Monday, March 16, 2009

Obligatory Canadian history?

The kids at St Theresa Secondary School in Belleville, Ontario, think they deserve more Canada in their school classes. Indeed, they think everyone does.

They have launched an online petition -- find it here -- to "change the high school graduation requirements [in Ontario] to include a mandatory Canadian history course at the grade 12 level." The St Theresa gang were inspired by a Dominion Institute survey and they have the support of Canada's National History Society and the Ontario Historical Society.

I applaud the efforts of the students (and all their backers are old comrades of mine). But this is one petition I am not going to sign.

Students entering Grade 12 have a lot of choices to make and a lot of options to choose from. They feel their futures and their careers are on the line. It's really only in Grades 11 and 12 that they have any serious range of course options to chose from. So they have difficult choices to make; I think they can choose for themselves.

And while I'm second to none in supporting history classes for those who want them, I'm actually cool to pushing history down anyone's throat. Nor am I convinced that history is the only pathway to the kind of Canadian knowledge and Canadian citizenship the students (and I!) want to promote. What's wrong with a course in law that brings kids up against our Canadian legal system, the Charter, and the rights and obligations of citizenship? Or a philosophy course plumbing the meaning of citizenship, liberty, and the balance of individual and society? Or an economic course investigating how Canada does its business? Or a politics course, or one in Canadian literature? And that's not to mention the value for French-language studies to anyone deeply engaged with this country. In other words, there are lots of ways for Grade 12 students to engage with Canada without being locked into a mandatory history course.

And hey, don't we want our kids to be scientifically literate, and knowledgeable about the environment, and physically fit, and ...? There are not enough slots in the schedule for all the courses a bright, curious, conscientious high school student will want to take already!

And I mean no discredit to our educators when I say that the real crisis in Canadian historical knowledge is not in the schools, but outside the schools. It's a truism that "no history" is taught in our schools. But my children have both gone through the Ontario public schools in recent years, and it seems they did Canadian history endlessly -- and very little of any other kind of history.

It's not by forcing history on school kids that we will save the country or even build a historically-literate society. When we build a consciousness throughout society that Canadian history is a civic skill and a cultural treasure that adults and citizens should cherish for themselves, then we will not have to worry about delegating the task of knowing history to schoolchildren.
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