Friday, July 09, 2010

Call ourselves an institute

What's most striking about the tempest in a teapot over the possible renaming of Ottawa's Wellington Street "Macdonald Avenue" -- is how much the discussion relies on non-academic historians. In coverage I've seen, the debate is led, quite ably, by writer Rob Plamondon (yes, make the change), the Macdonald-Cartier Institute Society(no, don't), Andrew Cohen of Historica-Dominion (yes), and Rudyard Griffiths of the former Dominion Institute (no). Here's a well-sourced story on a matter of historical meaning, and the press doesn't see the need to consult a single professor of history, not even the regular quotables (I'm thinking of you, Des).

I find this a good thing, mostly. We benefit from an engaged, informed historical "public sector" drawing the links between historical meaning and public policy choices. 

But it also reflects what we might call "the silence of the academy" these days. Among the army of Canadianists in our university history departments, there are many busy, dedicated and hardworking scholars, but vanishingly few, it seems, who are writing big books or otherwise disseminating ideas that resonate with broader ideas about Canadian history.  I try to cover the waterfront, looking for big, serious, important contributions about the history of this country... and some days the gleanings seem pretty thin, compared to the historical resources we have.

So I'm starting to read In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia (by Ian McKay and Robin Bates) with added interest. At first glance, it seems to be a professorial attack on history done by people who are not professors. I'm eager to know more, but I wonder if the simple fact that so much history is done by people who are not history professors is going to be a subtext here. 

As for the controversy itself, I like the point of view of Professor Andrew. particularly on the problems in the trend to pedestalizing our prime ministers.

Update, July 13: Petition to save the Wellington Street name is here.
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