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J.L. Granatstein is roundly panned for his old-fashioned views

Teaching Canadian history depends on social context

by Tim Hornyak

"Peace, order and good government." If that phrase doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. Fewer than 45 per cent of 1,500 respondents of a 20-question Canada Day survey conducted for the Dominion Institute last year could name it as Canada's national slogan. Twenty-five per cent thought the answer was the U.S.'s "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," while 30 per cent replied with France's motto, "Liberty, equality and fraternity." Only half of the survey's participants received a passing grade.

Canadians are woefully uninformed about their country's past, argues historian Jack Granatstein in Who Killed Canadian History? His national bestseller was recently published in paperback after selling more than 10,000 hardcover copies. Following public debate in Parliament and the media about the state of Canadian history, the Bronfman Foundation and telecommunications group BCE have offered to invest $50 million for the creation of a Centre for Canadian History to promote our past.

A professor emeritus of history at York University and current director of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Granatstein blames Canadians' lack of knowledge on the federal and provincial governments, the media and, chiefly, our schools.

"The simple truth is that Canada's public and high schools have not only stopped teaching most world history, but have also given up teaching anything we might call Canadian or national history," he writes. The situation in university history depart ments, he alleges, "is just as bleak," because many historians have focused exclusively on the injustices and marginalized social groups of the past, ignoring traditional subjects such as Confederation and Canada's wartime roles.

To gauge local response to the issue, we asked a few of Concordia's historians the following question: "How should Canadian history be taught?"

Ron Rudin

I think one of the problems with Granatstein's book is that he presumes that there is a single right way to teach Canadian history, but history is taught in different ways, and understood in different ways by different people. You pick the facts that interest you, and assuming the facts are right, different people are going to come to different conclusions. It's kind of na•ve and pointless to find a single, right answer.

What we try to teach students is that there are a lot of ways to look at the past, and which one you might ultimately accept, well, that's your decision. But what makes history interesting is that there are various answers. The whole idea that you can create a kind of official version of history that would be superior to others really flies in the face of encouraging students to think about different ways of looking at the past.

Richard Diubaldo

I have consummate respect for Granatstein, but if you want to use the dry old, dusty, musty constitutional history, or World War II, or how we developed as a nation, how does this impact on the groups that we're looking at?

We tend now to look at various groups, such as natives and women. I do the same thing when I teach my Northern history course, but my students have to understand the development of the country. When we did have the constitutional, great-epic approach to Canadian history, it didn't talk about the injustices, and that approach can never be again, unless our society becomes arch-conservative. That epoch ended with the 1960s, because that's when you get the real rise of revisionist history, which was, to some degree, a fragmented history.


Graham Carr

One of the first things we should be doing is trying to get students interested in history, period. Whether it's Canadian history is secondary from my perspective. It's more important for them to develop an appreciation of history and a sense of how to go about doing history and getting excited about that. If they then want to study Canadian history or African history, that's their choice.

It's important for Canadians to know some Canadian history, but one of the things I dislike about these Granatstein-type arguments is the sense that there's got to be a core curriculum of X number of facts and episodes and events that people should all be able to know, discuss and memorize. To me, that's not what studying history is all about. Processes like industrialization, urbanization or modernization you can't pigeonhole as having taken place in a specific year or five-year period. Those are surely important things that students of Canada should know about as well.

Graeme Decarie

Who Killed Canadian History? is the kind of book that will appear to make a lot of sense to people who don't know much about history and who've never taught it. But it's a silly book; it's a rant. It's uninformed. It's contradictory. I couldn't believe I was reading such drivel coming from a trained historian. In the first place, Granatstein assumes that [Canadians' ignorance of their history] is because of the schools. He says the schools used to teach the kind of history he liked in the days when he was a student. Well, if that's true, then that must mean that in those days, Canadians knew their history well. He shows no evidence that they did, and I doubt very much whether they did.

I'm not defending the history as it's taught in the schools; I think there are real problems with it. If you look at this idea of an official, national history for the whole country, we have a system like that in Quebec, and it's appallingly bad. Any national history is going to be bad, because it has to go through 76 committees and satisfy all kinds of interest groups. Granatstein also makes the mistake of assuming that you can drum citizenship into people by teaching, which is the purest bullshit. It has no such effect on people. He doesn't recognize that what history does is train you how to use your own head, how to think, how to evaluate information, how to make judgments, and that's a very important part of history.

Diana Pedersen

Most people don't understand that historians are always interpreting and revising history. Someone like Granatstein comes along and starts blathering about "revisionist historians" as if there were something wrong with being a revisionist. That's what we do as a discipline; we revise and we rewrite history according to the issues and preoccupations of people in the present. History has done that as an academic discipline for over a hundred years.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.