Applied History: Nurturing a Forward-Thinking Approach to Education

From its beginning, the History department at Erasmus University Rotterdam has had a strong focus on the history of society. Over time, the programme has evolved into an educational model that is deeply rooted in the past, but also addresses contemporary problems. However, one could ask: could an educational programme focused on the past be ahead of its time in terms of pedagogy? Dr. Iwona Gusc, the master coordinator of Applied History, and dr. Maarten van Dijck, the programme director of the History department, engaged in conversation.

The Impact of History

Dr. Van Dijck asserts, "As far as I am concerned, there are three distinct social purposes of history: entertainment, providing identity to societal groups, and learning from the past." Typically, academics are not concerned with history as entertainment, but the other two purposes involve academically trained historians. He explains, "The second objective concerns identity and how history shapes it. History is a narrative that individuals explore to define who they are. This can refer to national and regional identity, but also family history. Identity is often exploited for political purposes, making it essential for historians to take a critical and reflective role in this realm. The third goal relates to learning from the past. Many of today's challenges demand a thorough analysis of the past before thinking about solutions for the future."

"By integrating migration stories, into education, remarkable transformations can occur. This exemplifies the power of making a positive impact"

Dr. Maarten van Dijck

As an example of the role of identity, Van Dijck cites history education in the Netherlands: "History education is frequently used to emphasize national identity. Consider initiatives to incorporate the national anthem into the curriculum or the debates about the Dutch history canon," he notes. "Historians are ideally positioned to critically examine these political proposals. Questions concerning the history of minority communities also emerge: 'How can history education be tailored to give the Cape Verdean community in Rotterdam a sense of belonging?' By integrating migration stories, which are integral to Dutch history, into education, remarkable transformations can occur. This exemplifies the power of making a positive impact."

We also see this in the Applied History master's program, Gusc says. "Our students immediately undertake an oral history project in the first block. They are brought into contact with residents of Rotterdam or the region who often belong to minorities. People from different backgrounds that we know are usually not included in the general history narrative. Groups that are not heard. On the one hand, this gives space for people to discover or articulate their own identity. But also to build a bridge between different communities. I think this is an example from our curriculum that illustrates very nicely what Van Dijck was talking about identity and history education."

The emphasis on inclusivity and historical narratives underlines the importance of collaborating with community partners. Dr. Gusc states, "We intend to record the interviews conducted by our students. Agreements have been established with the Stadsarchief Rotterdam for this purpose, and this year, we plan to archive the interviews with the national data station DANS. However, we must convince our community partners that our students are making a valuable contribution and that we are creating a safe environment for project participants."

Applied History

Both dr. Van Dijck and dr. Gusc are motivated to teach students that dare to pose complicated social questions and actively engage in answering them. These ideas provided the foundation for the master's program in Applied History. In this specialized master's program, students explore how long-term historical developments influence contemporary society. Dr. Van Dijck clarifies, "Applied History is a distinct form of public history, which involves transferring historical knowledge to non-academic audiences. However, Applied History goes a step further by focusing on policy and offering guidance on critical societal issues."

According to Dr. Gusc, students are enthusiastic about this approach: "We strive to incorporate various assessment methods and encourage students to create visual products. Some students produce documentaries, while others work on exhibitions, utilizing culture. This approach excites students, albeit sometimes with a touch of hesitation, as it falls outside the comfort zone of the average academic student. Nevertheless, the guidance provided by experts helps students to learn quickly."

"My aim is to inspire and motivate students to become historians who fearlessly pose critical social questions and actively contribute to addressing them."

Dr. Iwona Gusc

Students who participate in this form of education tend to develop a stronger connection with their regions. For instance, one student designed an experimental walking tour of the Carnisse a district in Rotterdam, involving storytelling and incorporating local architectural elements. "We notice that students cherish the opportunity to actively participate in and engage with their regions. They aim to utilize existing collections, as well as conduct interviews or uncover historical materials to tell a story. All of this is carried out within the framework of historical knowledge, emphasizing thorough analysis and reflection on the past," Gusc affirms.

Step by Step

Dr. Van Dijck reflects, "We began small within Applied History, offering the creation of documentaries or exhibitions as alternative thesis projects. We are also contemplating the possibility of introducing podcast projects. The next step could involve writing policy briefs. In recent decades, the academic world has become increasingly bureaucratic, necessitating solid documentation of the appropriateness of such projects for graduation. Thus, we are gradually expanding our education, gauging the students' demand for various formats."

Ultimately, education is centered on the students themselves. This is what motivates dr. Van Dijck: "My aim is to inspire and motivate students to become historians who fearlessly pose critical social questions and actively contribute to addressing them. They should be unafraid to communicate and tackle complex issues, don’t let yourself be caged into fragments of a narrative." Dr. Gusc concurs, adding, "It would be rewarding if our students, after graduation, feel a profound commitment to the world, particularly to the region or city they call home. This commitment should deepen, fueled by the knowledge they have acquired."

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