Teaching History, Thinking Critically

Article excerpt

The federal government recently announced the creation of the Canada History Fund, designed to support projects that "celebrate key milestones and people who have helped shape our country as we know it today."

Regrettably, it is also ending funding for the Historical Thinking Project (HTP), based at the University of British Columbia but national in scope, the goal of which is, or was, to invigorate the teaching of history in Canada's schools.

The government's decision might seem of interest only to those directly affected by it. It deserves, however, a wider audience, not least because the teaching of history in our schools is generally regarded as preparing the young for the exercise of citizenship, and thus ensuring the health of Canadian democracy.

Few people would object to the government's claim the study of history should introduce us to the key people and events that have shaped today's Canada. In saying this, however, the government ignores two key questions. Should not the study of history be directed towards understanding the past in all its dimensions -- warts and all -- not simply to celebrating selected aspects of it? And who will decide what is or is not worthy of celebration?

There is nothing to celebrate about residential schools, for example, although, as the Free Press has rightly argued, they should be assigned an important place in Canadian history courses. As with residential schools, there are other aspects of our past that no one would judge worthy of celebration but which nonetheless must not be forgotten.

If it is to be of any educational value, history must be more than celebration. To take a local example, in 1917 a University of Manitoba historian, Chester Martin, urged history teachers to follow the example of their colleagues in science and teach history as the investigation of problems. To study history, he argued, required "thinking and reasoned reflection" and not "mere docility in learning." In other words, just as students learn the basics of the scientific method in science class, so their study of history should help them think historically, or, to use the language of the 1890s, make them more historically minded. In this same spirit, HTP emphasizes helping students master what it describes as "the difficult tools of thoughtful, critical, evidence-based historical understanding" so they can better understand the past and its meaning for the present.

In their The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (2013), Peter Seixas and Tom Morton explain how HTP seeks to achieve these goals. …