Monday, March 06, 2017

'Why weren't we taught this history in school?" is a whiny cliche

Browsing notes (no, really browsing, not reviewing the latest "browser" software):
  • I'm browsing through the current Literary Review of Canada, and I find Donna Bailey Nurse's thoughtful review of Steal Away Home, a new book recently noted here. But the reviewer, having picked up on various intriguing small details the author has unearthed about Toronto's 19th century black community, is moved to complain: "'Why hadn't I encountered this history in school?"
  • I'm browsing through the local paper, and there's Toronto's lively urbanist Shawn Micallef describing how a detour off the soul-destroying Highway 401 leads him, via a historic plaque, to the remarkable pre-contact Southwold Earthworks near the Lake Erie shore. But he can't simply admire the place, he has to complain that, even though he once went to school, "It's a place and history I wasn't taught."
  • I'm browsing through a soon-to-be-published book with a lot to say about dysfunction in parliament. But I'm continually brought up short by the author's explanation that parliament is so dumb because "inadequate education in the primary and secondary levels' has not taught Canadians what they need to know about democracy.
Yeesh. Where does this whiny cliche come from, particularly from otherwise smart people?  It seems to articulate a deep social consensus that if only we hired people to ram enough history down kids' throats in Grade 5, then we could all lead blissful adult lives, never again learning one new historical thing -- indeed,complaining when we actually do.

Nurse mentions her contacts with the Ontario Black History Society. Micallef constantly researches the surprising past of Toronto neighbourhoods.  The parliament book is based on some wide reading. All these writers, in other words, actually do learn new things, new historical things, all the time. 

It's just that they all think they should complain about that, that they have to blame some negligent or possibly malevolent education system for not telling them already (at a time when they probably would not have been interested in the slightest.)

People, your Grade Five history teacher was never going to teach you everything ever to be known about history, any more than your Grade Five science teacher was going to teach you everything about nuclear fission, or your Grade Five math teacher was going to teach you everything about the algorithms behind derivatives trading. With the science and the math, you probably accept that.

But somehow, with history (and the associated civics), there seems to be this deep understanding that it is a subject only to be learned by children and that if there is some historical fact or interpretation we have not yet informed ourselves about as adults, it's the schools' fault.

No, it ain't. It's your own damn responsibility to keep educating yourself. There are new books, there are magazines, there are historical societies and historical plaques and sites and filmed docs, and.... Jeez, there are actually websites with all this stuff. You could keep kids in Grade 5 history class for twenty years, and they still wouldn't learn a tenth of what people seem to expect them to absorb, and most of it would go over their sweet childish heads anyway.  

But if adults accepted that learning new history (civics too) is an ongoing adult responsibility (and a cultural enrichment, and a pleasure), then young people would pick up that model, and not disdain their history classes because they see their elders disdaining historical knowledge too.

We have had subways in Toronto for some sixty years. Every time I notice how many people have not yet learned it is sensible to let the people on board get off through the doors before they try to get on through the doors, I reflect on the limits of what public education can achieve. The idea that a couple of lines in a classroom textbook somewhere will save democracy... I can't even.

Update, same day:  Jerry Bannister likes (and defines) it:
Great rant on the whole why-weren't-we-taught-this thing.
Mark Reynolds also likes it, but has a point to raise:
I think Micallef has a point about Southwold: it's possible the education system's improved since I was subject to it, but First Nations / Mi'qmaq history was almost entirely absent from my curriculum. If we could make it out to the Halifax Citadel, the Neptune Theatre, and the Fisherman's Museum in Lunenburg, I'm pretty certain we could have managed a field trip to the Glooscap Cultural Center in Truro or the Powwow in Millbrook.
Thanks, Mark. I'm going to take the opportunity to acknowledge that two of my examples do indeed relate to topics that surely have been minimized in schools and popular historical culture alike:  Black Canadians and First Nations.

But I doubt that even the most enlightened curriculum would give very much time to Southwold or to abolitionism in 1860s Toronto newspapers  (the examples given) -- or that kids would remember the details years later!  And the third example I mentioned is evidence, I hope, that exactly the same "Why don't the schools...? cry is heard about the most traditional subjects: Vimy Ridge, John A., Loyalists, parliament, whatever.

And from Chris Raible:
Over the years I have spoken to many historical societies - usually about some aspect of the life and times of William Lyon Mackenzie.

I think I never did so without some attendee commenting, "why were we not taught this in school?" (or words to that effect).

As an immigrant (now citizen) whose public education was in another country (the US) I could never do much more than shake my head in sympathy, and add that when I was in school my own mind was on much more urgent matters than history - so much I was probably taught I didn't really learn.
March 20:  From Donna Bailey Nurse:
Ah. I see you are using the word whiny to describe my concerns about dishonest history - perhaps to get back at me for using the word whiny to describe white racists in The Star a whole ten years ago. Way to hold a grudge! I am sorry if my criticizing white racism has hurt your feelings. At the same, your comments regarding my essay are mendacious and it is just this sort of dishonesty that causes more and more people -of every race- to distrust white historians. All I am asking is that you do your job with integrity. In other words, if you are going to write about slavery, do it honestly. And if you are going to teach slavery, do that honestly as well. Not everybody should be writing about racism. I know that many white people have a difficult time with that subject; You all have too much invested in keeping things the way they are.. But you've got to start taking responsibility for the enormous damage you have done in the world. You really must try harder to do the right thing.
Let me just say I rarely even read The Star ten years ago , let alone retaining a word-perfect memory of it. Beyond that, must say I agree with all that follows "All I am asking...."


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