Whatever Happened to High School History?:
Burying the Political Memory of Youth: Ontario 1945-1995

278 pages,
ISBN: 155028486X

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Shouting with the Faintest
by John Muggeridge

During Eatanswill election rallies, Mr. Pickwick adopted a policy of shouting with the loudest. Accuse him of cowardice if you like, but under the circumstances, how else was he to prevent his famous bald head from getting bloodied?
More recently, left-wing leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have adopted Mr. Pickwick's electoral strategy, in their cases to save themselves from political bludgeoning. Thus, when the cry went up a few years ago for fiscal restraint, nobody joined in with greater enthusiasm than such born-again retrenchers as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton-except, perhaps, our own Bob Rae, who, in calling his plan to claw back civil servants' wages a "social contract", actually invoked the sacred language of revolution to justify reducing government expenditure.
But even on the Left, you don't have to shout with the loudest. For example, Bob Davis, like Rae a sixties activist, manages to survive without doing so. In 1967, Davis taught high school history and edited a Marxist journal of education. Thirty years later, with Marxism exploded and history all but erased from Ontario's public school curriculum, he continues to occupy himself in much the same two ways. Nor does this book display the slightest symptom of socialist burn-out. Others may have hauled down the red flag-most recently Eugene Genovese, whom I remember at graduate school thirty years ago being touted as a founding father of New Left history. Not Bob Davis. In fact, his Hammer and Sickle is still on the way up. "After all," he reminds himself in Whatever Happened, "you're almost a communist, albeit a rather utopian one." And even this last-minute attempt to sound uncommitted doesn't ring true. Utopianism is the very essence of communism. Pol Pot himself could hardly object to someone calling him a rather utopian sort of communist.
Perhaps Davis used the word "utopian" simply to signal his impatience with political theory. He finds Unequal Union, Stanley B. Ryerson's Marxist interpretation of Confederation, for example, unreadable. Not that the book lacks clarity or dramatic impact. What puts Davis off is its ideological content. The things which seem important to Ryerson, Davis finds himself able to appreciate only in his head. "As I am reading [Unequal Union]," he confesses, "instead of saying `That fact or that point means a lot to me' or `Yea, that's true!': I say instead `Oh yeah, so that's what the Marxist position is on that.' "
For Davis, in other words, theology obstructs truth. His is a communism of the heart. Hence its imperviousness to reality. Logic, so feminist scholars have taught him to believe, is an instrument of male oppression; why, then, bother responding to it? Or why, for that matter, listen to arguments drawn from history, when, as his favourite deconstructionist philosophers imply, the current version of it is nothing more than a tale told by a fascist idiot full of sound and fury signifying oppression?
The only valid use of the past, then, is to justify one's left-wing view of the present. Feminists write herstory; Davis writes ourstory. Looking back at the late sixties and early seventies, he remembers "being inspired by the feeling that history was on our side, that more and more of the world map was being coloured red, and that within our Western societies programs of social and democratic parties were the wave of the future." Either faith unhampered by observation had thus inspired him, or his memory has grossly deceived him. In 1969, de Gaulle rejected the demands of student and unionist revolutionaries, to thunderous applause from his fellow-countrymen; a year later, a majority of young American voters chose Richard Nixon, and the Conservatives swept back into power in Britain. Davis was right, of course, about global reddening. That the countries affected by it included Tibet, Afghanistan, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany was a fact, however, whose significance he seems to have been incapable of appreciating even in his head.
The point is that Davis, like all charismatics, needed a pentecost; given his politics, moreover, he needed a grass-roots one. This is where The Sixties (as opposed to the sixties) came in. They provided him with exactly the sort of proletarian version of the Toronto Blessing he was looking for. "Voices from below" attacking the racist, sexist, ethnocentrist, and capitalist bias in Ontario's high school history curriculum, rather than the more traditional "sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind", heralded its arrival around 1965. And miraculously the province's education department listened to them. New courses blossomed overnight, to do justice to forgotten minorities. Finally, enthuses Davis, "We could.add units of study about these buried people and talk about the transformation of history that adding their story implied."
But such an emancipation from false history could not be a lasting one. Inevitably, the agents of what Davis in one place calls "the new global restructuring of capitalism" and in another "the restructuring of global capitalism" dug in their toes. The very last thing they wanted our schools to produce was a generation of enlightened patriotic socialists. All they were looking for was a reliable supply of loyal and adaptable technicians. So reaction set in. As Davis puts it, "While we were confidently debating what the new history would look like, the subject itself was disappearing under our feet." With it, back to limbo went the political memory of youth. Meanwhile, courses on how to handle evidence, how to present arguments, and how to detect bias filled the holes in the curriculum where history had once been. Skillsology, as one British educational critic put it, eclipsed culture.
But what culture are we bemoaning the disappearance of? Davis makes clear which he has in mind by his choice of tyrants in the following rhetorical question: "Give Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, or Ronald Reagan a course in `modes of reasoning' or `critical thinking' and their oppressive policies would melt away?" However, one has to say one thing for Davis. He believes that Canada's national history is worth preserving. For him, multiculturalism is a means to an end. He thinks it important to fight for what he calls "the whole picture". This is because he is a Marxist. Communism can only begin in one country. Davis wants a People's History of Canada to pave the way for a dictatorship of the Canadian proletariat. In other words, he is wishing on us an even more terrible fate than national disintegration. "We ended a seventy-year experiment with socialism," confesses Eugene Genovese, "with little more to our credit than tens of millions of corpses." Not only is Davis shouting with the faintest; he is beckoning the most murderous. 

John Muggeridge lives in Welland, Ontario. Once upon a time, he too taught high school history.


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