The country where history is history

Who Killed Canadian History?
December 11, 1998

Jack Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History? is not a mystery story but an explanation of why 66 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds failed the 1997 Dominion Institute National History Survey; 46 per cent of the most expensively educated cadre in history did not know the name of their nation's first prime minister; and 66 per cent did not know what to remember on either Remembrance or D-Day.

The recently appointed director of the Canadian War Museum apportions blame equally between the provincial ministries of education that direct Canada's primary and secondary schools and the universities run largely by the professorate. Believing that the "role of the school was to foster the 'development' of students, not to stuff them full of knowledge", the progressive educators who staff Canada's ministries of education have over the last two decades largely deconstructed the history curriculum. In Ontario, which has one-third of the nation's students, history went from being 11 per cent of the high-school curriculum in 1964 to one course today. Worse still, Granatstein finds that what is taught is not national history but a hotch-potch of grievances.

Even though there are more history professors and more history majors and graduate students than ever before, Canadian history has become the Latin of the 1990s. In most Canadian universities, Granatstein discovers, it is possible to get an honours BA, an MA and a PhD without ever coming into contact with Canadian history. And those who take their degree in Canadian studies (fewer and fewer programmes use the older appellation) are almost certain not to have studied the nation's constitutional, military or economic past.

Instead they will be schooled in the ways of particularist history. At one time this would have meant provincial history (Quebeckers, for example, have always viewed Britain's victory at Quebec differently from the rest of Canada). Now, Granatstein argues, it means something even more dangerous. Particularist history has nothing to do with social history or with examining neglected subjects such as Canada's indigenous peoples or social history. Rather, having achieved power within history departments, particularist historians of the feminist, Marxist, racial or ethnic varieties ensure that the kind of history Granatstein practised for 30 years at York University in Toronto will go untaught and unlearned. With tongue only partially in cheek he confidently predicts a thesis entitled "Housemaid's knee in Belleville in the 19th century".

There is an urgency about this book. For the perennially fractured status of Canadian national identity allows Granatstein to show how, without historical literacy, citizens have little if any hold on their nation.

Nathan Greenfield is Canadian correspondent, The Times Educational Supplement.

Who Killed Canadian History?

Author - J. L. Granatstein
ISBN - 0 00 255759 2
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - $22.00
Pages - 156

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