A statue of John A. Macdonald is shown covered in red paint in Montreal in November 2017. Canada’s first Prime MInister, he has been criticized for his treatment of Indigenous peoples and attitudes towards those of Chinese origin. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Canadians are at war over their history.
The CBC series Canada: The Story of Us caused outrage in spring 2017 with the choices made for its historical storyline. Critics called the series anglocentric and said it omitted the roles of the Acadians and Mi'kmaq people.
Statues and names of prominent Canadians have also been the centre of vigorous debate across the country this year. One of these debates has focused on the statue of Edward Cornwallis in a public park in Halifax — the military officer who founded Halifax for the British in 1749, but also offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed an Indigenous person. They have also included calls from the the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) to remove so-called “architect of genocide” Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from elementary schools across the province.
Amid debates over the renaming of public buildings across the country, our public history is being hotly contested. And Canada is not alone. As protests and counter protests about the public commemoration of Civil War figures in the United States demonstrate, history is a significant public concern in many places around the world.
For history educators like myself, the good news is that the public obviously cares about history very much. The bad news is that we can’t seem to talk about it without resorting to name calling, vitriol and sometimes — as evident in recent events in Charlottesville — violence.
I believe the teaching of history to be more important than ever. History — if funded and taught well — can teach a tolerance for ambiguity. It can provide people with strategies to help them think through complex issues.
War, and war memorials in particular, are central to collective memory. Taught well, war offer windows into the construction of personal and national identity.
Our public discourse has become dangerously polarized — making democratic deliberation about collective memory, history and the common good almost impossible.
Reflecting on the 2017 French election, French political scientist Nicole Bacharan described the worry and stress resulting from, “the division of the country and the hatred that came out of groups of people who can’t discuss anything, can’t understand each other, can’t talk.”
Bacharan is just one of many voices lamenting the poverty of civic discourse in democratic jurisdictions around the world. The debates about public history installations are one manifestation of that wider trend. I think they illustrate an important aspect of this toxic polarization — a seeming inability to handle nuance.
Activists protest at the base of the Edward Cornwallis statue after city staff covered it with a black sheet in Halifax on July 15, 2017. (CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese)
Citizens want things kept simple. In their view, historical figures or events represented in public memorials are either iconic representations of virtue and progress that should stand for all time, or they are manifestations of evil and should be torn down. There seems to be no room for complex alternatives.
The trouble is, life is complicated and full of nuance. We like the dividing line between our heroes and villains to be clear but as Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out in The Gulag Archipelago:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
I am convinced that contemporary approaches to history education can help citizens develop the tolerance for complexity and ambiguity necessary to engage effectively in civic life.
Over the past half century there has been an explosion in theoretical and empirical research related to the teaching of history, and there is a growing consensus around the world about what constitutes effective teaching and learning in the field. Some key elements of that consensus include:
• History education must move beyond the transmission of what historians know to include attention to historical method — how historians know. This is often referred to as historical thinking.
• History education must include attention to historical consciousness, or how history and memory work to shape how we think about ourselves, our communities and our place in the world.
• There are many places where history can be learned, including classrooms, historical sites, museums, patriotic ceremonies and family events.
• History education must engage students in thinking about what constitutes evidence about the past and how we assess and construct accounts about the past.