Historical Consciousness in Youth. Theoretical and Exemplary Empirical Analyses

Carlos Kölbl, Jürgen Straub


The thesis that historical consciousness is an anthropological competence and category is called into question. A concept of modern historical consciousness is outlined which from then on serves as a working concept. This kind of historical consciousness, it is argued, is not a universal anthropological fact, but a result of the development of occidental cultures and societies. Long since a great number of groups and individuals have been deeply affected by this development in which the establishment of a scientific world view and methodical thinking played a major role. Their historical consciousness is modern since it refers to a radically temporalized and dynamic world and since it ties partial representations of this world to (implicit) criteria of validity. Moreover it is closely connected with the possibility of self-critical reflections which are grounded in the historically mediated encounter with strangers. After a concise overview of the important questions and the state of the art in different disciplines, selected results of a broader qualitative-empirical study are presented. In the group discussions which were carried out with young people—only results from a discussion with thirteen to fourteen year old grammar-school pupils (Gymnasiasten) are presented here—the analysis revealed clear indicators of a specifically modern historical consciousness. Looked at closely this consciousness is committed in a surprisingly high degree to scientific-methodical standards of rationality. One may welcome this as a successful implementation of a life form oriented towards rationality into young people's everyday life or deplore it as a symptom of the distortion of pragmatic orientations for activity and living by scientific standards: first of all it is a fact that the commitment to tie the reconstruction of past realities, historical events and contexts to an operation of knowledge which is intersubjectively transparent and rationally justified and to reflect this is strongly developed in the young persons we analysed. Their thinking proves to be specifically "modern" also in other respects. In addition to the description of the historical knowledge in content and the historical interests of the young people, this finding is described in detail. Finally it is discussed to which degree the central finding can be applied against the widespread lamentation of an alleged poor historical consciousness of pupils. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs010397


history; historical consciousness; identity; world view; modern age; didactics of history; cultural psychology; youth age; cognitive development; qualitative research; group discussion

Copyright (c) 2001 Carlos Kölbl, Jürgen Straub

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