Published in the Montreal Gazette on Friday, March 1, 2013

It was with considerable interest that I read Pierre Home – Douglas’ well-written and balanced assessment of certain limitations in the general knowledge of many young people today (“Common knowledge? These days, not so much”, Gazette, February 25, 2013). Sadly, I can only inform Mr. Home – Douglas that these deficiencies are nothing new.


During a thirty-five year career in high school education in the Greater Montreal area, I too observed many students struggle with the most basic of concepts in both history and geography. Regrettably, the dearth of topographical comprehension usually impinged on other subjects as well, particularly history. As a teacher of both history and geography, I made great efforts throughout my professional life to appreciate the true extent of the problem, and from where it came.


For instance, for the longest time at the very beginning of each academic year, I would hand out to all of my newly assigned students a simple outline map of North America. It did not include either provincial or state lines, or, as I recall, the rather long border found between Canada and the United States. The Great Lakes, however, were displayed.


In order to assess their basic knowledge of the continent upon which they lived, I would ask the pupils to place numbers 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. Interestingly, by far and away the two geographic entities most scholars were successful at accurately situating on the outline map were Florida and California! Moreover, many were embarrassingly unable to locate their own city (Montreal) on the map and, in general, did quite poorly on the entire pedagogical exercise.


As deplorable as these results may seem to us today, they pale in comparison to an unforgettable occasion in 1992 when, in an alternative school in NDG, I had a sixteen year old boy standing before a very colourful 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 that larger than life representation the pupil in question was unable to distinguish between the land and the water!


Although instinctively a bit   sensitive (from my own experiences in high school) to self – esteem issues, the young man still became quite unsettled, blurting out essentially the same rhetorical interrogative Home-Douglas hears from many of his students so often today: “Well, why would I want to know that anyway”? Afterward, by way of just one example, I privately attempted to explain to him the importance of being able to read a simple road map if later in life he should decide to take an automobile holiday in unknown turf.


Inadequate knowledge of elementary geography certainly complicates, to say the least, a proper appreciation of the subject matter of history. It would be similar to finding oneself in a chemistry course without ever having been fully convinced that two and two totals four.  To make matters even worse, numerous adolescents were totally unfamiliar with the very notion of the four cardinal directions as perceived on a map. Therefore, as such, when a high school history teacher attempts to explain by reference to a well-placed map in the front of the class that the European explorers sailed westward across the Atlantic Ocean, a significant number of students would have no idea about what he would be speaking.


Like Home-Douglas, I was also for a period of time an English teacher before my career came to an end in 2006. As the years passed, it became increasingly difficult to select appropriate literature for pupils to read and study. Shakespeare became progressively more problematic due partly to the number of religious allusions in the various plays, many pupils claiming that they didn’t have to know that because it wasn’t their religion.


Others, for their own religious reasons (or so they claimed), refused to participate whenever a course touched upon politics, an occurrence in a history class that is almost impossible to avoid.


Regardless, my personal experience with the scholarly shortcomings of many students perhaps reached a crescendo a decade or so ago when the question of what specific event in June of 1914 finally triggered the start of the Great World War. After a long and awkward moment, one young man in the back of the classroom suddenly blurted out: “Oh, when they killed that man on the cross!”


“Good Luck”, Mr. Home – Douglas!

(below, invigilating exams at Royal Vale High School, late in my career)