Thursday, February 11, 2021

History of thinking for money

CBC News recently covered the Alberta government's efforts to devise a new elementary school curriculum, with a lot of emphasis on the political connections of some of the consultants and a lot of attention to the fact that they are being paid (and that some of them are actually not Albertans).

I have grave doubts about the current government of Alberta and the kind of historical education it will choose for the province's students. But much of that is politics. Elect the wrong policy makers and you are apt to get the wrong policies -- as Albertans seem to be learning, given the unpopularity there of the premier and his party. 

By all means, criticize the advice and the pedagogy in the Alberta school curriculum project. But this story seems to cast suspicion on anyone who takes fees for consulting on school curriculum. I take particular note of how the story examines payments to Paul Bennett and Christopher Champion.

I used to know Paul Bennett when he was a history teacher in Toronto years ago. He's gone on to a stellar career as a school principal and administrator in Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. He holds both a Master's in History and a doctorate in Education and has been on faculty at St. Mary's University.  He now runs an educational consulting firm -- and getting paid for providing professional advice in precisely the field in which he has distinguished himself should not be grounds for suspicion.

Christopher Champion is more politically identified, for sure, as a former aide to Jason Kenney in his federal career, for instance, and as a polemical commentor and editor. But he holds a Ph.D in history and has held faculty positions in history at a number of Canadian universities. Whateve you think of his historical views or his politics, the Canadian historical academy has evidently credentialed him to teach history, and presumably to consult regarding curriculum, even in return for fees.  

I'm in favour of competent people with demonstrated and credentialled skills in history being paid for their work. I've done a lot of it myself and take some pride in that. It's unfortunate, I think, that with the historical profession being so identified with the academy, it is sometimes implied or assumed that anyone taking money for giving historical advice for pay deserves to be treated with suspicion -- as in the article linked to above.  Lawyers and doctors and engineers bill for their professional services without their integrity being impugned thereby. The article reminds me we're not quite there with historians. 

And frankly, the Alberta fees the article cites don't look that high. I'm not sure I'd be interested (not that they asked).  

I don't consult on curriculum, because I don't teach. But I did once turn down an invitation to consult with a government on historical policy. In the Harper years someone in the Privy Council Office called about advice on the new Discover Canada handbook being prepared for immigrants about to take the Canadian citizenship test. I was dubious about such a project being run by PCO politicos. From the national museums to the Historical Sites and Monuments Board to Parks Canada, and within some departments, the feds actully employ quite a few historians who might have been assigned. 

But I wasn't opposed on principle. What killed the deal was that they wanted the advice for free, as if it were my patriotic duty or something. Historians, if they ain't paying for your advice, they probably shouldn't listen to it, either.      

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