Why Teaching History Matters

Some countries seem to have retained their focus on teaching their own history. Others — and Canada comes immediately to mind — do a far less good job. To those who think of schools as being fundamentally about preparing new employees and entrepreneurs for the world of work, a subject such as history will seem pointless indeed. (Whether they know the words of Henry Ford — “History is bunk” — or not [and likely not, if their own historical education is lacking], they share his attitude that history was irrelevant to finding the right workers for the Ford Motor Company.)

But history is not a pointless subject. Indeed, it is the launching point for many a child’s question, and essential to the reason democratic countries (parliamentary or republican, it matters little) invest in and provide public education: the creation of citizens from the “passengers” of society. Without citizens, democracy ultimately fails, by first becoming a plaything for those who make politics and public administration a profession, then, as problems mount, the democratic process is eschewed in favour of more direct action (pressure groups and protests) and finally the whole business of being the source of power over one’s own life is simply given up for a little security and peace and quiet. (A digression, I know, but the outcome of a loss of history for all of that.)

What’s equally important — especially in the twenty-first century — is to be able to answer questions about the multiple identities we all have. This can only be done by exposing students to multiple histories.

For instance, most Canadian children spend most of their school years in one province. They tend, therefore, to identify strongly with that province (and don’t really know much about the others, unless their parents gift them with travel around a continental-scale country [which comes at the price of not going other places that may well be more enticing, such as warmth in mid-winter]). But — aside from settlements in Québec that go back to la Nouvelle France, or bits and pieces of the Atlantic provinces, there is little in Canada that is much more than 200 years old — and, in the West, almost everything is extremely new, dating back just over a century or so. It is not, in other words, as though a glance around at the community you live in gives you much insight as to how things might have changed over time: certainly nothing like the competing architectural periods found in most European cities which, at the very least, promote the idea of “difference over time”. No, this must be taught (or else the implied lesson learnt is that nothing much has any intrinsic value and that all value is therefore relative, cash-here-and-now in nature).

Then, too, if you live on the Pacific coast of Canada, even though the largest Francophone community west of St-Boniface, Manitoba is located within the metropolitan boundaries of Vancouver, you probably don’t really identify with the mandate to learn French. You know no one who uses it — but you probably know many who speak Beijing Dialect, Cantonese, Urdu, Hindi and the like. Why is French the mandated second language? Where will I ever use it? The whole period is wasted, and there is a great resentment that builds every time you see signs taken down (for instance, at the airport) and replaced with new bilingual ones. You read in the papers, or see on the television, segments concerning a political battle in Québec, and almost reflexively adopt a negative posture, especially to Western politicians who may be supporting the aspirations of the Québéçois — in your poorly-formed mind’s-eye, they must be “traitors” to your home for doing so. All of this, because no one explained how rare and unique in the world the idea of peaceably coming together into a multi-national state Canada is.

Good heavens, you probably don’t even know that in 1775, when the American Revolutionaries came north to Québec confident that les Canadiens, recently conquered (1759) by the British, would surely rise up and join the cause of removing Britain from North America, the French-Canadians did not wait for Britain, but themselves defended their status as a British Colony rather than join the American Revolution. Why? For the first time in history, a conquering power not only let a conquered people retain their laws, their language, their religion and their customs, but actually gave them more freedom and less restrictions than their own subjects in the home country had. You could, for instance, be a Catholic and in politics in Québec — to be such in Great Britain was to be in sedition. A loyalty freely gained: no wonder the official motto of the Province of Québec, chosen in 1867 at Confederation, is Je me souviens que bien que j’aie été soutenu sous le lis j’ont prospéré sous s’est levé (I remember that although I was born under the lily I have prospered under the rose) — and that the “Je me souviens” which appears on every Québec licence plate points not to those who would separate Québec from Canada, but to the sentiment that caused French Canada to stand up for King and Crown in 1775 and in 1812-14.

So perhaps those of us 3,500 km west of Montréal do have something in common — if not language — with our fellows who speak French in this country? This, perhaps, is why we learn what seems to be a “useless” language?

The child’s key question, after all, is “why”. Why is this so; why does this work this way? It has, as a close cousin, “where”, as in “where did I come from”? This last question is not merely about sex and babies: we all, as humans, want to know what societies we call our own. To fail to answer this question — and to keep answering it in more depth and nuance over the years — is a failure of nurturing no less strong than that of a parent who ignores their child throughout their childhood, treating their offspring as a trophy to be displayed, not a person to be cherished.

Our identities overlap in many ways. Who am I? I am a Central Canadian, from Southern Ontario: indeed, from the place “everyone loves to hate”, Toronto. Yet now I have a veneer of the West on me. I have lived abroad (twice) and know — deeply — how different the United States is from Canada, or the Netherlands (as a proxy for Europe) from North America. Yet I am also only a second-generation Canadian: I have European roots that are close enough that my grandparents’ country of birth treats me as someone who need only “pick up” their citizenship as opposed to immigrate and, over time, apply for it. To me this is amazing, in large part because, along the way, I was taught of our many identities — part of the West, rooted in the British Empire, resolutely changed by this continent, a people who believed in creating forms of self- government never before seen on this planet and as such able to become a free-standing country without the need for bloodshed (in all of Canadian history less than 150 people have ever died in struggles between one Canadian faction and another: the lack of blood on Canadian soil is almost unique in the world) — and how each layers into and builds upon the other, not quite in a hierarchy but nevertheless with clear antecedents and derivatives. How was this done? Teaching history: Canadian history, British history, American history, European history, world history, no more and no less.

I look at my children and I cringe, for such history as they have been taught has mostly been from the point of view of a social framework, almost Marxist in construction (worth studying in its own right, but not when used as a lens to distort) and designed to basically say “not only is there nothing here worth knowing, but there’s nothing there worth preserving, either”. History as lists of dates of kings and battles is hardly all that insightful, but to cast everything and anything into a feminist or socialist framework is no better. (Then there’s BC’s approach to world history of the twentieth century, which completely ignores the Canadian contribution to World War I — in it throughout, losing 59% of the males in a whole generation to the trenches, and having the only military commander who figured out how to win in trench warfare, only to be driven out because his concern for his men surviving and for actually accomplishing the set objectives meant nothing if it wasn’t done precisely as commanded —, and taught World War II as beginning at Pearl Harbor (when Canadian forces were already in China and Hong Kong long before, were in Europe since 1939, and when Canada grew to have the world’s third largest military machine and be the Allied power in multiple theatres) because the bloody province can’t be bothered to teach from anything other than showings of the Disney movie “Pearl Harbor”. Nothing about being the party that formulated the essence of NATO and brought the treaty to fruition. Nothing about inventing the idea of UN Peacekeeping (it was only worth a Nobel Peace Prize). Nothing about fighting for years — twice — diplomatically to get South Africa to end apartheid. Nothing about being the main instigator and proponent of the treaty against the use of mines. Nothing about creating a new order of government, first with one of the First Nations then a whole territory under First Nations administration, with native codes of justice. The list is long, and totally untaught. It didn’t fit into feminism or environmentalism, therefore it just didn’t count. How do you know yourself if you don’t know where you come from?

My word, how do they learn why we say “zed” instead of “zee”, spell “centre” with an -re rather than “center” with an -er, have cheques not checks, have both plebecites and referenda (no, they’re not at all the same): these are not affectations and (for anyone who knows Britain and British English) they are not mere continuation of that island’s ways of doing things. Who will use our currency to point out the significance of the boy in the Maple Leafs sweater alone on the pond, when everyone else wears the sweater of the Canadiens, and how much that story means in Québec, along with the country’s first Francophone Prime Minister; why we put World War I and “In Flanders Fields” on the ten note, along with the first Prime Minister; why the Queen is linked, on the twenty, with the First Nations, and so on? Just bringing our own money out, explaining it and how it works, and telling the stories connected with the images on each, would suit Grades 1-3 admirably. But it is not allowed – nor, frankly, after a generation and more of just not bothering to know ourselves, do the teachers even know the stories.

Ultimately, the whys and wheres of a child’s questions point toward, as Canadian philosopher George Grant noted, questions of what is good, and what is just. Whatever a nation’s history, and whatever the story of the civilization it shares in, it is natural to take those final steps by asking about whether acts and events were for the good, or were just, and thus to help work out in young minds — who are quite ready for this — the elements of their own moral education, not as something to memorize or copy, but as something they share in. If you don’t teach it, you leave the generation adrift. Look at the streets today; look at the rising violence: here lies the answer. We were all so worried about jobs and docile employees we failed them utterly.

For history is not bunk. It is essential.

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