More Dominion Institute Nonsense

29 06 2009

You know that Dominion Day Canada Day is rapidly approaching because the Dominion Institute has released the results of a survey demonstrating that the average Canadian knows very little about Canadian history. See Canadian Press story here.  More press coverage, see here, here, and here. Publishing the results of this survey is an annual ritual for the Institute.

As I have said before, the annual surveys of the Dominion Institute are deeply flawed and display a terrible parochial mindset on the part of their creators. First, the DI survey only test knowledge of Canadian history, the apparent assumption being that it doesn’t matter whether our citizens know about Auschwitz or Pericles, as long as they know about Riel and Diefenbaker.
Moreover, the DI makes no effort to compare the results of its surveys with similar historical knowledge surveys in other countries. (In contrast, science and math surveys of high school students are almost always subject to cross national comparisons and the creation of league tables).

The DI has never presented a shred of evidence to support its claim that Canadians know less about Canadian history than Americans know about US history.  The Globe article on the DI survey paraphrases the argument of Marc Chalifoux, executive director of the Dominion Institute, thus:
“Americans are full of national pride, while Canadians don’t toot their historical horn to the same extent.”

Chalifoux’s notion that there is inverse relationship between national pride and historical ignorance is a very dubious one at best.  In fact, it is risible. A _rigorous_ historical education is actually a fairly effective antidote to nationalism. (When I say rigorous historical education, I’m talking about the type of education that is based on secondary sources that have gone through peer-review). Nationalists, especially ethnic nationalists, trade on the public’s limited knowledge of history.  Some of the most appallingly nationalist dictatorships in history have emerged in societies with very low levels of general and historical knowledge (think Burma).  I think we would all agree that there is more nationalism in the Balkans than in north-western Europe, but it is north-western Europe that you find more educated people. (Being able to recite an epic poem about the Battle of Kosovo doesn’t make you educated in the same way that, say completing a British A-level in history). Modern Germans are very anti-nationalism and almost proud of being unpatriotic. The average German today is probably knows much more history than the average German in say, 1932, because they have spent much longer in school, has more leisure time to read history, and can buy more historical books with an hour’s wages.

Moreover, I’m not certain what the hell “toot their historical horn” means.  The Globe appears to be suggesting that a form of historical education that stresses the nation’s positive accomplishments would be a good thing because it would promote patriotism and loyalty to Canada.  I’m not convinced that such a historical curriculum would achieve these desiderata. Americans are very proud of their country’s recent accomplishments (such as inventing the Internet) but are very aware of all of the bad things that have taken place in American history. For instance, we heard a lot about slavery during the televised coverage of Obama’s inauguration.  Knowing that Thomas Jefferson slept with his slaves doesn’t keep Americans from being patriotic and loyal to the United States circa 2009: people are intelligent enough to know that a nation should be judged by what it is doing today, not by what its members did a long time ago.


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