Monday, October 25, 2010

History battles

Though my last fellowship update really centred on the "Issues in numeracy and literacy," I didn't want to take away from the fun I've been having in my other course, "Battles over history education."
It's a master's level seminar with only four people (myself included). This past week (Oct. 19) was probably some of our best discussion this term. Our readings, heavy on the Peter Seixas, concentrated on how to bridge the gap between the changes that have happened in the study of history -- I kept calling them "academic historians" -- and those who first teach history to us as students. We've been reading a lot about the history wars in Canada and elsewhere, where on one side you have those who argue for teaching history as part of a national narrative, a set of dates, places, people and events from the past that help define a collective identity. On the other, those who hold the historical process as what should be emphasized-- the ability to research and study primary and secondary source documents, analyse them and then draw conclusions from that analysis that are supported by your evidence. For example, as this class is the class I'm auditing where I have to "complete all the course requirements," on Oct. 12 I led a good portion of the evening's seminar and then had to write an eight-page paper (yikes, it's been a while since I did that) that analysed and critiqued the night's readings. Why, I'm currently stalling on reading this week's assigned readings as I type this post on the very debate.
It's largely a debate that seems to have taken place among Master's and Ph.D's in history, with little input from the very people who are tasked with first teaching history to students. It's an interesting paradox (if that's the best term), where academics complain about the quality of students and how those students have been taught, but don't -- on a large enough scale -- really contribute much towards improving the very instruction they lament. If history teachers in public and secondary schools are the ones that build the foundation upon which we find ensuing generations of historians, then why are they, in many cases, being left out of this discussion? Are they? I've had the privilege of meeting some top-rate high school history teachers, but I don't know if many of them would tackle this sort of existential debate over how they inspire learning about history and historical thinking in their students. This is where our last discussion went as each of us wondered where the emphasis should be placed to improve historical knowledge and thinking.
I must admit, as I have to the instructor, the readings in this course are sometimes, um, dense (poorly written?) -- ex:
Ironically, less than twenty-five years ago, the historian Pierre Nora asserted that the function of the science of history -- and therefore of the historian -- was not to collect memories but to protect people against them through the application of 'instructive reason,' that is, through the analytical and critical activity of the historian, debunker of myth and of all other obstacles to our proper understanding of reality. (Laville, Christian (2004) "Historical consciousness and historical education: What to expect from the first for the second," in Seixas, ed. Theorizing Historical Consciousness, University of Toronto Press, p. 172)
They make my brain hurt. But every week I leave the seminar with my brain abuzz, oft-neglected neurons firing away with the week's discussions. Then I realize-- this is what I came here for. This is the stimulation those neurons don't often get in the day-to-day rhythms of my work. This is what makes it worth it all.


Doretta said...

Egads that kind of writing is exactly why we have the contructivism spilling into the elementary school classroom--can the guy get any more nebulous?

If you want to learn something about history and how to teach it, read Dan Snow's Canadian History series "The History of Canada". The first book is "Death or Victory". Or, read any of Pierre Berton's books about Canada--Much better than just about anything I have seen in school texts, which tend to be revisionist and increasinly politically correct.

Education Reporter said...


I've read plenty of Berton, Granatstein and Hillmer while doing my undergrad. I can't remember much of my high school and intermediate history. Well, I do remember it, but not really in terms of the way it was taught.

The biggest thing this course has taught me so far is to pity the poor high school history teacher. Constantly called upon by academic historians to move beyond teaching faces and places to teach historical teaching but given little to no support to do so.

I also thought myself to be a fairly 'national narrative' kind of guy-- but can you be one in knowing and acknowledging that we don't have a national narrative in Canada? That trying in anyway to come up with one would just be a pointless exercise? Perhaps a thought for further conversation over one's beverage of choice.


Education Reporter said...

Teach historical teaching? Oy. Teach historical thinking, I meant to type.