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.


F. Grace Dungavell said...

It's like you were reading my mind.

F. Grace Dungavell said...

p.s. I passed the quiz on my 6th try (though two of the answers were just a lucky guess).

Nana Robinette said...

For me, I do see Granatstein's point, and yet agree with a lot of yours (obviously, I am still questioning my stance). I would have to agree that we need to 'shape it up' with regards to Canadian Political History (I have not taken the quiz for I am sure I would fail!).

In my undergraduate degree I was exposed, on numerous occasion, to classes that promised a wide-range of topics on Canadian History, but would often fall short. The reason for this was the Professors would become focused on their personal study and interests, offering this information to the class instead (and in great detail). Don't get me wrong, I really did enjoy the glimpse into my Professors' research – but I often felt like I had to teach myself the fundamentals through texts and course readings. An example, in a course called Canada: Post-Confederation, we spent an entire lecture on quilting bees. For me, this was a topic that could have (and probably should have) been explored through personal research.

For me, I think Social History is extremely valuable and would define myself as a Social Historian - but, I question: did I have a choice? When the majority of my Profs. took a social approach to history, was I encouraged to look at the political, economic, etc.?