Friday, July 09, 2021

History of the Reputation of History

Journalist Jeffrey Simpson was recently quoted in the Literary Review of Canada as finding 

the idea that Canada’s past has been a sad saga of widespread oppression, racism, and other forms of discrimination with few redeeming virtues to celebrate ...  is the prevailing discourse in university hist­ory departments toward Canada’s past, and a strong narrative of the Canadian Museum of Hist­ory, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and most contemporary authors about Canada’s past.

On the other hand, most recent discussion of residential school deaths and other atrocities include the rote declaration that "it has been left out of the history books" and "it is not taught in the schools."  We seem to have two diametrically opposed conventional wisdoms prevailing simultaneously -- neither of which is flattering to those who write about Canada's past.

It's evidence, perhaps, that a lot of people don't read much history ("history is boring... I'd rather learn from a novel," etc.) and don't pay much attention to what goes on in schools or universities. For what it's worth, my own children, now adults but both products of the Toronto public school system, recall hearing a good deal about treaties and residential schools in their school days.  

Indigenous studies has been one of the liveliest areas of historical scholarship in recent years, by both indigenous and non-indigenous writers. Jeffrey Simpson finds there the obsession with oppression, racism, and discrimination that he disapproves of in contemporary historical writing and museology. But progressive critics can only see neglect and underrepresentation of these same topics.  Disparagement of history and historians seems likely to continue from both sides. 

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