing the Past. On the character of archaeology, Routlage, 1992, pp. 27-29.


The experiment was provided at the Paderevski Private Grama School in Lublin in April 2001.


Shanks, M., Experiencing the Past. On the character of archaeology, Routlage, 1992, pp. 24.


The experiment was provided at the Paderevski Private Grama School in Lublin in May 2001, in International Baccalaurate Course.


Effect of order: “Draw what you remember from History lesson”. Author: Michal Karczmarczyk 18 years old, good student.

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