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Remembering, Forgetting and the Stories We Tell

Posted by Thomas Peace
19 February 2012 - 12:59pm

Last week, as I was writing a review of Adele Perry’s and Esyllt Jones’s recently released People’s Citizenship Guide, an article in The Washington Post caught my eye. Afghanistan is about to launch a new public school history curriculum aimed at building peace and unity.  In an effort to build national unity, the new curriculum will only discuss events leading up to 1973.  Afghan students will not learn about the divisive subjects of Communism and the Soviet War, the Mujahedeen, the Taliban or the past decade of the American-led War on Terror. As a historian, I generally disagree with attempts to avoid teaching controversial subjects. The high stakes involved in this decision, however, caused me to pause and reflect on the review exercise in which I was engaged.

The People’s Citizenship Guide is a direct response to the Government of Canada’s controversial Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.  Jones and Perry’s book closely parallels the government guide.  It is about the same length, it addresses the same subject matter, and seeks to serve a similar purpose – informing Canadians (and soon-to-be Canadians) of the country’s past and present situation. 

The principal difference between the two guides is one of politics. These texts contain two different visions of Canada.  It is no secret that Discover Canada is an important tool in Stephen Harper’s attempt to rebrand Canada (along with muzzling the work of government scientists and statisticians).  As others have pointed out  - and Jones and Perry’s book well illustrates - this rebranding of Canada’s national image reduces the presence of conflict in Canadian history and is focused on national unity through a conservative set of hierarchical symbols of power and control (i.e. the military, the monarchy, etc…).  The People’s Citizenship Guide responds to this revision of Canada’s past (or return to an earlier, more conservative interpretation) by emphasizing how this vision has alienated and excluded (and continues to alienate and exclude, as Saturday’s Le Devoir has emphasized) millions of people living within Canada’s borders.  

This is where the article on history education in Afghanistan challenged me.  The new curriculum appears to subsume a complex and diverse vision of the past (which I tend to celebrate) in the interests of peace and national unity – conditions that are desperately needed in Afghanistan.  Differences in historical interpretation have much more dire potential consequences in Afghanistan than in Canada, and I found myself really debating the importance of diversity in nationally-focused history-telling.  Even at the height of the so-called History Wars – whose terms of reference underpin the differences between the stories told in each citizenship guide – the stakes were never as high as they are in Afghanistan.

I don’t know enough about Afghanistan to discuss whether its government has made a good or bad decision in leaving out the country’s post-1973 history.  The legacy of non-Afghans pontificating about what is best for Afghanistan, after all, seems to be one of the critical challenges that the country needs to overcome. The high-stakes of their decision, though, provides a useful opportunity on which to consider Canadian engagement with the past, and especially how it is taught. Afghanistan’s decision about their history curriculum helps to illustrate three important aspects about teaching history:

First, Afghanistan’s decision reveals the political nature of historical instruction.  By not telling the country’s post-1973 history, the government of Afghanistan is explicitly crafting their history curriculum for the purposes of national unification.  As with the Canadian government, they are choosing to tell some stories over others in an effort to shape the everyday decisions and identity of their citizens.

Second, and related to the point above, the past can be used for both constructive and deconstructive purposes.  Here, I don’t mean to associate positive and negative connotations to these terms, but rather, I want to emphasize the creative and destructive aspects of history-telling.  Both can have positive and negative outcomes.  History is rarely neutral. Jocelyn Létourneau’s A History for the Future helps to illustrate this point.  Létourneau considers historians bearers of hope who read the past with an eye to the future.  He writes:

“Through their work of writing the past as history, historians must strive to open the future as wide as possible.  They have to create conditions such that the concept of fixity never prevails… The ultimate role of historians, which gives fundamental meaning to their scholarly and civic activity, is to constantly encourage the men and women of their time to ask themselves not what they must remember in order to be, but what it means, in light of the experience of the past, to be what they are now.” (27)

This is the goal that seems to lie at the heart of Afghanistan’s new history curriculum.  This is also the goal of both Discover Canada and The People’s Citizenship Guide.

Third, far from striking the post-1973 period from the historical record, Afghanistan’s decision leaves the teaching of this controversial period to local communities and families. In Canada, community-based narratives about the past have helped – in part – to fuel historical inquiry since (at least) the 1960s.  Developments in fields like oral history and ethnohistory, as well as studies on popular uses of the past (such as Presence of the Past and Canadians and Their Pasts), demonstrate that while state-directed curriculum and narratives are powerful influences on public conceptions of the past, many communities whose stories are not included in official narratives nonetheless preserve, celebrate and convey their past to the next generation. Official ignorance – and sometimes even explicit exclusion – has not prevented these stories from being told.  As Canadian society has become more open to listening to diverse voices, these stories have re-emerged and been included more frequently in broad discussions of Canada’s history (examples include books like Franca Iacovetta’s Such Hardworking People, the Psychiatric Survivor’s Archive, and the collaboratively written The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7).  If Afghanistan’s post-1973 history is still too sensitive, its absence from the ‘official’ curriculum does not necessarily mean that this history will be forgotten.

Dwelling upon the recent changes to Afghanistan’s history curriculum helped me to see the teaching possibilities that arise from the publishing of The People’s Citizenship Guide.  The contrast between this text and Discover Canada presents a useful pedagogical opportunity to teach about these three aspects of the historian’s craft.  Neither text is technically incorrect in its presentation of Canada’s past.  In their marshalling of evidence, however, both citizenship guides make clear political statements about what it means to be a politically and socially engaged Canadian citizen.  They embody two different visions for Canada.  For high school and university teachers, placing the texts side-by-side will help students learn both about Canada’s past and present, but also about how historians construct and use the past in their work.  These texts are as much about the production of Canadian history as they are about the nature of citizenship.