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Blog Contest: How Will Current Debates Over the Politicization of History Affect What Takes Place in History Classrooms?

Posted by Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer
28 May 2013 - 2:02pm

Much discussion has been taking place in the past few months over the Conservative government's interest in reshaping Canadian history.  This debate is perhaps best embodied  by historian Jack Granatstein’s recent history face-off with historian Ian McKay (Warrior’s Nation, BTL, 2012) on CBC 180 (May 9, 2013),  wherein he argued that it was time to tell the "Conservative side" of history. The politicizing of history is not new but it does challenge the careful and critical work of historians. History, like other disciplines, is open to different interpretations and debate and reflective of changes over time.  The 1960s saw the inclusion of social histories that included narratives about the working class, and other groups who had previously been marginalized or omitted in historical examinations. It was a much-needed step towards a more egalitarian approach to history, and an expansion of what was “allowed” in history course studies. For Granatstein, this approach represents an "NDP/Liberal version of the past."

These debates spill over into what is taught in history courses in schools and has been reflected in history curriculum discussions for many decades.  For example, in a 1973 article from a Toronto community newspaper entitled “The Secret History of Canada” (Community Schools, May/June, 1973, 23) educator Bob Davis noted: “to read most of our history books for children and teenagers, you’d think the CPR got built straight out of the minds of John A. Macdonald and his rich friends. You’d think our canals were built by the engineers and traders and that our trees and our fish dropped out of the forest and leaped out of the seas into the hands of ingenious business men who converted them into building materials, food and profits.” His comment reflects what many educators felt, that history taught in schools reflected a bias towards a corporate view of the past. These debates continue today and are explored in a book about global perspectives, History Wars and the Classroom (IAP, 2012)

Debates over which “side” of history to include in history courses reflects larger debates taking place in society. The fight over environmental conservation, over the rights of workers, over equal opportunity, and about the inequities between the control of resources and politics by “the 1%” are still highly contested and protested.  Recent movements such as “Occupy Wall Street” and “Idle No More” reflect some of these concerns and exist because of the inequities that are still pervasive in society.

Governments in power want school children to know the history that embodies their particular ideology.  The question is whether history students have the right to hear their own histories, the stories that include the experiences of ordinary Canadians. Or are we going to return to the kind of Canadian history that once dominated the curriculum? These are the stories of great white military and industrial men who, we are told, through their own independent brilliance, were able to accomplish so much for this country. These narratives still get a lot of air play. Regional, social, cultural histories provide an important lens into understanding ourselves and the ways in which we are both unique and part of the Canadian whole. How can we forget the thousands of working people who actually did the work to make wealthy industrialists’ dreams a reality? It becomes difficult for us to challenge the emphasis on the elite when, in society as a whole, we continue to uphold these imbalances. For example, when we celebrate the opening of a new concert hall, do we bring construction workers to the celebrations to share a drink of champagne? Our social organization consists of major inequalities; these conditions play themselves out in the classroom and in curriculum. Making systemic change is difficult, but embracing the history of all Canadians is imperative, if we want to continue to call ourselves a democracy.

What do you think?

Photo: Frontenac Answering Phips's Messenger, 1690, by CW Jefferys. Public domain.




It will certainly be

It will certainly be interesting to see how Harper's new interest in history makes its way into the classroom.  I think there is a lot of room for discussion and critical analysis of the current government's public displays of Canadian history- which is always good for the classroom. 

Choices will be made

Thank you so much for your comment. I think that teachers will have choices to either embrace the focus on military heroism and sacrifice or challenge the national narratives by broadening the lens in which they teach war. Hope they make the right choice!