History That Isn’t in Books

Last summer history made the front pages of Canadian newspapers. Heres two examples of headlines from July 2001: Canadian Kids Flunk History Test screamed one; while another concluded: Our Young Show Dismal Ignorance of History.

What caused this sudden interest in the past? Results had just been announced of a Canadian high school test on key events in Canadian history. Conducted by the Dominion Institute and the Toronto Globe And Mail, the outcome was depicted as depressing.

Of the students polled, only one in four passed. This meant that they were able to correctly answer a mere 8 out of 15 questions. Among Atlantic Canadian students, only 21 per cent managed a passing grade. On reviewing the questions, it cannot be said that they were unusually difficult.

One asked students to identify the phrase referring to French colonists who were once foRCIbly resettled. The choices were: (Acadian Expulsion, Colonization, The Conquest). Another called for the name of the hockey player from among (Yvon Cournoyer, Paul Henderson or Phil Espisito) who scored the winning goal for Canada in the final game of of the 1972 Canada -Soviet Union series.

What can be done to rescue history? Clearly part of the blame lies in the demise of the subject as a essential part of the high school curriculum. However, the knee-jerk reaction of some educational bureaucrats to the abovementioned test was questionable. Their answer was to call for the institution of a compulsory course in Canadian history for all high school students. Such a course would restore our national heritage, and not only that; students would then know that John A. Macdonald, and not George Washington, was the first Prime Minister of Canada.

Many readers of this column will recall their high school days in mid-20th century Canada. Then there were compulsory courses in Canadian history. In addition, most provinces had externally based and graded matriculation examinations to make certain that that standards were maintained .

How many of you recall those dreaded matrics? More important, how much of that carefully memorized information have you retained a half century later? Small wonder that this approach led to a genuine dislike for history among a whole generation of students.

Another approach, and one that will resonate with readers of this column, was voiced by veteran Canadian broadcaster Patrick Watson. Heres what he had to say: History contains, but is not made up of great events, defining moments, crucial institutions. History, like art and music, begins locally and grows outward as its students grow in their capacity to look at a broader world. The exploration of history is a rewarding activity only if it produces meaning out of the chaos of experience.

To make his point, Watson cited examples of creative local history projects from coast to coast to coast. These were revealed during a series of Heritage Fairs held during 2001 under the sponsorship of the Bronfman Foundation. He concluded: I have seen Canadian students come back from a foray into the local community, their eyes glistening with the joy of having discovered meaning in researching local history.

Translated in plain language, Patrick Watson was calling for a 180 degree turn in the teaching of history at the elementary and high school level. Few regions of Canada are more fortunate the Tantramar in having a wealth of historical resources close at hand. Many local teachers are already enthusiastically incorporating these resources in their teaching. It is to be hoped that others will follow their example.

The revival of history must begin in the local community. Along the way, the subject will be transformed from something that is remote and often uninteresting, to that which is relevant and meaningful. There is considerable evidence to suggest that once students are caught up in the drama and excitment of historical investigation, there is no turning back. Be forewarned its addictive and it does not matter whether one is eighteen or eighty!

Interest and involvement in local history is underscored by the presence of three active historical societies in the Tantramar region. The oldest, the Westmorland Historical Society, covers the county; although the majority of its members are drawn from this area. The more recently formed Tantramar Heritage Trust and its offshoot, the Tantramar Historical Society, regularly attracts large audiences to its meetings. Watch for a number of their special events slated for Heritage Week in February. The Westford Historical Society, centered in Port Elgin, caters to residents of the old parishes of Westmorland and Botsford.

All three organizations boast long lists of volunteers who have helped make possible the operation of the Keillor House Museum in Dorchester, the repair and renovation of the Campbell Carriage factory in Sackville and the restoration of the Monro Heritage Centre in Port Elgin. Why do people volunteer for such activities? Is it civic pride? Most certainly, but there is also a deeper reason. Its to be found in an all abiding interest in local history and a desire to preserve something of the past for the cultural benefit of future generations. The many volunteers involved with these organizations, and others like them, constitute an important resource for local history.

Another illustration of this interest may be found in the work of the Historic Sites Identification Project sponsored by Renaissance Sackville and the Tantramar Heritage Trust. Readers wishing to learn about their activities, are encouraged to visit their website at http://heritage.tantramar.com/historic_sites/

Recently I spent some time reviewing letters and e-mails received from Flashback readers during 2001. Among several, I found a common theme. These correspondents admitted having developed a dislike for history during their school days.

Now, years later, many are happily caught up in researching family history, tracing lost relatives, collecting art and antiques, restoring older homes and furniture, even looking for lost musical scores. Still others are researching folklore and seeking out tall tales from the past. All have come to recgnize that not only is history interesting, it can be, as one correspondent expressed it: lots of fun. Theres a message here!

Any rescue operation for history is not likely to rest between the covers of a textbook. Theres so much more to be found that isnt in books! Nor will it be made palatable solely by prescribing a compulsory course in Canadian history. Instead, the solution put forward by Patrick Watson is to be recommended.