Negotiating Historical Narratives: An Epistemology of History for History Education


Correspondence: Jon A. Levisohn, Brandeis University, Mailstop 049, Waltham MA, 02454, USA.


Historians typically tell stories about the past, but how are we to understand the epistemic status of those narratives? This problem is particularly pressing for history education, which seeks guidance not only on the question of which narrative to teach but also more fundamentally on the question of the goals of instruction in history. This article explores the nature of historical narrative, first, by engaging with the seminal work of Hayden White, and second, by developing the critique of White by David Carr. The picture of historical inquiry that emerges is one in which the fundamental cognitive activity is one of negotiating among narratives. Students, like historians, like any of us, come to the work of historical inquiry in possession of prior narratives, which are then thrown into an encounter with other narratives of varying size and scope. Good historians enact the negotiation among narratives responsibly and well, demonstrating the virtues of historical interpretation. History education, therefore, ought to help students improve their historical interpretations at the same time as it fosters those qualities that make them good interpreters.