29 October 2019

How Shall We Teach Our History?

I have discussed the seeming 'War on History' that is going on on YouTube, in the 'Statue movement', in renaming places named for historical figures and patriotic holidays ('Indigenous Peoples' Day' instead of Columbus Day), etc. This essay deals with Canada, where the same ting is happening.

From The Spirit's Sword

If at all?

This is something I wrote two years ago on Facebook.  I ran into it today, and thought i would reproduce it here:

There's a new book in the bookstore entitled "The Vimy Trap." As per reviews on the back of the book: "(the authors) have boldly challenged one of Canada's most heretofor unassailable historical myths: that Canada became a nation on the Battlefield of Vimy Ridge. Their accurate dissection of the actual events of the 1917 battle and their denunciation of the subsequent glorification of the Great War itself are a long overdue rebuttal to the excessive patriotic prose fed to us by the usual Drums & Bugle brigade of historians."

Perhaps that was what set me off. I am not unsympathetic to the view that the the belief that Canada was born on the battlefields of WWI has perhaps been a bit overplayed. In my own writings I do not shy away from the horrors of the war. But to see it stated on paper in front of me in this way rankled.  What does this reviewer mean by 'Drum & Bugle brigade of historians'? I am not entirely certain who and what constitutes this 'brigade'. Perhaps Pierre Berton.  he was fond of promoting the country, though it would be unjust to call Berton by that name.  He didn't shy away from the horror of the mess that was the First World War. Jack Granatstein perhaps, as he always celebrated the history of Canada at war, but he too does not hide the nightmare of war. Every book I have read on the Great War dwells for some time on the horrors of the war.

The dissection promised on the back cover begins in the prologue, wherein the author hints that painter Tom Thomspon killed himself over his dread of the conscription crisis of 1917, which is itself an extremely dicey historical claim, as the cause of Thomson's death has never been found- it could have been suicide, and it could have been murder, and it could have been accidental. That the authors would use it to try and prepare the reader to accept what is to come in the book renders much of the book suspect.

The dissection really gets underway in the opening chapter, when the authors pull out their strawman representative of this 'drums & bugle brigade': the 2011 Canadian Citizenship guide. The authors cherry pick some quotations from the guide that support their claim, and then state: "In this short account, there is not a wounded body, bombed city, (my note: the bombed out city, block after block of shattered buildings,  was more of a WWII thing, but there were a few attempts in that direction by both sides in the First) or mangled corpse to be seen let alone a blood soaked field. There is not even a trench. Welcome to Twenty First Century Canada. The Great War has become truly great again."

How dare the Citizenship guide try and be patriotic! What could they possibly have been thinking?

There is patriotism, and there is patriotism. It may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, as per Samuel Johnson, or it may be the first, as per Ambrose Bierce, or it may be the warm and just love one has for one's home. In Dante's Inferno, the lowest level of Hell is reserved for traitors- those who have betrayed their families, their country, and their benefactors. For centuries it was thought that these were the bonds which most naturally and strongly were tied. Breaking these bonds was horribly unthinkable, and, as Dante illustrated, only the worst and most wretched of men would ever do such a thing.

For centuries again, students who learned the history of their home learned first of what was best, what was supposed to be its glory. Later they would be taught that glory came at a cost, and that their beloved home could be wrong and could make mistakes, but the first task was to kindle and encourage that bond of loyalty and love for one's home. Nowadays we skip that and head straight to the horrors. We hear nothing of, say, Brebeuf, Billy Green, Brock, Laura Secord, Adam Dollaird, Currie- it is one in a hundred that any student may recognize any of these names. With social history, we need not learn any names at all, only groups of people, and the groups of people who are perceived as having been egregiously wronged are the most important of all. Once again, our victims are our new heroes, and we are teaching children that the only thing worth being is a victim, and a love for the country is replaced with a contempt for its mistakes, with nary a virtue, nary a trace of glory in sight. Rather than be thankful for living in a country as good as ours and thankful for those who helped make it so, we only teach them that those who came before were wrong in one thing or another, and were therefore wrong in everything.

I am not saying we should not teach the horrors, but we should at least have a balance of what we teach- that there was good, and there was bad. Both/and, not either/or. Can we at least let people be a little fond of their home before we start trying to get them to hate it?

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