Book Review Essay: Canadian History Textbooks for a U.S. Audience

By Higham, C. L. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Book Review Essay: Canadian History Textbooks for a U.S. Audience


Higham, C. L., American Review of Canadian Studies


J.M. Bumstead. The Peoples of Canada: A Pre-Confederation History. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004. xvi + 512 pp. $35.95 paper.

J.M. Bumstead. The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004. xvi + 625 pp. $34.95 paper.

Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel. Canada: A National History. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2003. xxiii + 549 pp. $63.95 paper.

Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel. Foundations: Readings in Post-Confederation Canadian History. Toronto: Pearson Longman, 2004. xi + 506 pp. $50.95 paper.

Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel. Nation and Society: Readings in Post-Confederation Canadian History. Toronto: Pearson Longman, 2004. xi + 516 pp. $48.95 paper.

Kenneth G. Pryke and Walter C. Soderlund, eds. Profiles of Canada. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2003. 3rd edition. xxi + 525 pp. $37.95 paper.

Thomas Thorner with Thor Frohn-Nielsen, eds. "A Few Acres of Snow": Documents in Pre-Confederation Canadian History, 2nd ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2003. 451 pp. $29.95 paper.

Thomas Thorner with Thor Frohn-Nielsen, eds. "A Country Nourished on Self-Doubt": Documents on Post-Confederation Canadian History, 2nd ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2003. 584 pp. $29.95 paper.

Whenever I receive a new history textbook, I conduct an unscientific but enlightening test. I flip to the index and check for the following subjects: Indians, women, African-Americans, French empire, Spanish empire, and so on. First, I see if the textbooks cover these topics at all. Then, I look at the actual entries and examine how they are discussed. For instance, do Indians disappear by the twentieth century? Are they only portrayed as violent stereotypes? Are women only featured in those little boxes outside the text?

I practice this exercise because years of teaching at large and small public universities have taught me some interesting lessons about how students read textbooks and what textbooks teach students about how to read history. Students, after reading many volumes of uninteresting textbooks in high school, have become adept consumers of these works. They have learned to skim the text for facts, memorize the timelines, and glance at the boxes for bonus or essay questions. If the material appears familiar, then they skip it in search of something new. Additionally, students implicitly pick up lessons from how authors physically structure the text. If there are no Indians in the last part of the textbook, then they must have died off. If women only appear in text boxes, then the authors must have been forced to include them when they are not really relevant. Additionally, some students enter a university with the idea that history is just stories. Therefore, if a textbook's narrative is too linear and chronological, the analysis can be lost. This brief exercise helps me visualize the textbooks as my students might.

I have also learned that most faculty evaluate textbooks on the wrong criteria. Many assess the textbook on the fame of the author(s) and their monographs rather than whether they connect with how students read history. The longer one teaches and writes, the less connection one has to how an undergraduate reads the books assigned to them. As stated above, textbooks socialize students to read history in a certain way. Faculty members need to be aware of their audience when choosing textbooks, especially for a class on a subject such as Canadian history.

Canadian history presents some special problems when teaching it to an audience in the United States. Though most students know very little about Canada and its history, they assume they do know something about it. Unlike a Middle East or an Asian history course, where students consider the subject exotic and different, they may deem Canada safe and familiar (and therefore, easy.) The trick is to make Canadian history exotic or just simply hard to understand--this will make them pay attention. …

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