To what extent should teachers of history engage their students in inquiry about the role history learning plays in the pursuit of the national project?
Posted by Laurence Abbott
It is likely that most of us writing here are history junkies of various sorts; consumers of the past with a desire to better understand the present, and, perhaps, imagine something of the future. I suspect that many people involved in the business of teaching history to kids are history junkies of sorts, too. As such, we have a responsibility to reevaluate how we share history with the young so that we all become better and more critical consumers of history. In “What kind of citizen,” Joel Westheimer asks “If students from a totalitarian nation were secretly transported to a Canadian classroom to continue their lessons with new teachers and a new curriculum, would they be able to tell the difference?” It begs a few questions for Canadian teachers of history to consider: Is the purpose of teaching history to the young different in a totalitarian nation state than it is in a democratic nation state like Canada? How might our own critical engagement with history help us to better imagine our history teaching as a site of democratic nation building? How might a richer critical engagement with the mission of history teaching lead to students having a more meaningful engagement with the past?
As a former social studies teachers with an undergraduate background in history, it took me some time to become aware how poorly equipped I was to take up the kinds of questions I am asking here. While I recall getting praise from my peers for my content knowledge, I did not ask myself enough questions about the narratives I was teaching to my students and how these came to be the stories we share and claim to be our own. To what extent do teachers of history fail to account for students’ inability to identify with the characters, personalities, locales and contexts of the past they encounter in classrooms, textbooks and in a range of media they access. Unquestionably, the fabric of nations and nation states is made of stories. Canada is a multinational and multicultural nation state, but many of the stories we tell seem to exclude an increasing proportion of the community. While I am not calling for a revision of these stories to make them reflect current demographics, I am calling on teachers and history educators to give attention to a variety of difficulties and resistances students exhibit that impede the internalizing Canadian stories.
In my experience as a teacher and teacher educator, many of the social studies and history teachers I encounter are history junkies. A hidden curricular challenge for teachers of history is appreciating how our affinity for the past sometimes veils our ability to recognize and reimagine our teaching practices to address the resistances, difficulties and dissonances students encounter with history.