March 1998

Rigour, But Not
Rigour, But Not History

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New Curriculum
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 government’s initiatives in secondary reform. We’ve all heard the calls for more English, math and science. But what about history?

Our students – future voters and education ministers – know little about history, especially Canadian history.

Students claim they have rights. But these same students have no idea where those rights come from.

Only 36 per cent of Canadian youth could correctly name 1867 as the date of Confederation.

They don’t 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.

They express exasperation with Québecers, but don’t know why Québec keeps insisting on its right to be known as distinct. They don’t understand why, in January of this year, the federal government apologized to Canada’s native Canadians for the dismal treatment of native children.

Just 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.

Our 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 than Macdonald.

Only 35 per cent knew what D-Day was.

When 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.

My students, 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 Remembrance Day.

Only six per cent named the Beothuks as the native people from Newfoundland who were hunted to extinction by European settlers.

When 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 Hussein’s 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 quiz.

The survey asked 30 questions about Canada’s political past, Canada-U.S. relations, ethnic and cultural diversity, military history, and arts and human interest.

Following this 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 subjects."

In The Star’s 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?"

Officials of the Ministry of Education and Training and politicians have expressed concern over these examples of historical ignorance. But are they doing anything about it?

The Dominion 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 O’Toole (PC-Durham East) was quoted as saying, "On a list of 20 priorities, this would be number 21."

The ministry’s 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 ministry’s 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.

Almost two-thirds knew about the Great Depression, but only 17 per cent knew the voyageurs were the early French fur traders in Canada.

Ian Urquhart, The Star’s Queen’s 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 blending.

The synthesis paper has been completed, and although it has not been published, I have learned that history has disappeared as a discipline. It’s been put into Canada and World Studies, which will include history, geography, economics, politics, law and citizenship education.

Canada and 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. It’s confusing and it’s wrong.

Only 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.

Sixty-three 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

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 Canada’s history. The study’s 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, in Alberta.

The differences 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
youthhistory_97.htm The Dominion Institute can be reached at (416)368-9627.