Smartphones and Mirrors: using presentisms constructively in the classroom.

Here, Jessie Phillips, History Teacher at Sawston Village College, takes her thinking about presentism in the history classroom further. She points out that this tendency to interpret the past through present values and concepts is used by historians as a conceptual scaffold. She challenges us to think about how presentism can help pupils make their own meanings out of history. She builds on David Armitage’s work to show eleven kinds of presentism teachers could deploy.

Presentism is defined as ‘the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.’ Often, these presentisms are talked about as things to be banished from the classroom: as anachronisms that create chronological confusion, as the infamous crime of ‘judging the past by present standards’, or as the smug belief in the superiority of the present.

In my last post, I explored how presentisms may have a role to play in pupils’ attempts to engage with cultural history. My feeling was that, for pupils to elicit meaning from the actions of those in the past, they may need to draw upon a common understanding of everyday psychology. Yet whilst experimenting, I found myself increasingly convinced of the potential value of presentisms in serving wider curricular purposes. I am not the first in this view; history teachers such as Rollet[1] and Myson[2] have long been sharing ideas about the successful use of analogies, in themselves a type of presentism, and recently UCL hosted a talk entitled ‘rethinking presentism in the history classroom.’* However, my personal rationale for starting to explore more ways in which presentisms could be used constructively in curriculum can be summarised in two points:

1. Historians use them. Most history teachers like their practice to be at least reflective of the work historians do, so it is worth exploring how they go about utilising presentism in their work. When I started noticing presentism in historians’ work, it became evident that they are used for different purposes in different contexts; perhaps as conceptual scaffolds into unfamiliar worlds, as reminders of constancy in human nature, or for highlighting the inescapable influence of the present on the past. The most striking example of the first use I came across was Seb Falk’s likening of an astrolabe to a ‘medieval smartphone.’ The comparison goes:

‘it was a portable, multifunctional device….. [it] could be used to tell the time, to observe and track the motions of the stars, to find directions like a compass or for surveying heights and distances. Like a smartphone, the astrolabe was also elegant, a design classic and status symbol.’[3]

Clearly, Falk does not expect his readership to believe that the astrolabe came with 4g connection and a video calling feature, but to draw conceptual parallels between what the two complex, multipurpose devices meant to their respective users with regard to their value and utility. This acts as a conceptual scaffold into understanding the function and place of astrolabes to their medieval owners. What’s more, in doing so, Falk’s presentism actively challenges the ‘superiority view’ of the past by shining light on the likeness between modern and medieval relationships with technology (not to mention the implied ‘sophistication’ of said technology).

Alternatively, Barbara Tuchman, in her book A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, uses the concept of a ‘mirror’ reflecting the medieval world back at ourselves, claiming that ‘after the experiences of the terrible 20th century, we have greater fellow feeling for a distraught age whose rules were breaking down under the pressure of adverse and violent events.’[4] Such analysis is built on the assumption that there are certain universal principles in human nature which become more visible in the turbulence of both the 14th and 20th centuries.

Yet another example is historian Selina Todd’s reminder that presentism may manifest in a less obvious way. By noting that the retrospective oral accounts she used in her book are ‘framed by the context in which they are told’[5], she embraces that the present always influences our memory of the past, and that this can actually provide additional insights in itself. The wider point here is that historians have been known to acknowledge the latent presentism in their own work; that the writing of the past is always influenced by the present. This final form of presentism relates next to my next point….

2. It aligns with our wider curricular goals. A commonly shared objective of teachers is also to challenge the pupils’ view of the past as fixed and objective. As in many schools, at Sawston we do this through the second order concepts of interpretations and significance and also by taking any opportunities to highlight the decision-making process that sits behind the history we receive.

Example of a slide pupils are shown as part of our interpretations of Eleanor of Aquitaine enquiry

It seems at odds with this goal to teach the place of contemporary influences in historians’ interpretations in one breath, whilst discrediting pupils’ own resonances with the past as ahistorical in the next. Chris Husbands talks about how, if pupils cannot ‘explain why some historical periods have a significance and resonance for them….the past is reduced to a sort of quiz game.’[6] To build on this, we know that new information enters long-term memory when it is given meaning through connections with prior knowledge. It is this which makes the existing practice of using familiar analogies in supporting pupils to grasp new content so effective. But, of course, pupils aren’t ‘empty vessels’ and each has their own personal experiences which make up said ‘prior knowledge.’ Therefore, when these connections between new and personal knowledge are made, pupils will make their own meanings (or as Husbands calls it, ‘private understandings’) out of the history they are taught. So, just like the historians whose interpretations they study, pupils will (and are entitled to) process the past within the framework of their own presentist values and interests. As a result, when pupils excitedly exclaim ‘it’s like…!’ and draw a presentist comparison, I no longer automatically steer them away, but wonder whether a personal meaning is being made.

That said, there are undeniably dangers in allowing presentisms to run unchecked (such as those mentioned in the opening). The question is, how can we avoid those which are destructive to our curricular goals from getting in the way of those which are constructive for our curricular goals? Searching for the ideas during my PGCE year, I stumbled upon an article by David Armitage entitled ‘In defence of Presentism.’[7] Armitage argues that the negative associations of presentisms are somewhat unique to history. He says that ‘in other fields—for example, in philosophy, psychology, the history of science, legal history, and literary history—presentism has a wider range of meanings and broader scale of valuation attached to it.’ He delves into the work of these other fields and describes the presentisms he found, describing their use in their fields.

Below, I have taken the presentisms he writes about and have tried to adapt them from an academic context to a school curricular one with examples.* Within the taxonomy, I have very roughly placed those I think could play a constructive role in the classroom nearer the top, and those which run the risk of being destructive further down. This is obviously difficult because, for many, the value depends on the context in which they are used. It is definitely an area for further discussion and theorisation.

Without a shadow of a doubt, history teachers already utilise some of these categories and take pains to avoid others, but what I hope this taxonomy can offer is a shared language and clarity. For instance, we can agree that motivational presentisms are central to a significance enquiry, and that we don’t want pupils to understand the past in terms of teleological presentisms. We might debate with our colleagues and, even our pupils, about the validity of analytical presentisms or, as I argued for in my last post, use substantive presentisms to access past worldviews. Regardless of how far we agree on these points, by keeping the categories in mind, we can be clear with ourselves about what type of presentism we are using (or challenging) in the classroom and why. In doing so, hopefully we can wield the double-edged sword of presentisms in a way that is constructive for pupils’ historical thinking.

A huge thank you to Sam Lockhouse and Sarah Jackson for their guidance in developing and articulating these ideas.

*Due to being unwell with COVID, I could not attend this so am unable to draw on any of their work here.

[1] Rollet, S. (2010). Deconstructing lazy analogies in year 9. Teaching history, 139.

[2] Myson, I. (2006). Helping students put shape on the past; systematic use of analogies to accelerate understanding. Teaching History, 122.

[3] Falk, S. (2017). Free Thinking 2017: monks, models and medieval time, BBC sounds.

[4] Tuchman, B. (1987). A distant mirror: the calamitous 14th century. New York. Ballatine.

[5] Todd, S. (2014). The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London. John Murray.

[6]  Husbands, C. (1996). What is History Teaching?: Language, Ideas and Meaning in Learning about the Past. St Edmundsbury Press.

[7] Armitage, D. (2020). In Defense of Presentism. In D. McMahon (ed.), History and Human Flourishing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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