McCord Museum, Montreal, February 25, 2009
I would like to thank the Association of Canadian Studies for inviting me to participate in this particular seminar, “Representing and Communicating the Story Inside and Outside the Class.” I can only assume that by asking me to be here that you, the organisers, are looking for the reflections of someone who, for over 35 years, shared the education experience with adolescents of various Montreal public high schools. If that be the case, I am more than happy to participate; in fact, I feel somewhat honoured that my opinion is being sought.
Most of the time in that 35-year career, I taught the traditional Grade Ten Canadian History course. For a brief period in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, I also taught the Grade Eleven World History class.
For the record, I started my career with a one year stint in an old Catholic School Board in Laval but later found employment with the now defunct PSBGM (today the English Montreal School Board) with whom I realised the better part of my career teaching in various schools in diverse areas of Montreal – from Rosemount High School, to Northmount High School in CDN, to Wagar High School in CSL, to Lasalle High School, and finally finishing my career at Royal Vale in NDG.
As an aside, it was at Northmount High School in 1983 that, for the first time in my life, I myself experienced being the visible minority as I was the only Caucasian in a classroom of well-over 30 individuals. It was an occurrence that I recall vividly, and came to treasure as the years passed.
With that as a brief background, I would now like to address the seminar theme: “Representing and Communicating the Story Inside and Outside the Class”.
Reflection Number One: Natural Antipathy
Last August, I saw a report on BBC television about the colourful Nottinghill Gate West Indian Carnival held every summer in the same Central London district after which it is named.
It seems that the event is not totally appreciated amongst many of the locals in the neighbourhood, especially the elderly, who complain about the tumult created whenever a million people or so get-together to celebrate, and to party.
Last summer, according to the same television news item, a significant effort was made to deal with the issue of excessive noise and the BBC decided to interview a few residents after the happening in order to get their opinion about the most recent, toned-down version of the Nottinghill Gate Festival.
One older gentleman’s answer struck me in particular and I would like to share it with you now. I will quote him to the best of my recollection.
“What you don’t understand,” he declared somewhat brusquely to a BBC journalist, “What you don’t understand is that the young and the old live in two completely different worlds so it really doesn’t matter I suppose how much you temper the event”.
I have thought often of the poignancy of his words and the resignation with which they were delivered. Indeed, young people and old people do dwell, frequently concurrently, in contrary realities – the former keenly looking forward in time and the latter, more often than not, despondently looking backward.
I, myself, around the age of forty, developed an ardent passion for genealogy and family history. At one point, my interest in the subject was so intense, and I derived such enjoyment from it, that I periodically wondered why it took me so long to discover the popular pastime. The answer to that question came to me when, many years ago, I attended my first genealogy conference, as I recall, in the nation’s capital.
(I’ll let you decide if the event were held in Ottawa or Quebec City.)
There, it suddenly struck me that virtually all those attending the congress had, essentially, more of their lives behind them than that which remained before them. It seems almost natural then that when this humbling juncture of one’s life is reached that many develop simultaneously an interest in one’s own personal narrative and that of those around us. In short, we look back.
With young people, of course, it’s completely the opposite and, therefore, for most there is a natural antipathy to history, be it their own personal chronicle or that of their country.
So it is perhaps not surprising that more often than not during my rather lengthy career in education here in the Montreal area I struggled to create interest in the compulsory Canadian history course which I regularly taught as part of my annual pedagogical assignment.
Reflection Number Two: U.S. Influence
With regard to that same Canadian history curriculum, I was frequently told by my many pupils down through the years that they would never quote/unquote ‘use it’, that it was quote/unquote ‘boring’, that American history was more quote/unquote ‘interesting’. Ironically, the latter assertion usually led to an interesting exchange of thought as to why so many young people (males in particular) found U.S. history more compelling than that of their own country. Inevitably, the American Civil War was mentioned and as I have said, I found that to be a bit of a paradox (and I told them as much) given the fact that over 600,000 human beings were killed in that bloody conflict.
As another brief aside, I must tell you about my first day ever in a Canadian History classroom. I was all of 22 years of age – a ‘kid teachings kids’, as I now realise.
During my teenage years, like many Canadian boys about whom I just spoke, I too had a passing interest in the U.S. Civil War. This inquisitiveness included a fascination for Abraham Lincoln, both his life and death.
I remember reading in several places that in his early life he had had a passionate relationship with a young woman by the name of Ann Rutledge. When she died of typhoid in 1835, it is said that Lincoln fell into a deep depression from which it took the longest time for him to emerge.
Flash forward 134 years.
In September of 1969 on my first day ever in a high school classroom, I was scrutinising the computer-generated list (such as they were in those days) of the students who were, at that particular moment, before me. About two thirds of the way down the roster, I spotted the family name ‘Rutledge’. Even at the tender age of 22, my sense of humour could only have been described as dry.
Accordingly, I looked at the pupil in question and asked simply:
“Yes,” came rapidly the response.
“To whom?” I countered skeptically.
“To Ann Rutledge – Abraham Lincoln’s lover”, he retorted, smiling.
Considerably humbled, I waited another 25 years before trying my luck anew, this time with another name and another story.
I don’t know then: Perhaps there are cultural and political factors that would cause a Canadian to prefer his neighbour’s history over that of his or her own country. Certainly, the United States is not the easiest country to live next door to, no more so now than before January 20 last. Although most North Americans rejoice at the fact that a fresh young face has arrived in the White House; nevertheless, the very nature of the relationship between our two countries remains intrinsically the same. It was Pierre Trudeau who compared the phenomenon of living in close proximity to the USA as to one sleeping with an elephant. Stated Trudeau somewhat laconically in 1969 before the National Press Club in Washington, and I quote: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”.
In my opinion, this paradox also extends into the field of geography.
For instance, for the longest time, at the beginning of each academic year I would give to each of my newly-assigned students an outline map of North America. It included neither provincial nor state borders, nor, as I recall, the long border (about which we often hear so much) found between Canada and the United States.
In order to assess their basic knowledge of the continent upon which they lived, I would ask the pupils to place numbers to where the following were, more or less, found on the map: Montreal, the St. Lawrence River, Newfoundland, Lake Superior, British Columbia, the Rocky Mountains, Saskatchewan, Hudson Bay, Florida, and California. You guessed it: by far and away, the two geographic entities most students were successful at situating on the outline map were Florida and California. Astonishingly, many students were embarrassingly unable to locate their own city on the map.
As unfortunate as these results may seem to us, they pale in comparison to the occasion in 1992 when, in an alternative school, I had a sixteen year old boy before a geo-political map of North America which was hanging from the blackboard in the front of the classroom. Imagine my amazement when I suddenly realized that on the map he was unable to distinguish between the land and the water. Although instinctively quite sensitive (from my own experiences in high school) to self – esteem issues, the young man became quite unsettled blurting out (as I recall): “Well, why would I want to know that anyway”.
So as I have already stated, I believe there is a natural antipathy found in many students, perhaps most, towards the social sciences, especially history. I remember it from my time in high school and nothing in my long career caused me to think other wise.
To conclude this thought, in its June 22, 1876 edition the Canadian Illustrated News ran this striking graphic depicting a teacher despairingly struggling to maintain order and interest in his geography class. It would seem, then, that the aversion is nothing new.
Reflection Number Three: Societal Valorisation of Its History
There is, on the other hand, at least one other factor contributing towards the difficulty history educators face in their day to day teaching assignment. Moreover, it is, in my opinion, an important one at that. Simply put, we, as a society (and here I am speaking specifically of Quebec, although what I am about to say may very well apply to other jurisdictions as well) that we, as a society, no longer really valorise the past and those who came before us, and while it might seem to some of you that I am going off on a tangent, I would, nevertheless, ask for your indulgence in following along for a few moments.
In short, for a province which prides itself in our motto “Je me souviens,” we, adults, certainly do a number on our collective history. For instance, the November 2006 arbitrary decision to attempt to re-name Park Avenue and Bleury Street not surprisingly brought back vivid memories of the 1987 controversy surrounding the actual re-naming of Dorchester Boulevard effectively removing a 150 year old popular street designation from the municipal map. While in November 2006, most of the row centered around Park Avenue, it should be pointed out that Bleury Street (only three blocks from here) has been part of Montreal’s toponymy and, therefore, its history, for nearly two centuries.
I ask you: What kind of message do young people pick up about the importance of their heritage when elected officials behave in such a cavalier fashion?
Unfortunately, the problem of abandoning our history is not simply restricted to toponymy. From logos to buildings, we in Montreal are apparently hell-bent on eliminating much of the evidence that other people actually lived here before us. By way of example, the construction in the Latin Quarter of this city of the CHUM French- language super hospital (which, ironically, could easily have been named after the late Robert Bourassa) will lead to the demolition of an entire block of outstanding Victorian greystones, including a magnificent Early English gothic, pre-Confederation church building found opposite Viger Square. Surely, with a little imagination, a project of the scope and budget of CHUM could easily re-cycle these historic edifices into the site. It’s been done elsewhere, even occasionally in Montreal.
Sadly, we are more often than not governed by individuals who have no particular love (or worse still, knowledge ) of this city’s colourful and vibrant past. Their unspoken mantra would appear to be: ‘History only really began when I arrived on the scene’. Again, this kind of sentiment sends a terrible example to our young who, in all events, learn more through osmosis than any way else. In fact, in 1973, at the very beginning of my career with the old Protestant School Board, I even today still clearly remember a student challenging me that if history were so important why would the authorities have allowed the demolition of the old Van House on Sherbrooke Street?
The present municipal regime of this city, like the Doré Administrations of the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, seems to believe that the good fortune of Montreal’s unique and varied heritage as reflected in its streets and buildings, belong exclusively to them. The Doré city hall, for example, made virtually no effort, despite repeated appeals from now very well-known heritage organisations, to save the majestic Queen’s Hotel on Peel Street in 1988.
It would seem, therefore, that here in Quebec at least we, as a collectivity, we are developing an antipathy towards history. As a general rule, we no longer date buildings; a practice that was much in vogue in earlier times. We rarely place commemorative plaques to mark sites of historic events, both happy and not so happy. There is, for example, no monument (or plaque) in this city to the heroic Sarah Maxwell, a teacher, who gave her life while attempting to save her pupils in the Hochelaga School Fire of 1907 in which 16 children died. That’s just one example. There’s also no plaque in Victoria Square commemorating the 1853 Gavazzi Riot, the most serious civil disturbance in this city’s history in terms of loss of life. In more recent times, we have seen the unpleasant November spectacle of veterans, or the wives of veterans, being chased away from certain establishments, including banks, when they promote their annual ‘wear a poppy’ campaign in commemoration of those who died in the two Great Wars of the twentieth century. What are our children to think?
Please allow me to contrast this with a city and country that I visit fairly regularly – the United Kingdom. One cannot walk the streets of London (or virtually any city in Britain) without being struck by the number of residences which carry commemorative plaques on their facades, detailing the name and dates of the noteworthy individual who lived there years ago. Virtually every block has three or four such tablets.
Perhaps because their history is longer, they seem to revel more in their past. There is an imbued sense of continuity; that we are here but for a brief period of time, to be followed by others, and that to those ‘others’ we owe an inheritance. How else can you explain the fact that in 1966 trees were planted in Hastings in southeast England which, it is anticipated, will have reached maturity in time for the millennium celebration in 2066 of the historic battle of the same name?? I could not imagine that happening here.
It’s not then just our children who may have an antipathy towards the past; it’s our society.
For those of us who delight in history, in teaching it and in living it, it’s discouraging to say the least. Many good people, educators, have dedicated – some voluntarily – a life time of work devoted to promoting the varied story of this city, province, and country. As a genealogist, I regularly seek out my ancestors’ imprints as I walk along the streets, avenues, and boulevards of this beautiful city. It’s indeed a tribute to those who came before us that they left so much behind and of which much remains, even when faced with the flagrant indifference of our local politicians. In short, it’s an attitude problem, and many have the wrong one, or no attitude at all. Is it little wonder then that some youth might react towards history in a similar detached fashion ?
The Gazette newspaper wrote editorially in its October 9, 2006 edition, and I quote: “Indisputably we all owe a debt to those who came before us; our artifacts, our knowledge, our culture, we have inherited them from generations now buried, whose industry and prudence and judgment and wisdom created what we call our birthright. We should be grateful to them”.
I could not have put it better myself. It is for the argument put forth in that editorial that we teach history to our young in the first place. There is, however, a malaise in a society which is becoming increasingly self-centered, and hostile to its past. If we want our children and our students to appreciate those who came before us, we must lead by example. That way, and only that way, will we build a more tolerant and all-embracing community, a community in which to quote Guy duMaupassant’s beautiful phraseology “the four generations who see daylight at the same time” will all take pride.
So I don’t know if these reflections have addressed your theme. I have no doubt, however, that the teaching of history to our youth comprises, as your topic suggests, a two fold approach – with the education experience taking place both within and without the classroom.
Thank you for your kind attention.