EDUCATION

History’s last stand in the classroom

Andrew Nikiforuk April 5 1982
EDUCATION

History’s last stand in the classroom

Andrew Nikiforuk April 5 1982

History’s last stand in the classroom

EDUCATION

Andrew Nikiforuk

"You have to be kind of a romantic to like history,” opines Grade 12 student Peter Kulpa. “People are saying, ‘Everything is changing so quickly, what’s the point!’” His classmates at Parkdale Collegiate in Toronto earnestly concur. Of the school’s 1,000 students, they are the only 35 who have chosen to study European history. Fifteen years ago, five times that number took the course. What that means, says Alan Skeoch, head of history at the school and president of the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers’ Association, is that today most students graduate with no knowledge of Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke or other great western thinkers. “You’re going to have kids who think they’re the centre of the universe.”

History has indeed taken a considerable beating in Canadian high schools. Ancient, American and European history, though still offered, have been swept into education’s dustbin. Canadian history, now making a comeback after 20 years of neglect, is compulsory in only five provinces. What was a mandatory course of study for high-school seniors 20 years ago has now become another elective subject competing with the likes of family studies. With their eye on the marketplace, students are opting more often for salable maths and sciences. In the Halifax Bedford County and District School Board, for example, a paltry 30 per cent of the senior students elect to study the fall of Rome or the revolutions of 1848.

Philosophers and social critics have long maintained that democracies cannot function without an informed citizenry aware of the origins of their insti-

tutions and culture. The urgent question, plead history’s defenders, is whether Canadians can forge an identity without understanding the place of their own history within the sweep of world events. Asks Edmonton publisher and nationalist Mel Hurtig: “How can you have a country without it?”

Enraged and bewildered university professors are tired of treating the casualties. “They come in wet behind the ears. You can’t assume they have a basic knowledge of Canada,” declares University of Calgary historian David Bercuson. “I’m angry as hell.” In an attempt to repair the damage, the University of Alberta is considering adding an extra year to its three-year BA program. Foremost on the priority list is history.

Parents have also rallied to the fore. Last month 1,000 parents gathered to demand the Toronto Board of Education institute a return to the basics. One Toronto father, lawyer Harvey Haber, who decries the lack of history instruction, thinks teaching should begin in Grade 1. For his part, he quizzes his own children at the dinner table, divvying up chocolate for correct answers.

Nowhere is history’s plight better illustrated than in Alberta. A 1981 assessment of students’ factual knowledge of Canadian geography, civics and history yielded dismal results: even Grade 12 students scored a median grade of only 46 per cent. Many Grade 6 students had Indians teaching European settlers how to plow, while most Grade 12 students couldn’t define the National Policy of 1879—a cornerstone in federal-regional relations. And to many the dirty ’30s meant “being 30

years old or being unclean.” Concluded the assessors: students at all levels don’t know enough Canadian history “to deal with current social and political problems.”

Behind Alberta’s problem lies a social science curriculum emphasizing values and feelings. It was amended last September, but the new curriculum for Grades 1 to 12 has also drawn fire. Courses that emphasize history remain primarily Canadian and issue-oriented, bearing such titles as Human Rights in Canada or Canadian Unity. Two months ago, Stewart Boston, superintendent of Mt. Rundle School Division near Canmore, Alta., publicly condemned the curriculum as an abomination with little or no historical context for events. “There is a tendency to regard Canadian history as though it emerged Venus-like from the foam.”

History instruction has become not only fragmentary, complain critics, but parochial. This also applies to other subjects. “Because each province has its own curriculum, the regional nature of Canada comes blowing through,” observes Rob Greenaway, executive editor of Prentice Hall Canada Inc. Grade 11 and 12 students taking P.E.I. History 821 learn about Confederation and economic development from the province’s perspective. In Alberta, which has boosted Canadian and Albertan content in its social science program from 47 to 62 per cent since 1972, many of the new courses focus entirely on regional or local events. (Some say that the province’s short period of white settlement has left it “future-oriented.”) Symptomatic of this syndrome, notes Greenaway, is the fact that publishers haven’t produced a national Canadian history book for senior grades in the past 10 years.

Those attempting to restore history in the schools to its former glory will have to reverse more than 20 years of liberalizing reform. But universities have now joined the fight with an announcement by the University of Toronto last February that certain highschool subjects no longer meet admission standards. This year, marketing and merchandising, business and technical courses, secretarial practice and data processing will not be credited. And U of T has recently recommended that subjects including family studies and law should also hit the chopping block by 1985. That move could throw many more students back into the history classrooms.