Canadians are at war over their history.
The CBC series Canada: The Story of Us caused outrage in spring 2017 with the choices made for its historical storyline. Critics called the series anglocentric and said it omitted the roles of the Acadians and Mi'kmaq people.
Statues and names of prominent Canadians have also been the centre of vigorous debate across the country this year. One of these debates has focused on the statue of Edward Cornwallis in a public park in Halifax — the military officer who founded Halifax for the British in 1749, but also offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed an Indigenous person. They have also included calls from the the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) to remove so-called “architect of genocide” Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from elementary schools across the province.
Amid debates over the renaming of public buildings across the country, our public history is being hotly contested. And Canada is not alone. As protests and counter protests about the public commemoration of Civil War figures in the United States demonstrate, history is a significant public concern in many places around the world.
For history educators like myself, the good news is that the public obviously cares about history very much. The bad news is that we can’t seem to talk about it without resorting to name calling, vitriol and sometimes — as evident in recent events in Charlottesville — violence.
I believe the teaching of history to be more important than ever. History — if funded and taught well — can teach a tolerance for ambiguity. It can provide people with strategies to help them think through complex issues.
War, and war memorials in particular, are central to collective memory. Taught well, war offer windows into the construction of personal and national identity.
Between virtue and evil
Our public discourse has become dangerously polarized — making democratic deliberation about collective memory, history and the common good almost impossible.
Reflecting on the 2017 French election, French political scientist Nicole Bacharan described the worry and stress resulting from, “the division of the country and the hatred that came out of groups of people who can’t discuss anything, can’t understand each other, can’t talk.”
Bacharan is just one of many voices lamenting the poverty of civic discourse in democratic jurisdictions around the world. The debates about public history installations are one manifestation of that wider trend. I think they illustrate an important aspect of this toxic polarization — a seeming inability to handle nuance.
Citizens want things kept simple. In their view, historical figures or events represented in public memorials are either iconic representations of virtue and progress that should stand for all time, or they are manifestations of evil and should be torn down. There seems to be no room for complex alternatives.
The trouble is, life is complicated and full of nuance. We like the dividing line between our heroes and villains to be clear but as Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out in The Gulag Archipelago:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Teach history, teach complexity
I am convinced that contemporary approaches to history education can help citizens develop the tolerance for complexity and ambiguity necessary to engage effectively in civic life.
Over the past half century there has been an explosion in theoretical and empirical research related to the teaching of history, and there is a growing consensus around the world about what constitutes effective teaching and learning in the field. Some key elements of that consensus include:
• History education must move beyond the transmission of what historians know to include attention to historical method — how historians know. This is often referred to as historical thinking.
• History education must include attention to historical consciousness, or how history and memory work to shape how we think about ourselves, our communities and our place in the world.
• There are many places where history can be learned, including classrooms, historical sites, museums, patriotic ceremonies and family events.
• History education must engage students in thinking about what constitutes evidence about the past and how we assess and construct accounts about the past.
• Research evidence makes it clear that students, even those in primary school, can learn to think in sophisticated and complex ways about the past and its relationship to the present and the future.
• Effective history education requires well-educated and skilled teachers.
History as educational priority
While this consensus exists among researchers and many history teachers around the world, conditions in the classroom or lecture theatre are often very different.
One key issue is that education in social studies — and history education in particular — has diminished as a priority area in public education in Canada and around the world.
Traditionally social studies was considered one of the core areas of the curriculum, but the policy changes in the past 30 years — in New Brunswick, across Canada and globally — has been toward subjects considered more immediately useful for fostering employment, particularly in technical fields.
There are several other key factors limiting the implementation of effective history education. These include a persistent focus on nation building rather than developing critical skills, and assigning teachers with little or no history background to teach courses in the area.
War and collective memory
Colleagues and I at the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick have developed a broad program in history education to complement the Centre’s well-established work in history.
Central to this initiative is collaboration between historians, history educators and teachers — to develop materials and approaches that implement the consensus on effective history education described above.
We believe the theme of war and society offers a potentially effective way to do this for several reasons:
• Topics in the area are often presented as iconic and, as Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan points out in The Uses and Abuses of History, part of the purpose of teaching history is to challenge and investigate icons.
• War and war memorials are often central to collective memory and they provide a window into the construction of personal and national identity.
• War shows up in school curricula, museums, family lore and community memorials. This provides the opportunity to bring the community into the classroom, as well as consider relationships among the past, present and future.
• Virtually all elements of the study of war and society, including community memorials, are contested. This provides opportunities for students to examine diverse historical perspectives.
• The issues involved are multilayered and complex. As historian Tim Cook points out in his recent book about the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge: “Vimy, like all legends, is a layered skein of stories, myths, wishful thinking and conflicting narratives.”
We do not want to end debates about our history; we do hope to make them more substantive and fruitful.