Historical Friction

On the teaching of yesteryear

My last year of high school was spent at L’Amoreaux Collegiate, in northern Scarborough. The middle-class Toronto suburb was heavily Jamaican (both Black and Chinese), but it also included kids from Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, and all over Europe. More than half of the L’Amoreaux student body had just immigrated or had immigrant parents. That year, I took two senior courses in history: Canadian and American. There were at least thirty students in each class, their backgrounds vividly reflecting the school overall.

We had good teachers. I especially remember Mr. Stewart, who started the first day with a provocation: “Why is Canadian history so boring?” I recall thinking how rather silly the exercise was, as most students had practically no clue about the subject. They responded with the usual rants: It’s not flashy like American history. It’s not violent enough. There are few interesting characters.

What we studied with Mr. Stewart was serious stuff. We covered such milestone events as the British takeover of French territory, the War of 1812, the Rebellions of 1837–38, Confederation, Louis Riel, Chinese exclusion policies, the Winnipeg General Strike, the world wars, the Japanese internment, the rise of Québécois nationalism. And no matter where we came from, Canadian history turned out to be not so boring after all. I don’t recall any of us complaining that our own individual situation was not embraced in the curriculum; most of us were too busy trying to get the grades necessary to go to university.

Forty years later, things have evidently changed. In Transforming the Canadian History Classroom, the curriculum specialist Samantha Cutrara observes that today’s history is “disconnected from the Canada” that students see in their daily lives. The result is an “explicit hatred of the textbook” and the lessons it contains.

Cutrara is not writing from experience, it’s worth noting. Her actual work in the classroom amounts to a few months in 2011, split between two typical grade 10 history courses and two others in special education settings. However agonizing history lessons may be for Canadian students, you would not know it from ­reading this book. Like many people who teach in faculties of education — and who write provincial curriculum guidelines — Cutrara has a particularly narrow view of the discipline. And while she calls for a “transformation” of the subject, she is evidently unfazed by the fact that only three provinces — Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba — currently require a course in Canadian history for high school students to graduate. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island require such a credit, but only for their minority of francophone students. All the other Canadian teenagers, it would seem, simply don’t need an education in their country’s history.

In most provinces, what little Canadian hist­ory our students learn when they are eight or nine years old will do just fine, thank you. And that’s what makes this book important: it contributes yet another argument for knowing less about our country. This is what passes as “thinking about history” in today’s faculties of education — maybe even in some classrooms. Cutrara is on a mission, and it is not about teaching students about the past. Rather, it is about rejecting any version that “leaves out the violent history of colonialism, the state’s perpetration of continuous racial injustice, and the desire (and actions taken) to make, and keep, Canada white.” To treat the subject any differently is simply to be a racist.

Let’s start at the beginning: Cutrara’s title itself is misleading. Transforming the Canadian History Classroom is not about transforming the Canadian history classroom at all, but about making a subject relevant to heavily multi­cultural Toronto cohorts. Cutrara divides the book into six long chapters that are heavy on sociology and intersectionality.

The first chapter, “Meaningful Learning,” offers an extended discussion of how those who teach need to imagine a new “we”— one that is more sensitive to the pupils in front of them. “This does not just mean ensuring that a diversity of perspectives is heard, but rather capturing how the structures of our nation enable some stories to define how we understand the nation and other stories to be superfluous, or peripheral, to these understandings.” What is key here is to teach not actual history but something altogether different. She offers a litmus test: is the subject matter relevant to immigrant teenagers and children of immigrants? The knowledge required to understand this country’s historical evolution becomes secondary to understanding the collective identities of the present classroom. To be meaningful (her emphasis), history must bolster the student’s sense of self. This can be done only if students see themselves in the lesson plan. Cutrara sees her proposed transformation as part of a broader mission of Indigenizing and decolonizing Canadian culture. (What she is really talking about is not history class at all but social studies, which simply does not emphasize the skills required to evaluate the past critically.)

Cutrara’s argument is that the material presented to those who do take a class in Canadian history is racist, because it actively promotes false narratives that do not incorporate the role of minorities and because students want a curriculum that “brings together more than separates.” Her revised approach seeks “to put stories back together again in ways that decentre the voices and aims of our country’s founders who tried to legislate away the very cultural and ethnic diversity Canada is known for today.” Her real concern is not the discrimination that came from within society; her target is the oppressive state.

Throughout, Cutrara is arguing against one of the most promising curriculum innovations of the last twenty years, the Historical Thinking Project. This initiative, which has been widely followed across the country by those who care about history, argues that students must learn six interrelated concepts in order to think critically about the past:

1. Establish historical significance.

2. Use primary source evidence.

3. Identify continuity and change.

4. Analyze cause and consequence.

5. Take historical perspectives.

6. Understand the ethical dimensions of historical interpretations.

I confess that I find this method, initially funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage, to be pithy, logical, and effective. Cutrara, by contrast, does not see much merit in the framework. Perhaps her view is understandable; she comes at the discipline not from a historical perspective, but from one of “critical theory” and “critical pedagogy.” Because Canadian hist­ory is “so messy, so complicated, so violent” (compared with what, I ask?), she believes it can be taught only through critical race theory, feminist theory, and post-structuralism. Only these lenses, she contends, are effective in challenging the “systems of oppression like white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism that structure our society.”

Cutrara’s biggest problem with “historical thinking,” I suspect, is that it does not sufficiently orient the student to historical significance. For her, the importance of noteworthy figures and events — say, Confederation or the Battle of Vimy Ridge — cannot be taken for granted; the student must personally accept them as significant, and that can happen only if the student is willing to even consider them in the first place. Could such logic ever apply in other established fields — whether science or technology or mathematics? Cutrara does not address such a question; she seems utterly defeated by it.

This could be, in part, because her “cultural capital” (her words) is not as well developed as it should be. At one point, she confesses that she was too unfamiliar with the Cold War to respond to certain questions about it. She also admits to a lack of familiarity with heavy metal — to the point that it once stumped her when a student made an observation about history and music. Still, she relishes the fact that this pupil, who loved heavy metal so much, saw parallels between it and the French Revolution — because both represented some sort of “riot.”

Personally, I care little for heavy metal beyond the Iron Butterfly and Black Sabbath classics, but I can affirm that there is no parallel. The French Revolution may have started with a few street riots in Paris, but its historical significance had a lot more to do with systematic state-sponsored terror than with workers who revolted over the cost of bread in 1789. To equate the revolution to a riot, musical or not, is to misinterpret history.

Here is another frustrating example from the book. To illustrate how Canadian hist­ory can give meaning to her students of colour, Cutrara created and tested a teaching module on the destruction of Africville, the small Halifax enclave founded by Black Loyalists. It reached its zenith of 400 people during the First World War, before the city tore it down in the 1960s to make way for a new bridge. Was there a racist impulse at play? Probably. But there’s more to the story: Most of the houses were fire hazards, and it was local progressives who decided it was time to relocate the community.

Cutrara’s purpose in highlighting Africville was to show the cruelty of relocation: “How do we make sense of the eradication of non-white peoples in Canadian history when multiculturalism has been lauded as a defining Canadian value?” The story has a tidy finality that unquestionably stands in her mind as a historic injustice. It was an easy choice (there are many teaching guides on Africville), though its relevance to Toronto teenagers was not obvious. For a lesson from Nova Scotia, she might have instead focused on the life of Viola Desmond, who challenged racial segregation at a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946. (Desmond, incidentally, appears three times in the Ontario curriculum, just like William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was prime minister for twenty-three years and is recognized by professional historians as this country’s most important leader.) But if the idea is to give “meaningfulness” to Toronto teenagers, why not introduce them to the struggles of the Black train porters in Quebec and Ontario? Or to Black Torontonians like Stanley Grizzle, Bromley Armstrong, and so many others who challenged racism in the 1950s — well before the U.S. civil rights movement? That story, at least, is not over; it actively invites a connection between the events of yesterday and today.

Cutrara does not want to show the arc of progress, however. She prefers using Canadian history as a static scapegoat to illustrate the existence of sustained, unchanged, and inflexible racism. If she were logical, she would encourage her students (mostly children of immigrants) to examine the reasons why their parents left their homelands. Is this not a vital part of their personal stories, of their historical consciousness? I can just imagine what my friends — including Chinese classmates who had left the Caribbean just a few years earlier, as well as my East Indian and Ismaili Muslim friends who were chased out of Uganda and other parts of East Africa — would have said if given the opportunity.

Just how much priority should be given to an individual student’s past when history, as a whole, is already losing its place in our schools? Cutrara is too busy trying to shoehorn her tidy ideology into the serious task of teaching history to answer that question, or to actually examine what is being taught.

There are at least thirteen faculties of education in Ontario, including Cutrara’s own at York University. One wonders what research such places are doing on how the past is actually presented in our schools. These are the same faculties that hold power over the curricula across the land, and that stranglehold — supported by governments of both left and right — must be challenged. Otherwise, the end result will be a society that is awesomely ignorant of its own hist­ory, not to mention the history of the world.