Neil Armstrong the Canadian, and Other High School Myths

Article excerpt

Norman Rockwell was a Canadian artist. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is also a Canadian.

Actually, both are American. But about one-third of young Canadians believe the late artist was home-grown and another 10 percent identified the US astronaut as Canada's first man in space, a national survey reveals.

Canadians do not yearn to steal American icons. The problem is simply that Canadian history is poorly taught, says Rudyard Griffiths, director of the Dominion Institute, a Toronto-based nonprofit group promoting the teaching of Canadian history. "The Canadian educational system has failed to impart to youth a basic understanding of the country's past," he says. But Canadians are hardly alone. Education critics see a "North American" history crisis in which both Canadian and United States school systems are "failing" to teach history. On July 1, Canadians celebrated their nation's birthday. But who knew the actual year the dominion of Canada was born? Just 36 percent of 1,100 Canadians surveyed by the Angus Reid Group, a prominent polling firm, knew the date: 1867. This lack of basic history knowledge may surprise many Canadians. But not Anne Metikosh, a Burlington, Ont., homemaker. From Grades 4 to 7, she says, her daughter's history lessons jumped from Victorian Christmas (Queen Victoria's popularization of holiday and Christmas trees) to the English Tudor period, leaping then to the War of 1812 between Britain and the US, while visiting the Canadian fur trade three times. "It was very choppy," Ms. Metikosh says. And what history was taught lacked context because it was submerged in a social studies class called "Self and Society." "Basics have been shuffled aside," she says. Still others point to history-deficient freshmen arriving at Canada's leading universities. Joanne Harris Burgess, who teaches Canadian studies at Glendon College at York University in Toronto, decided last fall to test her arriving students to find out where she should begin teaching them. To her shock, she discovered only 7 percent could name the last five prime ministers, and that 92 percent could not name the four founding provinces - Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Nearly two-thirds could not name the first prime minister - Sir John A. Macdonald. "It was unbelievable," she says. "To me it represented the complete and utter failure of the teaching of Canadian history in Ontario high schools. …