Promises Rigour, But Not History
History as a core
subject is being relegated to history, even though
young Canadians know little about their past.
By Ludi Habs
The question of what should
constitute curriculum for a graduating Ontario
secondary school student has surfaced again with the
governments initiatives in secondary reform.
Weve all heard the calls for more English, math
and science. But what about history?
future voters and education ministers
know little about history, especially Canadian
they have rights. But these same students have no
idea where those rights come from.
36 per cent of Canadian youth could correctly
name 1867 as the date of Confederation.
dont know why we are so different from our
neighbours to the south, although they automatically
sport the Maple Leaf patch on their Europe-bound
knapsacks. They are confused about why the
Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development has once again placed Canada at the top
of the best-places-to-live list.
exasperation with Québecers, but dont know why
Québec keeps insisting on its right to be known as
distinct. They dont understand why, in January
of this year, the federal government apologized to
Canadas native Canadians for the dismal
treatment of native children.
26 per cent identified either the War of 1812
or the Revolutionary/War of Independence as
one of the wars during which Canada was
invaded by the United States.
students do not know these things because they do not
know history. They have never learned who we are,
where we came from and what we have contributed to
the development of both Canada and the world.
Over the past
two decades history has been neglected in favour of
the so-called practical subjects. Even the history
that is taught has become a post-modernist view of
popular culture. Madonna has become more important
35 per cent knew what D-Day was.
I spent a year teaching in Switzerland, I had the
opportunity to take my students to Flanders and
France during the 50th anniversary of the liberation
of the Dutch from German occupation. Crowds of Dutch
children, waving hundreds of Canadian flags, were
honouring a parade of Canadian veterans.
who presumably knew why we were visiting Flanders,
asked me what was going on. They had no idea why
Dutch children would be waving Canadian flags on
six per cent named the Beothuks as the native
people from Newfoundland who were hunted to
extinction by European settlers.
the Gulf War raged briefly, teachers who had
discovered e-mail were quick to claim that their
students could now speak to children around the
world. While Saddam Husseins Scud missiles
rained down on Tel Aviv, Canadian students could hear
first-hand about the experiences of a foreign child
under attack. However, many had no idea why the
missiles were aimed at Israel in the first place.
Last year the
Dominion Institute commissioned an Angus Reid survey
into what our youth know about Canadian history. The
results released for Canada Day were
abysmal. Young Canadians scored 34 per cent on the
asked 30 questions about Canadas political
past, Canada-U.S. relations, ethnic and cultural
diversity, military history, and arts and human
survey, a number of newspaper articles echoed similar
findings. Historian Desmond Morton, in The Toronto
Star, lamented that "history has been losing a
20-year struggle against social studies, civics,
economics, moral education and kindred
Stars Talking Point, Mark
Toljagic related an anecdote about a friend who was
teaching at a local college. The teacher was
commenting on how the political parties were falling
over themselves to claim ownership of the right wing.
As Toljagic tells it, "His statement was greeted
with more blank looks than usual. Why, one student
asked, was he talking about hockey?"
the Ministry of Education
and Training and politicians have expressed
concern over these examples of historical ignorance.
But are they doing anything about it?
Institute called a meeting to discuss the results of
the survey. They invited government caucus members to
give advice and direction as to how this problem
could be resolved through the proposed educational
reforms. Only three MPPs showed up. One MPP, John
OToole (PC-Durham East) was quoted as saying,
"On a list of 20 priorities, this would be
ministrys lack of action is equally disturbing.
Despite statements of concern, little has been done
that leads me to believe history will soon regain its
place as an important core subject.
In a Hamilton Spectator article, Pauline Laing,
director of the ministrys curriculum, learning
and teaching branch, stated that Canadian history
will be a priority in the new program and more
clearly defined as a subject strand in both
elementary and high school. She said, "I am
convinced that Canadian history will be a priority
within the high school curriculum."
If this is the
case, why was a separate panel on history not
convened when the ministry chose to consult with the
so-called expert panel? Math, business studies,
physical and health education, and science were
independent panels. History was grouped with
geography, economics, politics, law and citizenship
education in what became known as Social Science 1.
The expert panel paper ended up being non-committal
and watered down.
two-thirds knew about the Great Depression,
but only 17 per cent knew the voyageurs were
the early French fur traders in Canada.
Urquhart, The Stars Queens Park
columnist, speculated the panel "paid little
attention to Canadian history and leaned towards
blending history in with other subjects under the
rubric of social studies." He did acknowledge
that a few members of the panel were against this
paper has been completed, and although it has not
been published, I have learned that history has
disappeared as a discipline. Its been put into
Canada and World Studies, which will include history,
geography, economics, politics, law and citizenship
World Studies has discipline status but history does
not. Other disciplines include the usual subjects,
like math and science. But Native Studies and
Interdisciplinary Studies are also given discipline
status. Its confusing and its wrong.
14 per cent could identify Lester Pearson as
the Canadian who won the Nobel Peace Prize
for his efforts to resolve the Suez Crisis
and went on to become prime minister.
per cent of the respondents to a recent Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education/University of Toronto survey recommended that
more history courses be compulsory. This figure is up
from 33 per cent in 1984. The government does not
appear to be listening.
If history was
supposed to be a priority, why was it given such
short shrift in the expert panel process? The
rigorous new curriculum the government is promising
does not need a hodge-podge of social studies.
If rigour is
what the new curriculum promises, then bring back
historical inquiry, especially about our own nation.
Otherwise, our students will be exactly what critics
of the present education system say they are, shells
of knowledge with little substance.
Ludi Habs is past president of
the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers
Association and head of history and social sciences
at Chinguacousy Secondary School in Peel. He was also
a member of the Social Science 1 expert panel. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
|The Dominion Institute wants
to generate discussion on the rights and
responsibilities of citizenship by engaging
Canadians in a dialogue about our past. For
Canada Day 1997, the not-for-profit
organization commissioned the Angus Reid
Group to ask 1,104 Canadians between the ages
of 18 and 24 a set of 30 questions about
Canadas history. The studys
margin of error is plus or minus two per
cent, 19 times out of 20.
Overall, the young people
scored 34 per cent. Those with higher
education scored higher, but still failed.
Those who had taken history had a 35 per cent
average compared to 29 for those who had not
taken history. Ontario youth scored 37 per
cent, three per cent less than the highest,
between new Canadians and others were
minimal. Respondents who identified
themselves as recent immigrants scored 32 per
cent. The children of immigrants scored 37
per cent, and others scored 34 per cent.
Only 11 per cent of
the respondents thought the questions were
too tough. Forty per cent thought they should
know more about Canadian history.
The complete survey
and results are available on the Angus Reid
web site at www.angusreid.com/pressrel/_youthhistorysurvey97/
youthhistory_97.htm The Dominion Institute can
be reached at (416)368-9627.