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Patrick Luciani: Push back on the new theories breaching high school history classes

Commentary

A few weeks ago, an old acquaintance, now a successful academic at a major Canadian university, sent me a copy of her new book on the teaching of Canadian history in schools. It came with a note that read, “you’ll hate it!”

When a friend sends you their book it must be read or at least given some attention. I did, and she was right, I hated it.

I was going to keep my opinions to myself. Why risk offending a friend? I changed my mind. My acquaintance has garnered a reputation in her field among the progressive teachers of Canadian history. As citizens, we should know what our university departments of education are up to. I believe it is a service to the wider public debate that someone read her work and take up the challenge it represents about how modern educational theorists think and experience our country’s past.

The book starts off well enough noting how the traditional Canadian classroom has changed dramatically. Today 19 percent of Canadians identify as visible minorities. By 2031, 30 percent of Canadians will have a mother tongue other than English or French. With half the population in our major cities born elsewhere, more students will have no or little link or interest in Canada’s history.

The population of Aboriginal Canadians is also growing rapidly; they are younger and more urban. In short, the racial makeup of our classrooms is changing fast. To be relevant, high school history teachers are going to have a tougher job keeping students from falling asleep during lectures about the Battle on the Plains of Abraham or who shot D’Arcy McGee.

Now comes a new idea that says our teaching of history “has been notorious for promoting a one-dimensional understanding of national belonging far from the realities and stories of most young people today.” This old version of Canada, by which we mean Anglo and French history, “leaves out the violent history of colonialism, the state’s perpetration of continuous racial injustice, and the desire to make, and keep, Canada white.”

Now that’s a theme that should wake up the kid at the back of the class. This last point is rather odd given that Canada is accepting millions of visible minorities from around the world. But let’s not get distracted.

The book’s author wants to find a new “we” in Canada “to deconstruct the stories we have been told and to find new ways to put them back together again.” Here she suggests “meaningful learning”, which I take to mean that students are the subject in the classroom and teachers the objects. She wants to teach kids about a Canada that reflects their lived experience.

Forget about understanding how nations rise and fall, how wars start or end, or bothering to read great books

My only interest in high school history was doing as little studying as possible. The idea that I wanted history, or any subject, to reflect my ethnicity as a minority would have been absurd. I doubt that’s changed for most students regardless of their ethnicity or background.

Let’s continue. Rather than students learning from teachers, teachers learn from students, where students from various backgrounds can bring to the classroom their view of the world from their cultural experiences. The word “contextualized” is used liberally to the make the point. This will somehow make classrooms more relevant so all voices are heard.

This can best be done by introducing a good dose of Critical Race Theory, the idea that racism is endemic in Canada, that liberalism, objectivity, meritocracy actually support white supremacy, and that the “structured” stories we tell each other must be drowned out by “counter-stories” and the “experiential knowledge” of people of colour.

As the author says, “reading history through a critical race theory lens places the analysis of race and racism at the forefront of understanding society.” Just as the New York Times 1619 Project in the United States claims that slavery and racism are at the heart of the American experiment, Canada should follow and find our own colonial grievances.

It also demands that we stop seeing history solely through the eyes of white men. Once we apply the analysis of post- structuralism or post-modernism to the white man’s grand narrative of history — and that means patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism — the whole structure “is one quick breath away from collapse.”

What about multiculturalism? Do the theories of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, names peppered throughout the book, have anything good to say on the subject? No hope here since multiculturalism doesn’t respect diversity and actually keeps us in the dark about how people are manipulated and exploited.

It’s not that history will be taught differently — it’s that there’s no need to teach it at all. When you have a Marxist key to study the past based on power, sexism, oppression and exploitation, all of Canada’s problems come clearly into view. Essays and assignments in this environment practically write themselves.

Forget about understanding how nations rise and fall, how wars start or end, or bothering to read great books like Paris 1919 by the Canadian historian Margaret McMillian. Or reinterpreting history as new historical information emerges. Forget about Gibbons and Rome, the Renaissance, the vast intricate histories of China, Europe or India or how Canada managed to stay free of the U.S. and create a country free and prosperous.

There was a time when the contagion of critical race studies infiltrating into our high schools looked remote. Now it has breached the walls and is spreading fast.

Of course schools should teach the role of racism and discrimination in our history, but CRT goes right past understanding and straight to indoctrination and social engineering. At its root, CRT rejects rationalism, individualism, capitalism, enlightenment values. Some even argue that property should be redistributed on a racial basis.

As with all good intentions, the law of unintended consequences emerge. In a recent study where so-called non-stigmatized groups are “educated” about the discrimination against stigmatized groups, the result leads to more paternalistic attitudes by the non-stigmatized group, not less. The reason is that the stigmatized group is seen as more helpless and less competent. If ever there was a more damaging result for all racialized groups, this is it.

Maybe Arthur Schopenhauer was right that kids shouldn’t be introduced to thinking until the age of 16 and before that they best be occupied by learning arithmetic, math, grammar and memorizing historic and geographic facts. Asking them to reason about anything else is a waste of time since they know so little of life in any event.

In any event, parents in the U.S. are starting to push back. What will be the reaction here and how far will it go? So far it looks like my old friend’s side is winning. That has to change, and change quickly.

Brian Bird: To achieve truth and reconciliation, hearts and minds must change

Commentary

The tragic discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops has shaken and disturbed Canadians. As a law professor and a practising Catholic, this discovery has caused significant turmoil within me.

As a legal scholar, the role of the state and colonial legal systems in the conquest and mistreatment of First Nations weighs heavily on my conscience. As a Catholic, the role of the Church in operating residential schools like the one in Kamloops weighs even heavier.

The shameful error of these schools lies not only in the abuses that were committed within their walls, appalling as they were, but in the decision to create these schools in the first place. The forcible removal of children from their families was indeed an “inherently illiberal and a statist attack on individual rights and the institution of the family.” Any after-the-fact attempt to explain or justify this policy reopens wounds, and creates new ones.

On many levels, these schools betrayed the Catholic faith I profess. The false and harmful notion that Indigenous persons are somehow inferior violates the Christian belief that each and every human being — without exception — is equally a child of God and bears inerasable dignity.

Residential schools ignored this fundamental Christian conviction, along with Church teaching on the status of the family and the role of parents as primary educators of their children. In so doing, these schools not only departed from Christianity but enabled profound and wide-ranging harm that Indigenous persons and communities are still grappling with today.

Amid this darkness, it has been heartening to witness the expression of unreserved regret and sadness from Catholic leaders. The Archbishop of Vancouver, Michael Miller, stated that the Catholic Church was “unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities.” The Bishop of Kamloops, Joseph Nguyen, offered his “deepest sorrow and sincere apology to the families and communities that have been devastated” by the discovery of the children.

Many have called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system. The current Pontiff has expressed his “closeness” to Canadians in the wake of the discovery in Kamloops. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI conveyed his sorrow and regret for the abuses committed at residential schools to a delegation of Indigenous leaders from Canada.

The necessary ingredients for reconciliation are complex and contested.

If there is a silver lining to the saddening news from Kamloops, we find it in the discussion and reflection that it has sparked across Canada on how to move forward on the path to reconciliation. We must capitalize on this momentum and not let it pass us by.

While the necessary ingredients for reconciliation are complex and contested, we should all be able to agree that much work must be done in the realm of hearts and minds. Stereotypes, prejudice, and racism towards Indigenous persons remain potent and widespread today. It would be no surprise, due to these present sentiments and to past wrongs, if many Indigenous persons view non-Indigenous persons with skepticism and suspicion, and perhaps worse.

These attitudes create and sustain a sizeable gulf — a palpable sense of distance and disconnectedness — between these two communities. They are not merely ships passing in the night. It often feels like they are navigating different oceans, even intentionally so.

It is hard to imagine that removing statues, renaming buildings, or cancelling Canada Day will do much to meaningfully alter this sociological reality, let alone pressing crises that acutely confront Indigenous communities such as lack of running water, overincarceration, unemployment and suicide. First and foremost, interior transformation must occur. Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons must see each other as neighbours, equals and friends. In those cases where they are oceans apart, they must first see each other.

Until these basic conditions for harmonious coexistence are in place, reconciliation, along with improvement on the socioeconomic challenges noted above, will remain elusive. Learning the truth about the experiences of Indigenous persons and communities is a key part of this journey, a lighthouse to which we should set our course.

Many Canadians are unaware — for reasons ranging from animus to wilful blindness to guiltless ignorance — of the hardships that First Nations have endured and their current challenges. Eyes must open for hearts to change.

Calling for change at the level of each and every individual is not to belittle or distract from the crucial work of governments, First Nations, and countless individuals and organizations to achieve truth and reconciliation on a broader scale. But for this work to bear real and lasting fruit, each of us must discern how we need to change internally.

This change, if made, will put the harbour of reconciliation within closer reach. Kamloops has taught me this lesson. I hope and pray that, in this regard, I am far from alone.