My 1st time presenting a paper at a conference!
Yesterday was the 1st time I presented a paper at a conference and it was a great experience! =) It was a conference for academics and educators in the Humanities field. It was my NIE tutor who, some months ago, invited me to write and present a paper on something to do with History textbooks. So I came up with the idea of comparing History textbooks with textbooks of other subjects and to discover how the average student ‘sees’ the History textbook amidst the rest of his textbooks of other subjects.
The basis for my research was my feeling that the History textbook has a bad reputation of being merely a storehouse of facts, figures, dates, names just waiting to be memorised. In short, I proposed a revamping of the History textbook through the use of counterfactuals! While sometimes derided, I believe that counterfactuals are interestingly useful to help students capture a sense of anticipation and wonder that is often lacking when they study History. Counterfactual ‘What If’s transprt students right back to the points in History when the past was still in the future, and to recognize and experience the unfolding of History as one of a series of possible futures, and not just as a string of events predetermined or privileged by necessity. As the respected historian Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently puts it:
“At any given moment in History there are real alternatives…How can we ‘explain what happened and why’ if we only look at what happened and never consider the alternatives…It is only if we place ourselves before the alternatives of the past…only if we live for a moment, as the men of the time lived, in its still fluid context and among its still unresolved problems, if we see those problems coming upon us…that we can draw useful lessons from History.”
It is only when we stand at the ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ (coined so elegantly by Jorge Luis Borges) that we can fully appreciate the uncertainty under which actors operated in the past and the possibility that they could have made different choices that might have led to different outcomes. We must have the sensitivity to realise that History needn’t have turned out the way it did. In the same vein, Johan Huizinga reminds us:
“The historian must…constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes. If he speaks of Salamis, then it must be as if the Persians might still win; of he speaks of the coup d’état of Brumaire, then it must remain to be seen if Bonaparte will be ignominiously repulsed.”
If not, we as historians and History teachers run the danger of being prophets in reverse, caught up in the straitjacket of ‘inevitability thinking’.