Rethinking the Impact of the Harper Government on Canadian History: It’s Our Fault Too
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Rethinking the Impact of the Harper Government on Canadian History:
It’s Our Fault Too

It is easy for historians, and particularly for academics, to criticize the Harper government’s attitude towards Canadian history. As is clear from this collection of papers, between (among other things) cuts to Parks Canada, to national museums, and to Library and Archives Canada, evidence of Ottawa’s disregard for much of what professionals find critical to the future of the discipline of history abounds.

If one is to be fair, however, while our public history colleagues – who have dedicated their careers to making our subject accessible to a popular audience – have every right to condemn Ottawa aggressively, those of us who work in the post-secondary education system as academics should be more prudent. Setting aside our obvious disappointment, and considering the state of the study of Canadian history objectively, it becomes clear that if there are problems, we too are to blame.

It is worth recalling, for example, that the great majority of Canadian voters – including Conservatives and their supporters – once studied history in a Canadian high school. And the curriculum for their high school courses either was or could (and indeed should) have been shaped by the contributions of Canadian academics. Furthermore, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Canadians – again including Conservatives and their supporters – took our Canadian history courses in universities. Putting it simply, then, if we don’t like how some of our own graduates understand our discipline, perhaps we need to rethink what and how it is we’re teaching them.

I see two possible reasons for what might be a collective failure of Canadian historians to communicate effectively in the classroom. First, in spite of the way that we value evidence in our scholarly research, as a professional community, we seem to all but ignore its importance when it comes to approaches to promoting student learning. How many tenured academic historians read the cognitive science literature, for example? How many participate actively in the scholarship of teaching and learning, be it by attending conferences, publishing articles, or even just contributing to discussion boards or subscribing to list-serves? At the community level, how many articles on teaching history have been published in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association over the last decade? What percentage of articles in the cha Bulletin deal with teaching-related activities?

These questions are not meant to suggest that Canadian historians are necessarily poor, or even ineffective, educators. They do imply, however, that given how much of our time is spent in the classroom allegedly promoting student learning, most of us do not know nearly enough about the functioning [End Page 222] of the human brain. And it is hardly unreasonable to suggest that a greater immersion in evidence-based research on teaching and learning would enhance our students’ academic experiences. Perhaps if they learned more in our classrooms (and by learning, I am referring to an experience that causes a permanent change in knowledge, understanding, or attitude), fewer would emerge with attitudes towards Canadian history that make so many in the profession uncomfortable today, and perhaps more would support our calls to better fund those institutions that make it possible for us to do what we do.

My second, albeit inter-related, explanation for our collective failure is an academic reward system that has encouraged us to privilege (at least in our scholarship) a small, élitist audience to the exclusion of the Canadian public as a whole. Let us be honest: one receives tenure for publishing an academic monograph with a university press, not for producing a high school textbook. A single scholarly article in a reputable journal with a subscription list of under 1000 advances one’s academic career more than one hundred op-eds in national or even international newspapers and magazines with readerships in the tens of thousands. And most university tenure and promotion committees would consider a multi-year commitment to collaborate with a provincial government to modernize its Canadian history curriculum to be service, not scholarship.

By deliberately rewarding such exclusiveness in personnel decisions, and by ascribing so little relative weight to...