Who Killed Canadian History?

by J. L. Granatstein,
128 pages,
ISBN: 0002557592

Post Your Opinion
by Belinda Beaton

After thirty years as a professional historian, Jack Granatstein is well placed to comment on the way Canadian history is taught. This book warns that a frightening future awaits Canada if we continue down a path towards historical amnesia. Functional literacy may be declining due to television and popular culture, but historical consciousness is also threatened with extinction. Granatstein argues that we can have no confidence in ourselves as a nation if we do not understand our past. His views eloquently echo Michael Bliss's demands a few years ago for a public history. Since surveys consistently show that Canadians desire a greater emphasis on their history and heritage, there are many who will agree with this passionate plea for the federal government to intervene and help re-create a national history.

Granatstein believes that the provincial educational systems are producing people who have debilitated identities and little cultural capital. He blames bureaucrats in provincial education ministries for draining Canadian history of most of its content and context. They have vetted writers' work according to politically correct criteria, so that school textbooks are now "the blandest of mush" and "air-brushed accounts of the past". History, as it is taught in the elementary and secondary schools, reflects the 1960s switch to a child-centred approach to education that stresses problem-solving and development of self-esteem. Curriculums have thematic courses that often aim to impart that sexism and racism are wrong. While these are unquestionably admirable ambitions, the result is a history of grievance and victimhood, in which individual and national accomplishments are sadly neglected. Regional concerns eclipse national and global contexts. The emphasis is on pluralism and the diverse experiences of ethnic groups, not on the efforts that created and united a nation. This is particularly true in Quebec, where history courses paint the rest of Canada almost as an "alien backdrop".

While the provincial educational systems are at fault for not demanding that students study history in their senior years, multicultural policies are also remiss for not giving new Canadians the cultural knowledge necessary to thrive in our society. As the child of immigrants, Granatstein is proud of Canada's work in welcoming those who come here to build new lives. But multicultural doctrines, he fears, undermine any sense that they have come to a society which already had some form of its own. In the process of affirming our respect for religious and cultural minorities, who may have "idealized versions" of their pasts, Canada's Western heritage has been warped "out of all recognition". While Canada has had its share of tragic episodes and racist interludes, these must be placed in the context in which they occurred. In the new search for guilt and victimhood, we lose track of the fact that Canada does not have a past record of human rights abuses that could ever rival many of the countries from which our immigrants have fled. In re-creating history to serve contemporary needs, however worthy this may seem, we are distorting what actually happened in the past. Perhaps the greatest problem with multiculturally massaged history is that it spreads the idea among immigrants-and also among francophones in Quebec-that Canada has no national culture.

Granatstein's most searing criticisms are for his own profession, because it is the academic historians who educate future teachers and government bureaucrats. He believes they have "let the side down totally and completely". "The writing of first-class history about the national experience," he says, "is something with which Canadian professional historians ought to be concerned." The compartmentalized approaches to the discipline that have developed over the last twenty years "do not always tell students who they are, where they have come from, and where we are going." He does not mind a history of women, immigrants, and workers, but he does not want them to eclipse politicians, soldiers, and businessmen. And he has found that, in defending their newly-won turf, advocates of the new history "have revealed themselves to be far more hidebound and rigid than those they denounce." (Please note that one of the reasons they are jealous of the happy few who teach national history-such as Bliss and Granatstein-is that these are the ones sometimes asked to provide lucrative media commentary.)

Granatstein may be a tad severe in saying that the only true value of the books that scholarly historians are churning out is "to secure tenure and promotion" for their authors. And should the reader not be familiar with some of the sorry prose written by historians these days, he provides examples of obfuscation and bafflegab that more than prove his point. Narrative, a tool that is a crucial component in the historian's craft, has been abandoned by many of its practitioners, particularly those who write micro-history. While academics tore apart Pierre Berton's and Peter Newman's treatments of Canadian history, the fact remains that these works captured a large audience because they are colourful and readable.

Many academics will dismiss Granatstein's views. There are historians who deliberately read as broadly as possible in their larger discipline so they can convey diverse thematic concerns to their students. The differing approaches to history developed over the last three decades, taken together, have yielded some interesting work and valuable insights. The enduring legacy of the New Left may well be to have rid historical writing of its blinkered Whig celebration of Western progress. The postmodernists, in their search for unexpected and unintended meanings, have contributed a stress on the critical evaluation of texts and past events. And some of the specialties Granatstein bemoans are useful adjuncts to national political history. Studies of the development of literacy and the impact of television help illustrate how the political nation has grown to incorporate more people, and how public debate and active citizenship have changed as a result. Other offshoots of recent social history, particularly examinations of nineteenth-century advertising and consumption, may be more aligned to museum studies than to the discipline of history as it has been traditionally taught, but this does not diminish their worth.

A question Granatstein might have pondered is this: How many historians-in any generation-are skilled at writing panoramic narrative that emphasizes, not the particular concern, but the broader national context? While mathematicians do some of their most creative work in their early twenties, it is not uncommon for historians to start to peak in their forties. Often it takes two smaller books and twenty years of reading before a master work emerges. For the most part, only the better work of superior historians has endured from previous centuries.

Granatstein's criticisms and fears run parallel to ones expressed by others. A decade ago the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb savaged trendy methodologies in The New History & The Old. More recently, in England, Richard Evans's In Defence of History attacked ministers of education for not laying down common curriculums. But there is a belief that the pendulum is starting to swing back a bit and that social, intellectual, and political history may converge into something more balanced. Increasingly, the Marxist critique of the West is being rethought by a younger breed of historians, and some stimulating work that emphasizes social cohesion is emerging. It may be a while before the results percolate down to primary schools. One can only hope that concerned parents will heed Granatstein's advice and lobby for a more balanced approach that will resuscitate Canadian history before it is too late. 

Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us