Canada's history is wasted on its youth

The CBC published a news article about how Canada’s youth scores a measly 18% on a Canadian history quiz. Everyone is aghast at the marks — are we truly that bad at our own history?

Of course we are. Because we haven’t the ability to appreciate it.

This was a conversation point I had with my mother- and uncle-in-law the other night over dinner. My uncle was recounting a cruise he had taken from New York City that wound up the coast to Boston, Halifax, Cornerbrook, Quebec City, and a couple of other places that I now forget. Along the way, the cruise was replete with history, with guides not only present on the ship, but also on the tours at the various ports of call.

His point was that the trip really put together all the things he’d previously learned in his history classes as a youth. Back then, it was mere words on a page, dates he had to memorise, without the context needed to put everything together.

And that’s the catch: context.

I remember from my own history classes having to memorise large chunks of useless information. I state “useless” because as a teenager, none of it had any bearing on my current state of life. I no longer remember when the Byzantine Empire collapsed or when the Rouge River (Metis) Rebellion took place. Those dates are lost among the other detritus that regularly floats around in my noggin. What matters is the “why”, the “how”, the “what”. Not so much the “when”. Well, specific “when” — approximate “when” does help.

For example: Kids are taught (in Canada) that Confederation took place on 1 July 1867 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. This brought about the creation of Canada as a nation. But that’s not the whole truth, and really glosses over a whole whack of things, such as:

The problem is that a lot of history comes down to one thing: politics. (Mind you, that gets sub-categorised into greed, sex, religion, and a healthy dose of insanity.) This is something teenagers don’t understand. Politics is one of those things you truly can’t appreciate until you’ve personally participated in a few elections (as a voter, anyway) to see what crap goes on.

‘Cuz the same crap has gone on for millennia. People always want what they can’t have, want to establish complete control, or simply get the girl and wreak havoc in the process. Politics have created and ended civilizations (witness the Fall of Carthage — mostly due to politics.) It takes years of reading books, watching documentaries, and attending in-depth classes to start understanding why the world works the way it does.

It’s only once you get the bigger picture that the finer details are appreciated. Suddenly, you can see more significance in the Spanish Civil War. You understand how World War I was almost unavoidable. Why the discovery of Canada and its deep exploration was so important to world development. How Canada steered the development of United Nations peacekeeping. Why Vimy does (and should) matter to Canadian. You see why oil is possibly the worst thing humanity has ever found. And you see the patterns that have governed human civilization for thousands of years.

The saying goes that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. History merely validates that we do not learn from it. (A rather interesting cycle, when you think about it.) I think it’s less about those who learn from history, but those who actually understand it. And not just individual parts — that only really gives you an edge on Jeopardy. You need to understand the big pictures, and be able to dive into the details to understand the motivating factors.

A really neat show from the BBC that used to be shown on TLC (when it was still known as The Learning Channel) was Connections. While a distorted view of history (the connections were sometimes a bit tenuous), it did a great job of demonstrating why the end result often comes from things seemingly unrelated. History is about that very thing, and memorising dates won’t give you the high view.

Should Canada’s youth still be taught history? Yes. But not in terms of dates. Learn big picture stuff first. Formative years should cover world history: civilizations, developments, world religions, political systems. In the years that come, teach the deeper concepts through specific examples (e.g. the rise of Hong Kong through Britain’s colonial development, or why many of the towns and cities in western Canada come from Scotland).

Give our youth context. I didn’t understand history until I was in my 20s, well after leaving high school. Give them the pieces to start assembling the bigger picture. You can’t teach all of the World history to anyone … but you can give them the tools to understand it themselves.

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