Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
Understanding the past is vital to curing Canada's present challenges and preserving its future. But teaching history is fraught with controversy and political perils. Simple recitations of names, dates and events are innocuous but meaningless, while attempts to explain the meaning of historical events encounter stiff resistance. Yet many groups are seeking ways to improve historical understanding. A proposal to advance their cause is offered. Speech to the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers' Association, Toronto, October 23, 1997.
For many people, history is fun. When people curl up with a good book, if it is non-fiction, chances are 50-50 that it will be history. Huge audiences were glued to televised versions of the U.S. Civil War and a history of baseball. A history channel has been such a success with American subscribers that the CRTC gave the green light to Canadian promoters of similar programming. Montreal's CRB Foundation and its co-sponsors have earned raves and the Pierre Berton Award for Heritage Minutes, glimpses of Canadian history it screens in movie theatres and on television. When Canada's National History Society, publishers of The Beaver, launched an annual award for Canada's top history teachers, Governor General Romeo LeBlanc was delighted to be patron.
Among the elites, history is in fashion. Some reasons are easy to find. Like bird watching, lecture tours and Geritol, history appeals to the old more than the young, and the fashion-setting Baby Boomers are finally feeling their years. Among academic historians, "nostalgia" is actually a respectable subject for research. If conservatives are people who believe that the past is better than the future, history has a strong ideological appeal, especially for people who are anxious to preserve old moral or family values or even to conserve their country. Would Canada be falling apart if Canadians really understood our history? But far from understanding it, vast numbers of Canadians haven't the faintest idea about our past.
Back in the good old days, editors spotting an idle reporter on a slow news day, would send him up to the university to …