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Stories in History: Is Narrative an American Approach?

An eigth grade teacher reading a childrens book to her class. NHEC

In "A Sociocultural Perspective on Children’s Understanding of Historical Change: Comparative Findings From Northern Ireland and the United States," Keith Barton, a professor at Indiana University, looked at how children in different countries learn history, specifically the role played by narrative.

Barton observed that American students learn the "story" of American history, more often than not, as one of perpetual progress. In Northern Ireland, history is seen as relationships among social institutions over time, not a story about progress.

Barton wondered about the effects of such an approach. To that end he interviewed 121 students, ages 6–12, in four schools across Northern Ireland, asking how and why life had changed over time. Along with classroom observations and collecting data from history-related settings like museums, Barton’s interviews demonstrated how students in a non-American cultural context learn about history.

When he compared these to studies done in the United States, Barton found that American students portray historical change as straightforward, linear, and generally beneficial progress, while the Irish students saw history as either random and ambiguous, or cyclical. The American students studied tended to focus on accomplishments of historical figures, whereas students in Northern Ireland often discussed the role of societal and economic forces.

Narrative in American History

The "story" of history taught to American students frequently takes the form of a "quest-for-freedom" narrative in which life slowly but surely gets better for all Americans. This serves to unite a diverse society, such as is found in the U.S. By contrast, in Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics remain divided, the narrative form creates the potential for opposing sides to take aim at each other. Consequently, in Northern Ireland, the primary emphasis in history is on societal relationships—relationships between different groups, as well as between people and institutions.

The "story" of history taught to American students frequently takes the form of a "quest-for-freedom" narrative in which life slowly but surely gets better for all Americans. This serves to unite a diverse society, such as is found in the U.S.
The Individual in American History

History classes in the United States also tend to focus more on the role of exceptional individuals in driving history forward. In this version of history prominent figures initiate a series of events which follow a causal chain to bring about significant change. For example, the American students learned that the civil rights movement was the product of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s genius rather than a broad range of social and institutional forces. In Northern Ireland, the students focused less on individuals and more on issues relating to social and economic structures. Barton suggests this may be because Americans are more comfortable dealing with individuals and their stories than with issues such as social class and prejudice. Conversely, there are few historical figures taught in Northern Ireland classrooms who don't represent a political position of one kind or another. Thus, while the Northern Irish are comfortable discussing social class, for instance, they have less experience examining the influence of particular individuals.

Progress in American History

Barton's study showed that narratives about American history are frequently positive stories about the triumph of progress: as time passes, technology improves, freedoms expand, and life gets better. In Northern Ireland, stories about progress are much less common. Time goes on and life changes, but they do so in unpredictable ways. Barton argues that while a focus on progress may be positive, giving students a feeling of shared identity and inspiring their belief that Americans can learn from their mistakes, relying solely on such a narrative doesn't acquaint students with the effects of societal forces on individual actions or the diversity that exists at any given time in history.

Poster, Forging Ahead, Harry Herzog, 1936-1941, Library of Congress

In the Classroom 

Help students understand that the passage of time doesn't always bring what is commonly viewed as "progress."

  • Begin with contrasting images—a rural village and a large city—and ask students to explain the relationship between the two.
  • Students will likely explain how the village became the city. This is a good jumping-off point to helping them see that the "story of history" is not always simple or straightforward.
  • Next, explain that villages and cities have often existed simultaneously.
  • Spend some time discussing why and how cities first began to emerge. While urban centers may look like signs of "progress," students should be made aware that there is a more complex relationship between villages and cities.
  • Suggest to students that historical development doesn't occur in a simple progressive sequence, and that historical periods can't be boiled down to a single image. While many people in the past lived in villages, there are also cities that date back thousands of years. And even though today many people reside in cities, villages are far from extinct.

Sample Application 

In interviewing students in Northern Ireland, Barton gave them a number of exercises. One asked the students to explain why British students were once caned—hit with a reed or branch—by their teachers, and why the practice ceased. In answering, one third of the students attributed the change to inevitable progress:

Because over time they realized that they should be less strict.

They just found out that it’s really, really bad, and they’re thinking of other people’s feelings now.

In explaining how things change, these students didn't mention collective action or how institutional change can bring about social improvements. However, the rest of the students—two-thirds of those interviewed by Barton—pointed to changing social relations, collective action like strikes and protests, and evolving legal and government institutions:

Because if you cane them, you could get sent to jail. . . it’s against the law to hurt somebody that you don’t know.

New people came in. . . and they made new rules like child abuse, like jails, and all that kind of thing.

For these students, caning ended not because of inevitable progress, or even due to a change in attitude; instead, the changing attitudes themselves led to collective action, that in turn produced new laws and regulations.


Keith Barton, "A Sociocultural Perspective on Children’s Understanding of Historical Change: Comparative Findings From Northern Ireland and the United States," American Educational Research Journal 38, no. 4 (Winter 2001), 881-913.

It would be interesting to

It would be interesting to research whether Canadian students are taught history/learn history in the same fashion as American students. In regard to the influence of Canadian individuals shaping history--this approach would be less common due to the general nature of our nation-state development and collective identity. I think ideas and socio-economic developments are the focus with certain individuals examined for their part in the particular events.

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