Kent: Historical sense is what keeps us human – and future generations might lose it, if we’re not careful

Good discussion and reflection:

“Imagining the functionality of a human being without historical sense is really scary.”

It was an uncharacteristically grim observation made by my old college tutor, Perry Gauci, during a Zoom conversation in the summer of 2020. My peers and I had always regarded Dr. Gauci as indefatigably cheery: His infectious grin had reassured and encouraged me through my first round of Oxford history interviews, and his pre-exam pep talks were as energizing and inspiring as the best cornerman encouragements. But what he’d said also made complete sense at a moment when the world felt as if it were teetering on the brink; when many of us were at once scrambling to try to see into the future while maintaining some semblance of normality in the “now.”

Imagining a human being without historical sense is scary. The thought of living exclusively in a blinkered present moment is scary. Scarier still is the thought of an entire generation, not to mention society, operating from a position of historical ignorance. And yet that is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves today.

The people and events of history may be rooted in the past, but how we talk about those things, what we write about them, and how we teach them (in other words, how we practise history as the record of human experience) tell us a lot about who we are and what we value right now. It’s easy to think of all those who came before us as either foolish or luckless enough to have lived in a time that’s not the present. But conditioning ourselves to believe that we’re the exception is, at best, naive and, at worst, a fatal mistake.

Thinking of ourselves as a chapter in an as-yet unwritten history book, on the other hand, is likely to force deeper self-reflection: Whose stories will we champion? What values will we defend? What models will we offer ensuing generations? In an era of environmental change, rising inequality and seismic shifts in the international political arena, we need to understand how our institutions have developed in order to understand why they don’t always have adequate responses to these crises. History gives us this power. No other subject helps us to understand so comprehensively what it is to be human. No subject is more vital to our very humanity.

That’s why it was so shocking to read, as of September, 2020, that almost two-thirds of surveyed Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believed Jews caused the Holocaust. In a survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, The Guardian reported, 23 per cent of respondents said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. Twelve per cent said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.

The implications of this kind of ignorance are staggering, but the ignorance itself isn’t entirely surprising given the downgraded status of history in most schools. Here in Canada, the Ontario social-studies curriculum for Grades 1 to 8 contains not a single mention of the Holocaust. In early 2022, the cost of this became frighteningly clear. In January, several participants in the so-called Freedom Convoy to Ottawa displayed flags and signage bearing swastikas. The following month, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre called on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to recognize antisemitism as a “crisis” after another alleged incident at a middle school. The organization’s president and chief executive officer, Michael Levitt, said in a release: “Anti-Semitism has reached epidemic proportions at TDSB, and it is time for the board to recognize this as the crisis that it is. It is unfathomable and shocking that, in 2022, a Jewish teacher is faced with Nazi salutes and a ‘Heil Hitler’ chant in her classroom. Clearly, something is broken in Toronto’s public school system and requires immediate attention.”

It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to realize that we are sleepwalking toward becoming a Visigoth state like the one described by Neil Postman. “[For] the Visigoths,” he wrote in his popular and widely circulated graduation speech, “history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.” If you’re reading this, chances are you already know that history is much more than that. It is, in fact, everything and all of us: It’s quite literally inescapable. As educator and author Susan Wise Bauer observes in The Well-Trained Mind, history isn’t just a subject: It’s the subject. “Unless you plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable,” she writes. For many, myself included, history is inherently, inevitably and infinitely compelling, but there will still always be those who question its “usefulness.”

One simple answer is that historical knowledge is power: The control of history, which shapes our political and cultural identity, is precisely why cathedrals of knowledge from the Library of Alexandria to the Library of Congress (and from Catholic collections during the Reformation, to Jewish collections during the Holocaust, to Islamic collections during the Balkan wars of the 1990s) have been targeted for destruction and appropriation since earliest times. “There is no political power without power over the archive,” Jacques Derrida observed: Ancient Mesopotamian rulers used the texts preserved in their libraries to decide when to go to war, while today authoritarian regimes and major technology companies vie for control of the archive as it migrates to a digital realm.

On an individual level, studying history gives us roots: a context for our existence. Individuals who lack that context lack a significant element of self-understanding but also an understanding of their relationship with the rest of society. Rootlessness limits our ability to function, to empathize, to feel invested in anything beyond our own immediate needs. It also disempowers us.

Powerless people become easy targets for exploitation, propagandizing and manipulation, particularly by those who appear to offer membership to a group or cause. As University of Michigan associate professor Bob Bain put it to me, “Stories help orient us to the present. If you’ve got no story, then you’re primed for someone else to give one to you.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a great deal of skittishness over the idea of teaching children any kind of agreed-upon narrative, because no one wants to be accused of forcing the “wrong” kind of story on impressionable minds. But the result of teaching no coherent story at all is a fragmentation of knowledge, what Dr. Bain described to me as “the byproduct of a generation of people like me who were taught that any grand narrative is manipulative, paternalistic and evil, without realizing how necessary it is.”

There’s an obvious tension at play: On the one hand, we need history to build understanding and appreciation for shared values and responsibilities, while on the other we need to remain vigilant against distortions that create an oversimplified narrative, the kind that, as renowned historian Margaret MacMillan writes, “flattens out the complexity of human experience and leaves no room for different interpretations of the past.”

In her brilliantly concise and accessible The Uses and Abuses of History, Dr. MacMillan details many examples of such a flattened history: from the 19th-century Grimm brothers collecting German folk tales to prove that there was such a thing as a German nation dating back to the Middle Ages, to dictators, including Robespierre and Pol Pot, creating new calendars to begin history afresh, and Mao and Stalin writing their enemies out of the record. The BJP government has consistently attempted to rewrite history to present India as a Hindu nation from its earliest beginnings, while here in Canada, French-Canadian nationalists have often focused on the past as a story of humiliation at the hands of the British while neglecting examples of co-operation (for instance, over the building of the railways and through the early years of Confederation) or, indeed, French-Canadian sympathy for a rival foreign government during the Vichy regime.

More recently, the trend in the West has veered the other way, toward deconstructing and challenging inherited national narratives in pursuit of a type of historical catharsis. So, do we teach history to build a sense of national pride, or to poke holes in it? As Daniel Immerwahr wrote in The Washington Post toward the end of one of the most tumultuous years in living memory, “Such questions have always struck me as odd, for two reasons. First, we design curriculums around what students will learn rather than how they’ll feel. The aim of a geometry class is not for students to love or hate triangles but to learn the Pythagorean theorem. Similarly, the point of U.S. history isn’t to have students revere or reject the country but to help them understand it. The second reason is that, by imagining history class as a pep rally or a gripe session, we squeeze the history out of it. The United States becomes a fixed entity with static principles, inviting approval or scorn. And that makes it hard to see how the country has changed with time.”

Clearly, in an age of “fake news,” Google and Wikipedia, engaged citizens need to be culturally literate, critical thinkers. There is no better subject than history to develop an appreciation of context and an ability to interrogate evidence. Just as we expect a math curriculum that systematically builds on blocks of knowledge and developing skill sets, we should also expect a logical history curriculum (preferably an international one) for our children. If it were commonplace to hear graduates claim that they’d never learned to divide, there would be an outcry. So should there be now.

Such knowledge-based learning needn’t tell students what to think, but would rather provide the tools to learn how to think. In the digital age, perhaps more than ever, “users” (to adopt the purposefully dehumanizing tech term) require a sense of sequence and consequence, a nose for collecting sound evidence, and an ability to discern the difference between sophisticated and oversimplified analogies. To look something up, you need to know what you are looking for.

And in these hyper-partisan times, history reminds us of the importance of nuance and the enduring fact that there will always be contradictions. No single group is right all the time, and we all need to be able to hold two opposing ideas in our head at once.

It’s easy to reach an exhaustion point: to throw up our hands in despair at the relativism of everything. Lynn Hunt captures this problem beautifully in History: Why It Matters: “If it is so easy to lie about history, if people disagree so much about what monuments or history textbooks should convey, and if commissions are needed to dig up the truth about the past, then how can any kind of certainty about history be established?”

The fact remains that, imperfect though it is, we need historical truth. Without it, we have no leg to stand on to counter the claims of dictators or Holocaust deniers. But just what exactly is historical truth? Most would agree that it boils down to actions or events, and arguments as to their causes and consequences, which can be verified by historical evidence. As the evidence changes, so must the story. Historians’ work will never be done, therefore, because the stories we record and interpret are in constant need of correction, adjustment and reinterpretation based on the available evidence. And the questions they ask will necessarily keep changing, because we’re always wanting to ask questions that are relevant to the present.

As Julia Lovell, winner of the 2019 Cundill History Prize for her book, Maoism: A Global History, explained in a panel discussion with fellow shortlistees, “Historians always have to answer the ‘So what?’ question.” Traditionally, the questions posed about 19th-century China could often be reduced to “Why did it fail so badly?” But now, in light of China’s rise to 21st-century superpower, that question has become “How can we find the seeds of China’s contemporary success in the 19th century?” Evidently, the practice of history teaches us a number of things: not least, flexibility, patience, humility, and the value of keeping an open mind.

The good news is that the public appetite for history has never been greater. Anthony Wilson-Smith is president and CEO of Historica Canada, an organization devoted to promoting an understanding and discussion of Canadian history. The fabled Heritage Minutes, commercial-length history lessons blending re-enactment and narration, are arguably Historica’s greatest achievement, reaching about 27 million users annually. The first ones aired in 1991 and featured Valour Road, the Winnipeg street that was home to three Victoria Cross recipients; the Underground Railroad, which brought runaway slaves to freedom; and Jacques Plante’s invention of the goalie mask. Lines such as “Doctor, I smell burnt toast!” and “I need these baskets back” quickly entered the cultural lexicon of many young Canadians. One of my friends, of South Asian family heritage, said that the Minutes (in particular, the one about the Chinese workers who built the railroads) did more to teach her about diversity in Canada than anything she learned in school in the 1980s and 90s.

Current events have also informed a spike in interest. “We track the top five most-read pieces every week in the Encyclopedia,” explained Mr. Wilson-Smith (Historica Canada operates Canada’s national encyclopedia on a digital platform). “At the outset [of the COVID-19 pandemic], pieces on the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 1919 Spanish Flu routinely made the list. Once the public focus on BLM and Indigenous rights and discrimination erupted, we saw an immediate spike in related stories. For more than 10 weeks, articles on residential schools and Black history in Canada (including pre-Confederation slavery) have been among the top five.”

The success of the Heritage Minutes illustrates the potent combination of human interest and contemporary relevance in making history appealing. Curiosity about the past often starts on a personal level, which perhaps explains the explosion of interest in ancestry websites, DNA test kits and TV shows exploring celebrities’ family histories. The sensational success of the musical Hamilton illustrated the power of a compelling and important story, creatively told (the main character might be a dead white guy – a lawyer, banker and politician, to boot – but a hip-hop-influenced score and majority-Black cast brought fresh appeal and insights to a new generation of audiences). “Reality” series featuring historical re-enactments – families “sent back in time” to experience life as pioneers or on the home front during the Second World War – as well as computer games, Netflix series such as The Crown, and historical fiction also indicate the enduring claim of history on the public imagination. There’s a comfort in the sense of order that can be imposed on the past, particularly when our own times seem to be characterized by great upheaval and unpredictability.

So what’s the bad news? In short: plummeting history enrolment at universities, concerns among practitioners that the subject is fragmenting beyond recognition, and students who don’t recognize themselves in the history they study at school and can’t connect the disconnected fragments they have learned. There’s been plenty of hand-wringing in Ontario over nosediving elementary math scores, with fewer than half of Grade 6 students meeting the provincial standard in the 2021-2022 school year. By comparison, there’s been resounding silence around another subject in which elementary students have long fallen behind. By now, you can probably guess which subject that would be.

But it’s STEM jobs that are hiring, we’re told. “Historians make lattes” was the wry observation of one history teacher I spoke with. Certainly, schools are getting much better at teaching previously overlooked aspects of our history, including Indigenous history (which the last curriculum overhaul made compulsory) and social history. But these bits have been superimposed on a disjointed, incomplete curriculum – a curriculum that, as it stands, doesn’t only threaten to kill off student enthusiasm for history as a subject but sends them into the world with huge knowledge gaps. It’s a muddled curriculum, pieced together by the separate agendas of politically capricious governments, boards and education departments. It’s a timid curriculum, reluctant to embrace the conflict, collisions, controversies and paradoxes in history. It’s a curriculum heavy on centring “deep dives with lots of primary sources,” as Dr. Bain described equivalent American syllabi to me, but shy of providing a connected overview, leaving these projects “like postholes with no fences to connect them.”

The alternative doesn’t have to be a return to “rote” learning, but rather a joined-up attempt at building broad knowledge from the earliest years to create context for understanding later on. When history is only introduced as a subject in Grade 7, after which it’s limited to a couple of years of Canadian history taught largely out of any kind of chronological or global context, the results aren’t surprising: Students enter middle school without any sense of the “story” of history, high-school teachers despair that students come to them without the knowledge or skills to learn how to think historically, universities experience plummeting numbers of history applications, and, in turn, we as a society become increasingly ahistorical in our outlook, not to mention distressingly polarized in our discussions of such things as the toppling of statues.

“In the nation as a whole there is now a knowledge gap, a communications gap, and an allegiance gap. We don’t understand one another; we don’t trust one another; we don’t like one another.” This is E.D. Hirsch writing about America in 2020, though much of what he describes could equally be applied elsewhere. A loss of cohesion, Dr. Hirsch argues, is the partial result of “a loss of commonality in what we teach and therefore in what we know.” If change is to happen, it needs to happen with coherence, commonality and specificity.

We pay a certain lip service to this idea by framing history as a part of “civics” education, but the fact is that it is so much more than this. The title of my book refers to a “vanishing” past not because history itself is going anywhere, but rather because the discipline of history has become segmented, sidelined and co-opted for other purposes. “History fights for its place in the curriculum with civics and geography,” Dr. Bain observed during our conversation, “but its attention to time, place and context is what makes it really distinct.” In other words, history doesn’t simply tell us how to be good citizens: It equips us with the knowledge we need to comprehend our world clearly, and the ability to analyze it accurately.

“Precision is not a skill: It’s a value, an obligation, a moral duty,” Dr. Gauci observed toward the end of our Zoom conversation. The skills-versus-knowledge debate is an old one in history teaching, and generally it’s a misleading one: You need both to do history properly. Dr. Gauci worries about how little many students seem to know about the political process, as well as about limited public discernment when it comes to discussions around current events. But history, to him, is about even more than this. “It’s always been the instinct of many of the most creative minds to look back,” he said, and here I was pleased to see the old smile return. “The great dreamers all needed the past. We stare into space and we wonder, so it seems strange not to do it in the rear-view mirror, too.”

Source: Historical sense is what keeps us human – and future generations might lose it, if we’re not careful

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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