Teaching History in Elementary Schools

History has often been a difficult subject to teach well. As a result, not teaching it has become the norm.

One reason for this is that, for many, many years, history was taught as lists to remember: lists of key dates, lists of Kings, Prime Ministers or Presidents, lists of wars and conquests.

No wonder so many walked away from history lessons thinking “it’s just one bloody thing after another”. But it need not be this way.

Recently, curricula have changed to try and present a “bigger picture” framework.

This could have been a step forward. Alas, in the transformation from history to social studies, it has also opened the door to a fair bit of social engineering of the past.

Whether, for instance, the First Nations of Canada like it or not (I presume that, in general, the answer is “no”) the history of Canada tells a story of the competition between three great imperial movements.

French, British and Americans managed, for the most part, to compete peacefully to first explore, second organize and thirdly settle the vast and forbidding lands of the northern half of North America.

These are necessarily stories of men of European extraction engaged in an activity tied to the age of French dominance of Europe, of the rise of the British Empire, and the manifest destiny expressed by the American Union.

In many cases, the Canadians might have found themselves feeling ground between opposing forces, but, as our history shows, Canadians instead identified themselves with the peaceful building of something new in history — a Dominion — and the only example on the planet of Franco-English cooperation over an extended period of time.

American (in the broader sense) in culture, British in feeling, French in communitarianism, we could be telling a great story of how we came to be — and came to be the kind of culture that can absorb, by percent of population, more immigrants from more cultures each year than any other nation on earth and, without a civic theology to drive them, nevertheless make them “Canadians also”.

Stories like these can be told of any part of the world in any time, and are a long long way from dates, names and battles. They are also accessible to the young, especially when biography becomes a part of the figures who stand within the tales.

Well, that would be nice if that was what is done.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the instructional resource plans for history show that this is the realm of social engineering writ large.

First Nations culture is put forward as superior to (by virtue of silence on) that which came from Europe.

The men who did great deeds, from crossing this land at their peril, to making it possible to avoid the lawlessness of the opening of the West seen in America, to the sheer act of Confederation and its maintenance and growth are now ignored — because they weren’t women, they weren’t minorities, they weren’t suitably “liberal”.

This brushing-under-the-carpet has gone so far that, upon entering a class ostensibly near the end of the year of learning Canadian History, and pulling out a $5, $10, $50 and $100 note, no one could identify who was on the money.

The answers are:

$5: Sir Wilfrid Laurier, first French-Canadian Prime Minister, negotiator of the first attempt at a free trade agreement with the USA [failed to win election to implement it], builder of the second of the great transcontinental rail lines;

$10: Sir John A. Macdonald, premier Father of Confederation and first Prime Minister, builder of the first transcontinental railway, architect of the tariff structure that built the Canadian industrial heartland, and the one who, faced with the Riel Rebellion, faced it down and kept the country together;

$50: William Lyon Mackenzie King, longest-serving Prime Minister and PM during the Second World War (1939-1945), creator of the national unemployment insurance scheme and the PM who, in 1926, gained re-election in a dispute with the Governor-General, thereby further shifting power from the Crown to the elected Government; and

$100: Sir Robert Laird Borden, Prime Minister during the First World War (1914-1918), who built the Union Government to set aside party politics while the war was on, who bailed out the bankrupt railways and reorganized them, thereby keeping transportation running and communities prosperous, and who dealt with the aftermath of a war that saw over half of all Canada’s young men 18-25 slaughtered in the trenches.

The $20 note carries the face of the Queen of Canada, as do the coins of the land.

Rather interesting accomplishments to have swept under the rug, no?

But this is the effect of turning history class into a diatribe about how the natives were put down, the land was raped and pillaged, and all those Conservative Prime Ministers who built railways, industries, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Bank of Canada and many more public institutions just didn’t exist because they weren’t socially democratic “Liberals”.

(For the non-Canadians, of the four PMs who “make the money”, Laurier and King are Liberals; Macdonald and Borden are Conservatives, and these are the two parties which have held power in Canadian Governments since before Confederation.)

In some ways the old style of teaching might have at least imparted something: it might become clear that the Seven Years’ War in Europe was played out in Canada via the Conquest of 1759 (and then in turn helped trigger the American Revolution which, when American forces came north, saw the “conquered” French-Canadians defend British Canada from the Americans of their own free will); that the War of 1812 was an offshoot of the Napoleonic Wars; that the Fenian raids after the US Civil War that forced the colonies to unite in Confederation were the first stirrings of Irish Rebellion against the UK if all the dates were recalled at the right time.

The new way simply denies that we have a history. In turn, most Canadians think they must have a very boring past, since they recall nothing of it.

Which doesn’t, of course, explain why one of the most watched television series ever produced by the CBC — in point of fact the most watched non-sports event — was the fourteen part A History of Canada. Apparently we did want to know who we were and where we came from, something today’s curriculum is designed to keep us from knowing.

The Montessorians have the right idea. At the beginning of the lower elementary years they are told “the great story”, which pulls together, in simple but coherent terms, what we know from science and history, geography and archaeology and anthropology, into a thirty minute exposition of how we got to “now”.

Then, as pieces of history, or geography, or science, are introduced, each of those can be fitted by the student into the great story.

Each introduction, in turn, is told in similar fashion (my daughter received the great story for Dutch history during our year in the Netherlands; upon returning to Canada there was, waiting for her, the great story of Canada).

So, by the end of the upper years of elementary education, the student has been presented with frameworks upon which to build in the later years — and, thanks to the starting point of an integrated, multi- disciplinary great story, environmentalism, attention to indigenous peoples, the changing value society has placed on women and all the other causes that differentiate today’s society from its past forms can easily be accommodated without having to distort history as is done in today’s mandated approaches by an ideologically-driven Ministry of Education.

Keeping the past hidden to promote a social agenda is another form of the “big lie” totalitarians use. Let’s treat students as capable of making value judgements rather than imposing them.

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2 Comments

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  1. I trained as a history teacher. As far as I can see, public schools are not interested in teaching “real” history, presenting viewpoints from both sides of a conflict. History classes (especially on one’s own country) were actually created by legislators in order to teach national “myths” (some true, some untrue, others partially true, leading to a different conclusion about what actually happened) in order to promote a common culture. This is the exact battle taking place today in Arizona, where Hispanic classes have apparently just been outlawed because legislators fear that teacher may teach “a different point-of-view” than the legislators desire.

    • That notion of “teaching all sides” is critically important: the purpose of teaching history is not to indoctrinate, but to open up the skill of looking at different stories formed by events and determining for yourself what the meaning is.

      Paradoxically, that’s inherent in the notion of “responsible government” as well. When Baldwin and LaFontaine invented it (1840s Canada), it was more than just that ministers would be responsible to Parliament as a whole (not just their party or faction): it was also that Parliament’s debates, in turn, would reflect different “stories told” from facts and suppositions allowing for the changing of minds, and the formation of an understanding with which to proceed.

      What are we missing, I wonder, in how we form young people today that that sort of openness to difference is so hard to come by (despite all the force-feeding of “toleration”, “political correctness”, etc. in current curricula, plus the abhorrence of allowing anything that questions the consensus view of how we got to today to be talked about) and it was so ready to hand in colonial life, to the point where the colony taught the mother country how to treat its own institutions…

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