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Trilby Kent: Make history meaningful again

Commentary

The following is an excerpt from Trilby Kent’s book, The Vanishing Past: Making a Case for the Future of History, published in 2022 by Sutherland House.

In his 1995 book, Whatever Happened to High School History? educator and activist Bob Davis tore into the “bundle of techniques” approach to teaching history: an approach which he argued emphasized skills at the expense of knowledge. Nowadays, the techniques approach reigns supreme in Canada, led by Peter Seixas’ Historical Thinking Concepts. The former social studies teacher and director of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness passed away in 2022, but his framework for history education endures. The historical thinking concepts have become a central part of history teaching in Canadian high schools, and they enjoy wide support among teachers. They’re particularly useful at helping students to frame their analysis of a new piece of evidence. They provide a sense of purpose to historical study and challenge the idea of history being a set of predetermined facts.

But there are limitations. Davis famously argued that too much focus on interpretive frameworks “sounds more like understanding biases in order to shoot the breeze about them.” As he wrote:

Analyzing the window (and your own eyes) is certainly a necessary part of looking out the window at life itself. But if our main purpose is to make students little armchair experts on types of glass, type of Windex, types of window frames and types of eyeglasses to the point where they don’t get around to looking through that window at life, then we are guilty of a massive irresponsibility.

What I think was really riling Davis was the broader shift toward “sociological” history: an approach that rejected narrative in favour of relativism and heavily thematic learning. I was a beneficiary of this sociological style of instruction. After the pablum of middle school courses at my private Toronto high school in the late nineties, a Grade Ten society course was a breath of fresh air, with topics that made us feel clever and grown-up (Freud! Feral children! Camille Paglia!). 

History as a traditional academic subject could never be the same. In “Mod West,” we were encouraged to answer questions with more questions, and it was hard to give a wrong answer. We listened to Leonard Cohen and analyzed Napoleon’s leadership style using the Enneagram personality test. My final project was an extended essay on T.E. Lawrence passed under a heavily pseudo-psychological filter. As for learning how to interrogate primary sources: that was something you did in AP History (Advanced Placement exams, although American, are available for students to sit anywhere). Only a few of us took the AP, and we prepared for it outside of regular school hours.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the twelve aims of history and contemporary studies that guided the Ontario curriculum in those days led with this goal: that students should “develop confidence in themselves and in their ability to deal with problems in academic and everyday life and to make sound personal, educational, and career choices.” As J. L. Granatstein noted in Who Killed Canadian History?, it’s somewhat surprising that “to acquire knowledge of historical and contemporary societies” only made it to number nine on the list of aims.  But it also chimes with my experience and I suspect would still hold true today.

Granatstein’s book can lapse into curmudgeonly complaints and sensitivity to what he perceived as an over-emphasis on “grievance history,” but he makes several points that are difficult to dismiss. Today’s single compulsory high-school history course is heavily slanted toward current events and sociology. Linking historical concerns to the present day is important, and sociological interpretations of the past certainly have their place. But if this is what students are limited to receiving, it’s easy to see that it provides an incomplete picture. Granatstein also noted a perceived association between intellectual rigour, knowledge, and elitism, which is often in evidence in ongoing debates around streaming and curriculum design. “Content remains second to process—a distant second,” he wrote twenty-five years ago. “Because it is, by definition, full of content, history is no priority, especially when it is compared with trendier subjects.”

The conflation of content and elitism is a significant obstacle to reviving history as a subject in Canada. Even a quarter century ago, Granatstein sensed that “the idea that there should be national standards in history is a political non-starter,” but given the current climate of calling for decolonized and diversified history teaching to be mandated by provinces from coast to coast, there may well be the necessary energy and commitment to pursue such a project. Whether provincial ministries, city boards, faculties of education, and subject specialists can find a way to collaborate constructively to establish common standards is another question. But it’s worth a try.

The most obvious place to start is in our schools. In conversation with Steve Paikin on TVO’s The Agenda, high school teacher Neil Orford cut straight to the chase:

Let’s make history compulsory…Let’s make the argument that history needs to be broader in the curriculum. Let’s make the argument that the liberal arts have been under assault by a math-science bias…If every high school has a pathway for math and science, there should be a pathway for history. And students should be pursuing that through graduation. We will have better informed students and Canadians.

The good news is that many people are coming to this realization already. If there’s one thing that Donald Trump’s presidency showed us, it’s that while it’s important to understand broad trends, niche histories, and how to challenge dominant narratives, at certain points in time it really does matter who’s in power and how those individuals use that power. Knowing as many stories as possible from as wide a range of societies and cultures as possible can equip us to better appreciate and shape the systems that govern us.

These same systems are often the ones slowest to respond to calls for change. And so it must fall to students, teachers, parents, and school communities to call to centre history as a subject in its own right, and to recognize that teaching history that is diverse and progressive shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to teaching history that’s purposeful and coherent. In the absence of a national movement, we can push the provinces to mandate at least three years of history in elementary school and three years in high school, as Granatstein suggested. 

I would suggest that we would do students and our country a great service by widening our scope both temporally and geographically. All students should be entitled to an overview of world history that stretches from the Big Bang to Bitcoin, and which places Canada’s history in a global context. Teaching global history is not easy, particularly given the wide range of different historical traditions and historiographies that must be taken into account; but global literacy is arguably the most pressing skill required for the next generation (students themselves appear to be on to this: world history is now more popular in the United States than European history, with more than twice as many students taking the former Advanced Placement exam). Canada’s economy, Canada’s climate, and Canada’s vulnerability to a pandemic that respects no borders do not exist in a vacuum: in order to protect our national interests, it’s vital that we understand the global forces at play. 

As historian Lynn Hunt writes, debates over history’s meanings “are a sign of [democracy’s] health, not its weakness.” Let’s have those debates, and in so doing, let’s prove that history really does matter. At the end of the day, educational psychologist Sam Wineburg notes, “When history is approached courageously and at its deepest levels, no new curriculum is needed to engage enduring questions of values. In classrooms like this, history cannot avoid issues of character.”

It’s not too late for coherent, cumulative, substance-driven, broad, and inclusive history to be made a priority in Canadian schools. With enough pressure from parents, teachers, and students, all young people can know the joy and empowerment of a strong foundational understanding of our shared history. Perhaps most importantly, they can experience the wonder of the most human subject of all. The time to restore history to the centre of a meaningful education is now. Our future, as well as our past, may well depend on it.

Antony Anderson: The most divisive election in Canadian history

Commentary

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

December 17, 1917: The conscription election is held

How do you deal with fellow Canadians when they’re traitors to Empire, King, and Country? 

How could you be loyal to any country that insisted you die for a foreign monarch and a distant war? 

These were the irreconcilable accusations French and English Canadians hurled at each other as they lurched towards the most bitter, divisive election in our history. By 1917, close to 130,000 Canadians, all volunteers, had been wounded or slain in a bloodbath that was supposed to have been a short, jolly romp to thrash the Hun. The francophone solitude had no desire to march off to ravenous killing fields. The grieving anglophone solitude demanded the government bring in conscription to compel the slackers to do their duty. 

Prime Minister Robert Borden had originally promised not to bring in conscription but the first patriotic surges had dimmed and not enough men were rallying to the cause. Determined to maintain Canada’s commitment, Borden decided to break his pledge, knowing full well this would inflame Quebec and farming communities across the West desperate for hired hands. Anxious for a show of unity, Borden set out to establish a coalition government which would then bring in the dreaded legislation. Liberal leader of the opposition and the first francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier refused to join. He would not break faith with his own people. The vast majority of his MPs held steady and did not cross the floor. Borden managed to persuade ten prominent Liberal anglophones to join the new Union Cabinet in a temporary uneasy alliance that gave the barest glimmer of unity. He called the election for December 17th.

To win the election, Borden did everything he could to rig the vote. Historians have called him cynical but that misses the mark. In 1917, the war was not some distant abstraction. Every family had been touched by death. Borden himself had sat at the bedside of wounded soldiers in Europe and wept. He felt duty-bound to honour their sacrifice so he was ruthless. He took the vote away from conscientious objectors and from immigrants who had arrived after 1902 from “enemy alien countries”, (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire). He gave the vote to soldiers at war for the first time. He gave the vote to certain women for the first time, specifically those women with a father, husband, son or brother in uniform. The gerrymandering was breathtaking but it was all done, as Borden saw it, to defeat barbarism, preserve decency and democracy, save the Empire, and uphold Canada’s honour. In the furious campaign, both sides accused the other of treachery and moral corruption. Each was convinced of their own righteousness. Each refused to listen to the other.   

On December 17, 86 percent of the electorate cast their vote, the highest turnout in a Canadian election to this day. 1,077,569 loyal Canadians, 57 percent of the electorate, voted for conscription. Two of those votes were cast by future prime ministers, then in uniform, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. On the other side of the emotional chasm, 548,611 loyal Canadians, 35 percent of the electorate, voted Liberal. Triumph and devastation ruled the day. 

The Union party won a solid majority with 153 seats while the Liberals managed to hold 82. The provincial results revealed the true extent of the “racial” division. The anti-conscriptionist Liberals were decimated in the Maritimes and Ontario and nearly wiped out in the West. The survivors were anchored in Quebec, taking 62 of the 65 seats. The largely anglophone Union government had secured a poisoned mandate to compel Canadians into uniform by taking national unity to the brink. 

Despite all the rage and rancour, the wounded Dominion endured. The war would at last end the following year before many of the new conscripts would even reach Europe. The Union party no longer had a reason to exist and was dissolved for the next election. Tempers cooled though no one forgot. 

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the election was embodied in the person of the Liberal candidate for North York, Ontario, a former minister of labour in Laurier’s Cabinet, an anglophone who had remained loyal to the old leader. The candidate paid a predictable price for that loyalty in imperialist Ontario. Two years later, however, William Lyon Mackenzie King would go on to win the Liberal leadership, thanks to the support from francophone delegates who remembered his loyalty to Laurier.

King would become prime minister in 1921 and for the next two decades would make national unity his holy grail. To keep the Dominion safe from any future conflagrations across the ocean, he would wrench control of Canada’s foreign policy from the lethal imperial grip and then ensure that his country’s foreign policy was a masterpiece of evasion and circumventions and hesitations and inaction—and most Canadians would agree with his approach for a very long time until another world war tore apart that conventional wisdom. For a deeper dive, please read “Embattled Nation: Canada’s Wartime Election of 1917” by professors Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie (Dundurn Press 2017).