Mythic History in a Canadian Classroom

Posted on September 13, 2011


From Featherfolk, a work in progress.


History & Worldview in Education


1. A Classroom Visit

Let’s for a moment visit a fictional social studies classroom in an entirely fictional Canadian school.  Over the classroom door is an inscription:


On the first day of classes a student asks the teacher, “What does that mean?”

“It’s a saying,” the teacher replies.  “It means that the winners write history the way they want to hear it, and most times they don’t tell the whole truth.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” said the student.  “It sounds like lying.”

“No, it’s not fair, and it’s misleading too,” said the teacher, “but that’s the way it has always been, and we can’t change it.”

“But why is that saying over the door?” asked the student.

“Because that’s the way we teach history here,” said the teacher.

Now I can hear someone objecting that there couldn’t be a classroom like that in Canada, and that may be so.

No one would put an inscription like that over the door.

No one would admit that there are victors and losers in Canadian classrooms.

But if you ask, do they give a fair and balanced account of history in Canadian social studies classrooms?-I won’t tell you that they don’t.

Not if you don’t want to hear it.

2.  What You Can Learn from a Bad Report Card

In 1995, educator/historian James W. Loewen wrote a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me about the teaching of history in United States classrooms.  His starting point was a dozen fat popularly-used American history textbooks.  He evaluated them for accuracy and balance, and for how well they gave a student an understanding of history.

No textbook did well in any of these areas.  No accuracy, no balance, very little understanding.  And the schools that used these texts, far from educating their students, miseducated them.

Loewen wrote, “History is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become.”[1] Here’s a remark to set somebody’s ears on fire.

That was not a good report card.

In his introduction to Lies, Loewen observes that high school students of colour-African Americans, Latinos, Aboriginal people-particularly dislike history[2].  They do poorly in it, worse in comparison to Euro-American students than they do in math or English.  Why should this be so, Loewen asks, since there is nothing intrinsically more difficult about history than the two other subjects?  Why should history be more mysterious to these students than cosines or passive voice?

One explanation was available:  the textbooks, and the curricula they were part of, systematically avoided, de-emphasized or misled in respect to sensitive topics, topics like racism, the class system, slavery and the resettlement ofAmerica.   Some of these topics might be considered sensitive to people of the Euro-American majority.  The issue of class might be considered sensitive to people who believe[3], or claim, that social classes went away with kings and queens.  But for the descendants of people enslaved by the Europeans, for the poor, for Aboriginal people, for the victims of racism, these topics are the very essence of history.  They lie at the heart of their own stories, and their own stories cannot be understood unless these issues are dealt with, openly and fairly.

We have here a basic problem, not confined to the American history classrooms of the 1990s.  History is misunderstood or dimly understood because no real effort is taken to make it whole.

As historian Norman Davies has said, “If textbooks of human anatomy were designed with the same attention to structure, one would be contemplating a creature with one lobe to its brain, one eye, one arm, one lung and one leg.”[4]

History is not made inclusive, it is not honestly told, because many history and social studies classrooms have their own – largely unconscious – class structure.  The division I am addressing, I should add, primarily flows from curriculum, not from social relations in the classroom.

Regardless, in the classrooms where these curriculums are taught, there are, in essence, the real people and the other people, an Us and a Them.  The real people (the Us, the We) are the majority children who have their story told the way their parents and elders prefer to hear it, a history told from a strictly European[5] point of view.  The other people (the Them) are the minority children who, at best, have their stories ignored or avoided, and, at worse, distorted or replaced by historical mythmaking.

This division in the curriculum between who gets their story told and who does not explains why minority children do especially badly in history class.   There, more than in any other classroom, they are outsiders.

Loewen’s study looked not just at what the textbooks taught, but how they taught it.  Again, he gave them failing grades.  The textbooks inevitably denied controversy.  They presented history as if it were settled and known, without controversy, with right answers and wrong answers which, by implication, everybody agrees upon.  No competent historian would make such claims about history.

The textbooks removed historical cause and effect, and replaced genuine historical analysis with a long, tortuous compilation of facts and dates.  Facts and dates are important in history, but they require context to be understood, which is what historical analysis provides, and what cause and effect is all about.  You cannot learn history by memorizing facts and dates, any more than you can learn to cook by memorizing a grocery list.  Even a list of ingredients from a recipe, without instructions, gives a better guide to understanding than a history textbook which lacks analysis.  From a recipe list you would at least know the proper proportions of things.  You have to know the proper proportion of things in history as well.

The history that the textbooks served the students was bland, nutritionless and boring.  They rendered history boring by making it bloodless, and by serving it up with prose as savory as sawdust.  Replacing interest and engagement with boredom is flawed pedagogy in any case, for any subject or any student.  In history class, the problem can be worse than boredom for students whose story, for one reason or another, the textbooks have left out.

In Notes From a Dead House [1862] (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow) Fyodor Dostoyevsky addresses his experience in a Russian prison camp. He writes:

It once occurred to me that if it were desired to crush a man completely, to punish him so severely that even the most hardened murderer would quail, it would only be needed to make his work absolutely pointless and absurd. . . . Yet all compulsory labor contains a grain of this agonizing vacuity and humiliation and that is why hard labor is far more agonizing than voluntary work could ever be. [30,31]

To break a convict, make his work meaningless, humiliating.

But what could be more meaningless to minority students than being imprisoned in a history classroom learning somebody else’s history, a history out of which most matters directly relevant to their own lives have been edited?   Euro-American students would be bored in those classrooms as well, given the predigested nature of the material and the textbooks’ mumble-mouthed prose.  But they could see at least that they were studying their own history.  It might not be history well taught, but at least it wasn’t meaningless.  Minority students lack even that much incentive to keep their eyes open.

So they fail, or drift away.

Minority students would not necessarily know what is missing from their textbooks or their history curriculums, or be aware that their own viewpoints are being slighted.  There are no inexplicable blank spots or empty chapters to indicate where information about them is being left out.  There is no rule, posted on the bulletin board in the hallway outside the office, which states that everybody’s history must be told in history class.  In most cases (unless a student has a parent or relative at home who is versed in a more complete version of history) they have no way of knowing what is missing, or any basis for asking that it be put back.  They would only know that what is there in front of them doesn’t matter much to them.

The issue I am talking about, it seems to me, results from teaching worldview instead of history.  It is a worldview that incorporates history, that resembles it in some ways, but it is informed by an understanding of the world which is cultural, idiosyncratic and self-congratulatory.  It is a Euro-Canadian or a Euro-American worldview, a worldview that has failed to grow and develop to encompass the fact that not everyone in Canada and the United States is of European descent.  Given North America’s multicultural reality, it is an elitist and immature worldview.

Worldview, like personality, is a universal expression, something that we carry around with us as human beings, although the details of that expression differ from culture to culture, from person to person.  Worldview represents a theory, or a bundle of theories, about the world, that aids a person or a culture to understand their place in the scheme of things.  Worldview can filter experience, like the green-tinted glasses that Dorothy wore when she visited the Emerald City of Oz.

The idea of worldview resides in close association with the idea of identity, and, like identity, represents a particular, as opposed to a universal, way of looking at things.  Worldview inevitably talks about us guys as opposed to those guys.  The lack of a universal, or at least multifaceted, viewpoint is one of the things that separates worldview from history.  A particular work of history may represent a particular point of view, or make a particular argument.  But the discipline of history recognizes the value of multiple arguments, and multiple points of view, to which the individual voices contribute.

Worldview and history are often confused because they occupy much of the same psychological ground.  They both have explanatory value and draw on many of the same sources.  History and worldview both take a historical approach to things, because it is difficult to know where you are unless you know something of the paths that led you there.  But worldview usually has a mythic or a doctrinal component which imposes meaning, whereas history, in theory at least, tries to discover meaning rather than impose it.  The uses which worldview and history make of the past, the questions they ask and answer in respect of it, are different and often incompatible.

In the culture to which three of my grandparents belong, that of the Tsimshian people of the north coast of British Columbia, every family has its own story, or set of stories.  One particular type of story refers to the actions of people who founded the individual lineages in the community, people who lived a long time ago, whose skills and experiences often lie outside and beyond the skills and experiences of anybody living today.  Stories like that are sometimes called myths or legends.

A story of a similar nature from outside the Tsimshian culture is the one the Latins tell of Romulus and Remus, two brothers raised by a wolf mother who went on to found the city of Rome.  This story is still widely told and remembered, and depictions of the wolf-mother can still be seen all over the city of Rome.

In Tsimshian society, along with every family’s cache of stories comes the exclusive right to tell and depict these stories.  The stories are copyright.  One thing would clearly not happen.  You wouldn’t find anybody insisting that all the other families adopt their singular version of things.  Quite the contrary.  If someone from another family presumes to tell a story that he or she is not entitled to tell, that person will be told to stop.  Go get your own story.  That story doesn’t belong to you.  Some stories, by their nature, are not for sharing.  They are copyright, licensed in the feast house.  If anyone was permitted to use them at will, a family would lose a cherished uniqueness, a part of its pride.

The creating and the nurturing of a unique identity is a universal phenomenon among human societies.  On a personal level, identity addresses the fact of me and you.  On a societal level, identity addresses the fact of Us and Them.  A society’s image of itself, often constructed at least partly through stories, is that society’s worldview.

Worldviews contain value judgements about the world, about society, about the ordering of things.  Some values are pretty much universal-family and community, for instance-and others-like values upholding certain ideals of social structure-vary significantly from society to society.  Worldviews, because of the value systems imbedded in them, represent an implicit judgement of other societies.  That means that worldviews clash, in the same way that points of view clash.  In these clashes there are sometimes legitimate issues to be resolved, like minority rights and gender issues.  In other cases the real issue is ego.  It’s not the differing worldviews that are creating strife and friction, but the insistence that one version, one point of view, one value system, is the definitive and only true and right way to understand the world.  One size fits all.  No other value systems need apply.

We have the right way.  The rest of you are just barbarians.

Sometimes worldview takes the form of history.  Worldview expressed as history is history told from a single point of view.  There are central characters and there are peripheral characters.  Implicitly the central characters are the important ones, and the peripheral characters are just there to fix dinner or provide local colour, to be discovered or conquered or saved or enslaved by the central characters.  Quite often peripheral characters don’t even have names, although they usually have colourful costumes or a titillating lack of same.  History told in this way is like a trial where only one side is heard:  its judgements are unreliable.  And such a trial is unlikely to satisfy or serve the needs of anyone other than the one who gets to testify.  It’s especially unsatisfactory for those aforementioned peripheral characters.

When worldview is presented as history, as seems to be the case with the American history textbooks that Loewen examined, not all people are treated evenhandedly.  Implicitly, history told in this way is saying-while suppressing all evidence to the contrary-that some people are more important than other people.

They have larger skulls, perhaps.

But really, is such an approach acceptable?  Maybe we shouldn’t be promoting such narrow, uninclusive viewpoints in social studies or history class.  Perhaps we should let history be history, and promote worldview in another way, a way that doesn’t create winners and losers in the classroom, and incidentally doesn’t bend the truth quite as much.

The antidote to historical mythmaking is an honest engagement with real history.

Norman Davies suggests, “Readings about Europe might arouse less resentment if they were laced with some of its less savoury aspects.  Intelligent students can always sense when something is concealed, when they are not expected to understand, but to admire.”[6]

But the issue is more profound than that, I think.  It is not just that scholastic cheerleading in support of Western civilization is off-putting for minorities.  It is also that the suppression of certain kinds of uncomfortable facts can have the effect of catalyzing racialized thinking.

Let us say that one of the purposes of schooling, a purpose that is put into action in a social studies classroom, is to build citizenship, the sense that people belong to something that is worth preserving.  One of the ways this is done is by the telling and the learning of our common history.  But here we run into a contradiction.

It can’t be a common history if some people are left out of it.

It can’t be a common history if you lie by omission.

What I am talking about applies even in kindergarten.  That little boy won’t go to your birthday party if what you say about him isn’t true.  That little girl won’t give you a Valentine if you didn’t bother to learn her name.  Everybody knows that it wasn’t fair:  the other reindeer should have let Rudolph join in their reindeer games.  Because nobody likes to be left out.

History that lies or omits does not unite, it divides.

According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), “For Aboriginal youth remaining in school can be a lonely, isolating and degrading experience.”[7] A curriculum that excludes Aboriginal people contributes, I suggest, to that experience, and contributes to dropout rates and failure as well.  As Schissel and Wotherspoon say in The Legacy of School for Aboriginal People, “Boredom in general, often induced by irrelevant curricula, is frequently cited in the literature on school dropouts as a cause of early school leaving.”[8]

Now it is not true that creating a more inclusive curriculum is enough by itself to address the needs of Aboriginal students.  Having teachers who care and a supportive and understanding school environment are equally as important.  And the retooling of history and social studies courses is not the only way to make education relevant to Aboriginal students.  Often Aboriginal languages are taught, elders are brought in, and Aboriginal culture classes are offered.

But a balanced teaching of history is not just important for the needs of minority students.  It is important to everyone.  I have proposed already that a balanced teaching of history has the potential of combating racism by dispelling the illusion that, for instance, Europe was important because it had Europeans in it.  A focus which remained exclusively European, which focused on European accomplishment to the exclusion of everyone else, would create such an illusion, and thus would nurture racism.  I’m afraid it wouldn’t do much good at that point to tell your students not to be racist when all the information you have given them otherwise appears to be evidence to the contrary.

If we teach history badly.  If we teach worldview in the guise of history.  If because of the way we teach history, some people drop out and the ones who remain are misled.  If a history education is a miseducation.  Then those who flunk out of history class are, ironically better off that those who learn their lessons well.  Those who flunk out might not know much history, but – considering what has often been offered as history at the grade and secondary school level – that just means that they have less to unlearn.

That is not an irony anybody should be comfortable with.

[1] Simon & Schuster, 1996, 12.

[2] In the Vancouver Sun article mentioned earlier, and the follow-up story (11 September 2005, A1, A6-7), an Aboriginal student is profiled, as an example of a typical Aboriginal student in danger of flunking out, I suppose.  The student mentions repeatedly that he does not like and has troubles with Social Studies, but it flutters out there like a flag in the wind and no one seems to notice it.  The preferred approach is to deal with him as a member of an at-risk group, not as a person who might be better served by relevance in what he learns in school.  I say, relevance works, labeling does not.

[3] Perhaps because they learned it in school.

[4] Europe: A History. (1997) Pimlico,London, p. 22.

[5] By European I mean mostly Euro-American and Euro-Canadian, sometimes more specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  That is, I use European to refer to the North American populations usually encompassed by the alternative terms “White person,” or, less kindly, (and in a more limited sense) WASP.

[6] P.30.

[7] Quoted in The Legacy of School for Aboriginal People (2003) by Bernard Schissel and Terry Wotherspoon, Oxford University Press,Canada, page 120.

[8] P.121.

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