Sat, Apr

Talking 'bout My Education

Sat, Apr 7, 2007

Stageleft writes an excellent post about the state of history taught in our schools. You really should go read the whole thing and think about it, but basically, he is reacting to news that some schools may be dropping lessons on the Holocaust “to avoid offending Muslim pupils”.

He was ready to fire off a post on why such a move would be wrong, but he stopped, and noted several other dark periods of history, wherein the perpetrators were a little closer to home, and asked why these weren’t taught in our schools, either. To this, he concludes: “it’s a very [very] long list of things I could generate about western, North American, and Canadian, historical events that get glossed over, do not get taught, in schools because they reflect badly on our culture, our traditions, and our people.”

Well, this led to a few responses, and the discussion has gone in a number of different directions. Andrew at Bound by Gravity is running with this issue, asking “Humans are a relatively short-lived species - as people who experienced these wrongs pass away, who will remember the lessons learned if we do not ensure that they are taught in schools?” His point: the victors write the histories.

However, I want to take this discussion into the realm of how our education system is working. I along with a few other individuals looked at the topics Stageleft thought had been given short shrift, and considered our experience with them. In my case, I was aware of most of the incidents that Stageleft cited.

That Christopher Columbus was a brutal dictator of the Spanish colony he was given control of? Not covered in the curriculum, but covered in a television mini-series on Columbus’ life that my school encouraged us to watch.

The barbaric acts of the Spanish conquistadors? Covered in grade 11 world history — an optional course.

American persecution of British loyalists, forcing them to move north as, essentially, Canadian refugees? Covered in junior high, with a play that all students watched which, among other things, featured the hanging of a seven-year-old.

300,000 individuals burned at the stake due to Christian hysteria over witchcraft? I already knew about witch burnings by grade four, and read Arthur Miller’s play in grade 12 English which, among other things, linked the Salem witch trials thematically with McCarthyism.

The number of people killed during the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We knew that by early high school. This was the era after Chernobyl and before Glasnost, when we teenagers were all terrified about what a nuclear war could do. Further coverage came in Grade 12 20th Century World History (optional course)

The treatment of Canadian aboriginals in residential schools as part of a concerted effort by the government to wipe out their culture? Covered in Grade 10 Canadian history (also optional).

So, in terms of my knowledge of these events, I would appear to have gone to a better school than Stageleft, but despite this, he has a significant point. Look back at my response to his list, and you’ll see that most of the courses where I learned these things were optional. They were not part of the regular curriculum that every student took.

They say that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, but not if you don’t have to take it in the first place. And that is the unfortunate effect of the Ontario curriculum, which was revised as I entered high school to favour English, maths and “hard” sciences over the “softer” sciences of history and geography. I also had the benefit of attending Harbord Collegiate Institute in downtown Toronto — a large school with a long history of academic excellence. They had the staff to offer these courses and the students to take it, even though most did not. I would have to think that in a smaller community where Stageleft might reside, these options might not be as readily available.

Hey, even the Holocaust was taught only as an optional course where I went to school.

So I dispute Stageleft’s point that all of these lessons have been dropped in order to avoid offending sensitive cultural ears, but I acknowledge his point that we have a problem. And that problem is that we are undervaluing history, and I suspect that this is at least partly because we only have so many hours in the day in which to teach our kids, and so many things we believe we need to teach them.

And what if we can’t? As I stand here, sixteen years out of high school, twelve years out of University, the one thing I can say about life is that it is far more complicated than was read to me in the instruction manual. The little bit of history that I know, that Stageleft was never taught in school, barely scratches the surface of what’s available. How do we make sure it gets learnt?

By far the most valuable thing I learned in University, which put my high school education to shame, was figuring out how to learn — to really ask questions, do the research, challenge assumptions and figure things out for myself. High school provided me with a number of vital skills, but it was University that made learning fun, primarily by putting a compass in my hands, waving a hand in a general direction, and saying “there’s your knowledge. Go look for it.”

And I think this is what the high schools need to do in order to ensure that more history, and geography, and social studies, and economics, et cetera, gets learnt. The teachers do good work, but I find that the curriculum is flawed. When Universities are forced to do the job of teaching basic writing style to high school graduates, something needs fixing. My mother had to be physically restrained when an English teacher told her, “we don’t correct spelling and grammar anymore, as we don’t want to stifle the students’ natural creativity.”

Our education shouldn’t be about memorizing facts and dates and equations, and while learning such job skills as keyboarding and basic computer programming is important in this day and age, the approach should be focused towards a goal of structuring how we learn, and pointing us in the direction of where to learn. We should be taught how to research, so we don’t fall back on Auntie Wikipedia or the collective wisdom of our peers; we should be taught the rules of math and grammar so we can communicate our ideas persuasively and, most importantly, we need to be taught to think critically, to challenge assumptions, and to open ourselves up to being challenged.

My university education did this to a great degree. I graduated as an urban planner, but I found work as a database manager, an administrative assistant, a web designer and, finally, a writer and a journalist. My path here was not determined by a specific set of skills relating to journalism, but a broader set that helped me figure out what skills I really needed, and where I could find them.

We can learn history outside of the narrow curriculum imposed by the short days and lengthy summer holidays at our schools. The Armenian genocide is entering our curriculum thanks to the work of at least one author in making the knowledge accessible to young adults interested in reading for their own enjoyment. It simply wasn’t spoken about twenty years ago. The schools don’t have to show us the world; they just have to show us where we can find it.

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