Call to Meet Crucial Need to Teach History

By Morton, Desmond | Canadian Speeches, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Call to Meet Crucial Need to Teach History

Morton, Desmond, Canadian Speeches


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.

Invincible ignorance

Back in the good old days, editors spotting an idle reporter on a slow news day, would send him up to the university to ask students to name the current U.S. president, identify John A. Macdonald, or explain what E=mc2 was all about. This would furnish a small story and a larger editorial on the shocking level of ignorance among the idle youth being educated at taxpayers' expense.

Last summer, this is more or less what pollsters from Angus Reid did for some earnest young Torontonians who call themselves the Dominion Institute. The Donner Foundation provided the cash. The results, announced on Canada Day, 1997, were more or less what the reporter usually discovered. Most Canadians aged 18 to 24 had no idea when Confederation happened and a third did not even know the right century. Most (63%) knew that Macdonald was our first premier, though in Quebec, the share dropped to 28%. En revanche, 79% of Quebecers knew that Wilfrid Laurier was our first francophone prime minister, but only 33% of the same in New Brunswick. Two out of five imagined that Canada had fought France, Britain and Russia during the two world wars. Almost nobody knew when all Canadian women finally got the vote, but come to think of it, neither did the designers of the test, who thought it was 1918.

Critics of such testing usually have some well-rehearsed answers. Collecting facts is a preparation for Trivial Pursuit, not History. Teachers emphasize ability to find facts in a library or the World Wide Web. More important than knowing names and dates is cultivating self-esteem. Alternatively, they ask why anyone should care. History, said Henry Ford, is "more or less bunk," a judgment echoed by currently fashionable post-modernists.

Even conscientious historians have to admit that a lot of so-called "history," particularly for the young, has been pummeled into whatever shape the reigning orthodoxy demands, be it British imperialism, the true faith, white supremacy, Quebec nationalism, or feminist theory. …

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