Sunday, September 30, 2007

A National History?

Today I decided to try out The Dominion Institute's Canada Quiz. The first few times through I only made it to question three. On my last attempt, I managed to make it up to question six, before being thwarted by a question on an unsuccessful automobile manufacturer in New Brunswick in the 1970's. According to J.L. Granatstein, I am one of the millions of Canadians that was failed by public school and university history education. And even worse, as a teacher, I am continuing the trend of undereducated Canadians.

I read J.L. Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History? several years ago as part of an undergraduate Canadian Public History course. At the time, Granatstein's argument struck me as 'not quite right.' After re-reading the introduction and his chapter on historical education this week, I feel even more convinced of the flaws.

Granatstein argues that Canada is in need of a strong, national history in order to foster a sense of "Canadian-ness", and that social history is in effect "killing" Canadian history. He further argues that Canada's universities are at the root of the problem by allowing academics to teach and "study whatever they choose without fear of losing their jobs."(1) Granatstein comments that, "it is somehow considered improper to study a white male prime minister, but the first Jewish dentist in Nova Scotia or an unknown female doctor in northern Alberta is worth a book."(2) I'd invite anyone to test this theory: go into any bookstore and peruse the Canadian history section. Do you find any books written about white male prime ministers? I don't think we're in any danger, yet. Granatstein also suggests that universities should require Canadian students to take a nationalist survey course as part of their degree.(3)

Conversely, according to Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen's study on what kinds of history and historical activities are considered important by the general public, a random sample of Americans identified their own family history as most important.(4) Furthermore, the survey observed general trends: African Americans are interested in the civil rights movement, many people enjoy watching films and reading books about historical events that they lived through or that affected their family, the majority of respondents criticized the school system for teaching a 'distant' national history, and not 'their' history. How do we reconcile this preference for a personal, relevant history with Granatstein's call for a broad national history program? It is because of my identity and ancestry that I am interested in woman's history, labour history, military history, gay and lesbian history - and I don't believe that that focus has made me any less Canadian.

And as a last point, the Dominion Institute, which Granatstein upholds as a bastion of virtue in the rocky sea of Canadian history, stumped me on a question about regional labour history. I don't think social history is going anywhere.

(1) Granatstein, J.L., Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998), pp 53.
(2) Ibid, 63.
(3) Ibid, 54.
(4) Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp 22.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fountain pens and handwriting

In the flurry of differing opinions on the subject of books vs. computers, saving everything, and the relevance of archiving an entire life, I have something that I need to admit:

About a month ago, I started writing again. And I mean actual writing, with a notebook and a fountain pen. And yes, I am the individual who used to carry around a PDA with dozens of books loaded on to it for light and easy reading on the commute to work. I've never been concerned by technology; it always felt natural to me, but after months of consideration, I decided to go back to the handwritten journal of my childhood.

At the forefront of my mind was my favorite paper that I wrote during my undergraduate career. It wasn't my best paper, or even my most original, but it was the first paper where I ever felt like I was doing "real" research. The topic was on how women were able to influence desertion in the American Civil War through "domestic persuasion" and the bulk of my research came from analysing the language used in letters written by women during the War. Thanks to the American Civil War: Letters and Diaries digital archive at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (unfortunately, it has now become a limited-access archive due to recent 'attacks' on their servers), I was able to read hundreds of letters written by ordinary women during the Civil War. None of them were out of the ordinary: news about the children, news about the farm, 'I miss you,' 'I wish you'd come home'. These women could never have imagined that their letters would one day be important, would one day be read by scholars and anyone with an interest and a modem.

I was thinking about these letters, and then thinking about all of the phone and instant message conversations lost, all the emails deleted. Am I deleting myself when I do it? And I thought of the elegant simplicity of words handwritten on a lined page; if it's important enough that I want to remember it, then it's important enough to take the time to write it down. Somehow, in this age of information overload and talk of the 'Infinite Archive,' I am still placing a disproportionate importance on written records. Will historians in the future see it that way? Will they even bother to look at written records, when digital ones are so freely available?

I've never thought of myself as reactionary, but I have started writing again.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It's just like driving a stick-shift...

I'll admit that in the last few days my thoughts about this blog have been a lot like my thoughts whenever I got behind the wheel of my last car (RIP 1988 Volkswagen Golf): it'll be fine if only I can figure out how to get it started. So, I guess I'll begin with explaining how I got here.

For better or for worse, I am a teacher. I'm still working at defining what separates the good teachers from the bad teachers, and deciding what category I fit into, but I have that little certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers that says that I am fit to teach history. Now, last year, as a first year, newly-minted teacher, I was given a teaching post at a middle school in South-East England and told, 'you are your own history department.' I had a bookshelf of resources, some excellent and some not worth the paper they were printed on, a vague guide to the History National Curriculum, 300 students, ranging from ages 9-13, and almost no knowledge of English history. But, I gave it my best shot, and by the end, some of those students had learned something about history.

But, it was around January, while sitting in that Volkswagen Golf in an IKEA parking lot, that I began to rant. Not about the students, or the resources, or even the National Curriculum, but about historical interpretation. I could start with my youngest year fives, teach them about primary and secondary sources, how to use them properly, why they're not always reliable, why we have to look at who wrote the source and why, and how we can use even 'wrong' sources to learn about the time period. I had 26 10-year olds in stitches, as I turned a lesson on Henry VIII and Anne of Cleaves into a lesson about portraits and agency. However, by the time they got to year seven and eight and were beginning to write real essays it all fell apart. Even the brightest students faltered and wrote things like, 'I know that the Norman army was stronger than the Anglo-Saxon army because the teacher said so.' And no amount of coaxing could convince them otherwise.

And then I thought about my own time in school, and the short-comings of my History classes. The very ideas that I was trying to teach 10-year olds, were the same ideas that I had trouble grasping until my second year of university. The problem is not the students, it's how history is taught. You can't teach students to question sources in an environment where the teacher and the textbook are considered the ultimate sources of truth, and no amount of digital classrooms, online archives, or SMART boards can ever change that. Meanwhile, I'm churning out hundreds of young students who hate history. They see it as boring, entirely removed from their lives, and mainly teacher-driven.

In my frustration that day in the IKEA parking lot, I turned to my significant other and ranted, 'There has to be a better way of doing this!'

I don't know if there is. I know we have the resources, but I don't know if there is enough will-power to change the way that history is taught in schools. In fact, the way history is taught as a whole; it shouldn't just be the teacher delivering the dates and events, or the museum showing an artefact in some context, but a discourse between the past and the public. History isn't boring; it's an enigma, a good story, a gateway to critical thinking skills.

But, I guess that's why I'm here.