Background: Research on historical understanding has sometimes depicted adolescents and adults as either appropriating or resisting particular narrative accounts, and resistance seems to be especially common when school-based narratives differ from those encountered outside school. In Northern Ireland, however, school history does not present an alternative narrative to community-based histories, but takes a different approach altogether; school history represents an evidence-based, analytic subject that emphasizes multiple perspectives and avoids connections to contemporary identifications or political positions.
Purpose: In this study, we sought to understand both how young people in Northern Ireland approached historical information in school and how they made sense of conflicting perspectives on the past.
Research Design and Participants: Using qualitative, task-based interviews, we interviewed 253 secondary students, approximately equal numbers of whom had completed each of the 3 required years of historical study; these interviews included students of both genders and from differing school types in a variety of regions within Northern Ireland.
Findings: We found that these students had experienced history in more complicated ways than has been evident in most previous research. They had learned about the past in a variety of formal and informal settings, and they navigated among these multiple sources in a conscious attempt to refine and extend their historical understanding as they followed up on interests initiated in one setting by seeking out information elsewhere. Although some students simply assimilated this information into dominant community narratives, most were aware that such narratives can be used for contemporary political purposes, and they appreciated that school history encouraged a more complete and balanced historical perspective, particularly by exposing them to the motivations and experiences of the other community. Even as they sought expanded historical viewpoints, however, they were unwilling to abandon the political commitments of their communities, and they sought greater contemporary relevance for history than they were likely to encounter in school.
Conclusions: These students thus were not simply appropriating or resisting particular historical narratives; they were engaged in a more complex process that involved developing internally persuasive discourse as they drew from multiple historical discourses in an attempt to form their own point of view on the region’s troubled past.
Implications: This research suggests that students in Northern Ireland and elsewhere might benefit from a curriculum that attends more directly to their active construction of historical meaning and supports them in constructing critical perspectives on the contemporary relevance of the past.