Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Curriculum for Empowerment

Democratic Citizenship And The Teaching Of History

by Ken Osborne, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg

The school promoters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were clear that schools were needed as much for political as educational reasons.

In defending compulsory school attendance in 1916, Manitoba's Minister of Education, R.S. Thornton, made clear its political purpose: "the reason why the state assumes to interfere in this matter is two-fold. First, it does so for its own protection. Boys and girls, the citizens of the future, must be qualified to satisfy the duties of citizenship. Second, the state interferes in education for the benefit of the children themselves, who must be fitted to aid themselves so that they may not become a charge on the public."

As Thornton's statement suggests, compulsory schooling was a creation of the nation state. National values had to be instilled. Citizens had to be created. In this process, schools were assigned a central role. Here is how the Winnipeg School Board put it in 1914: "... on the school, more than upon any other agency will depend the quality and the nature of the citizenship of the future; on the way in which the school avails itself of its opportunities depends the extent to which Canadian traditions will be appropriate, Canadian national sentiments imbibed, and Canadian standards of living adopted by the next generation of the new races that are making their home in our midst."

For obvious reasons, history was assigned a prominent role in this task. Along with literature, and supported by a variety of school rituals and ceremonies, history was the major vehicle for the creation of national identity and patriotism. It told the national myth.

The nation building theme was handled in a way that can best be called celebratory. Anything that could be shown to contribute to the building of the nation was duly commemorated and described as good. Anything that did not was either condemned or ignored as irrelevant.

The texts made it clear that nations were the work of exceptional individuals —explorers, generals, statements, intrepid pioneers. There would be an occasional reference to what might be called ordinary people about readers were then immediately whisked off into the world of the great and famous. Thus, for example, Canadian students learned that Confederation was the work of a handful of 'fathers'; that the Canadian Pacific railroad was built by William Van Horne; that Quebec was conquered by James Wolfe. And, of course, these great men were indeed men. Women rarely appeared in the pages of these texts and when they did it was usually doing women's work, such as teaching or nursing. Native people were equally invisible and when they were described, it was invariably in ethnocentric or racist terms.

Overwhelmingly, the story of nation building was presented as story, with all the authority of narrative. The impression was created not only that this was the way things happened about that they could have happened in no other way. Nor was any scope allowed for historiography or interpretation. History was the story of what happened, plain and simple. Textbook narratives were not designed to be questioned. Their very form reinforced the perception that history was a body of information to be learned. By and large, it was something before which a student stood powerless.

This disempowering view of history was reinforced by the dominant mode of teaching, which was largely examination-driven and relied on factual recall. There were only a few adventurous teachers like Agnes Macphail who, in the words of her recent biographer, in the early 1900's "abandoned much that she had been taught about rigid discipline and rote-learning of lessons in order to arouse her students' interest in the world around and inside of themselves. She brought newspapers into the classroom, played games, and had heart-to-heart talks with the children about what they wanted to do with their lives. She became even more unorthodox in her teaching methods as she detested the school system's emphasis on exam preparation. She persuaded her board to subscribe to a magazine and daily newspaper for her classes to study. She also brought the books of Grey County native Nellie McClung into the classroom so that older children could share her reformist and feminist ideas."

Teachers like Agnes Macphail were undoubtedly the exception rather than the rule. Certainly, the history teaching described by Hodgetts in 1968 in Canadian schools was light years removed from Macphail's imaginative practice. In this 1968 report, What Culture? What Heritage?, Hodgetts blasted the state of history in schools across Canada. He assessed history teaching in terms of its contribution to the education of citizens and found that it produced the very opposite of the goals to which it was ostensibly committed. The combination of curricula, examinations, textbooks, and pedagogy that prevailed before 1968 served to produce a particularly passive kind of citizenship. Its prime virtues were hierarchy, authority and obedience.

This conservative bias of history did not go unchallenged, especially between the wars. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom attacked textbooks and curricula for their militarism and nationalism. The League of Nations Society called for a greater emphasis on international understanding and got a sympathetic hearing from at least some provincial departments of education. On the international scene H.G. Wells added his powerful voice to the campaign to change history teaching, a question on which he declared himself to be a "fanatic." He argued that history teachers must take a good part of the blame for the First World War since it had resulted in large part from an excess of national and patriotic fervor on all sides, the result of the "poison called history" which had been taught in schools. Wells called for the abandonment of national and military history and its replacement by an emphasis on economic, cultural and social history. He wanted history taught so that it showed the unfolding of a spirit of world community, leading in short order to the world state, and resulting in people identifying themselves not as national citizens, but as members of the human species.

Such criticisms, however, had little impact and in most provinces history continued largely unchanged in the curricula: political, chronological, patriarchal, and patriotic, until things began to change in the 1960's, when history entered a period of marked decline.

After the depressing revelations of What Culture? What Heritage? in 1968, there was not much to defend. Most people accepted the book's devastating criticisms of the state of history in the schools. Hodgetts intended it to be the launching pad for a renewed history curriculum, but it gave rise to the new inter-disciplinary Canadian Studies, which largely ignored the systematic study of history. Hodgetts intended his work to be a contribution to what he called civic education but most of the new work in the field was inspired by social science rather than by history.

Today few people seem to see the systematic study of history as useful or necessary. Insofar as there is any interest in history it lies in its contribution to 'cultural literacy' and national identity. This was seen clearly in the debate in England over the place of history in the new national curriculum which was brought into being by the 1988 Education Act, where Margaret Thatcher herself pushed for more emphasis on national history. A similar debate is now occurring in the United States, where there is a vigorous movement under way to give history a more important place in the curriculum than it now enjoys.

By and large, however, most people seem to have abandoned the idea that a working knowledge of the history of one's own country and of the world of which it is a part is essential to effective citizenship, and especially so in the case of democratic citizenship. Even on the left, which has traditionally been so historically conscious, there is silence. When there is a call for a return to history, it comes from the right.

The arguments for the study of history can be simply stated. First, a knowledge of history helps us become aware of the range of human behaviour, both good and bad, and to that extent helps to teach us what it means to be human. Second, it provides us with a sense of context and perspective for the consideration of contemporary phenomena; it teaches us to consider the long view, so that we are less likely to be carried away by the enthusiasms of the moment. Third, it provides a sense of connectedness both with what has gone before us and what will come after us; it raises our loyalties and our preoccupations from the local and the immediate to the more global and long-term. Fourth, it also connects us with the long struggle by which human beings have sought to improve the human condition, thus enabling us to become the subjects not the objects of our own existence. Fifth, it helps us cultivate that habit of mind which is best described as constructive scepticism, both by giving us a stock of knowledge against which to test what we are tempted or persuaded to believe and by giving us the skills to distinguish a good argument from a bad one. And sixth, history can be an endless source of interest and entertainment.

In short, the main advantage of history is that it enables us to think for ourselves about important issues bearing on the human condition. It makes it possible for us to see the world as it is (which means understanding how it came to be that way) and to see the world as it might be, while also helping us think about how to get from one state of affairs to the other. This is what makes the study of history an ideal preparation for democratic citizenship and indispensable for any serious consideration of social change.

None of this means that the study of history consists of mere 'coverage' of subject matter. It was this examination-driven approach to history, with its determination to see that every fact was covered, whether or not it was understood, that killed students' interest in history in the first place.

It is more useful to think of history as illuminating issues which persist in one form or another over time and which address important aspects of the human condition. This does not mean that we can plunder history for the "lessons" it teaches us, for it is seldom obvious what history teaches, or if indeed it teaches anything in the form of lessons . Nonetheless, a knowledge of history does throw light on the kinds of issues and problems that run throughout the attempts of human beings to gain control over their lives, individually and collectively. It is this that makes the study of history so important for the practice of democratic citizenship. It is also this that makes the selection of subject-matter so important, for it means that some forms of history are more important than others when it comes to deciding what should be taught. No curriculum should exclude the experience of women, native people or workers, for example, for democratic citizenship involves the full range of human experience in the past.

All of which raises the difficult question of what or whose history should be taught. If history is supposed to help citizens think about and act in their world, what do they need to know? Here the idea of history as illuminating important issues of human experience proves useful. It avoids the danger of compiling an encyclopedic list of factual information which everyone is supposed to know, and thus tying the hands of teachers. Instead, it provides a sense of direction while allowing teachers, students and local communities to have some voice in the selection of specific content. The suggestion here is that the history curriculum should have two broad components: one which teaches students about the country in which they live, and one which teaches them about the world of which it is a part.

The driving idea behind it was described by H.G. Wells over fifty years ago: "The main intellectual task of education is to put before the expanding mind everything that is clearly known about the nature of the world in which it finds itself, every significant thing in the problems it has to face, the essential issues under consideration, the direction of collective effort. Every mind in the world needs the framework of this common inheritance of knowledge, and the means of filling in whatever parts of the framework most concern it."

Perhaps the most important reason for approaching this task through history is that it is a powerful way of helping students to see themselves as part of a tradition, connected to those who have gone before them and to those who will come after. We have to introduce students (for no-one else will) to that continuing debate about what it means to be human and what form of social life best promotes it. Without this sense of connectedness, citizenship is bound to be incomplete and less humane and balanced than it must be if it is to be truly democratic.

At the same time, democratic citizenship demands a pedagogy that emphasizes the critical awareness, participation, involvement and sense of community which are central to its practice. Its main features can be broadly summarized as follows:

I have described these points in more detail elsewhere (1991, Teaching for Democratic Citizenship (Toronto: Our Schools/Our Selves).

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