A Response to my Vimy Ridge Day Post

10 04 2010

My response to a reply on my earlier Vimy Ridge Day post.

A reader wrote:

“I’ve seen some balanced commentary in the press that did mention the Conscription crisis as part of the nation-creation of WWI, but as you suggest, there is little talk of the British Empire, or of the fact that the “Canadians” who fought at Vimy contained an awful lot of British-born. These themes are well-known to historians, but public commemorations are not about history, they are about memory, the selective kind.”

Here is my reply:

“These themes are well-known to historians, but public commemorations are not about history, they are about memory, the selective kind.”

True, events like this are about the construction of usable pasts by politicians. It seems to me that one of the jobs of historians is to call BS whenever this happens. Margaret Macmillan’s excellent recent book on the uses and abuses of historical analogy is helpful in this regard, but I expect that relatively few copies were sold.   It makes me sad that more of the academic history doesn’t filter down into the social memory. It suggests a lack of synchronization between universities, secondary schools, the media, and the general public at the bottom. Perhaps the government should appoint an academic historian as it chief historical officer to pre-check all speeches by dignitaries for questionable interpretations of history.  This office would be an extension of the educational functions of the state, much like subsidies for schools, museums, and public television. Our society puts lots of resources into the creation and dissemination of historical knowledge and it is a shame there is so little evidence of this at events like this. One of the problems is that most academic historians in Canada have stopped writing for the general public.


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2 responses

12 04 2010
dan francis

Hello andrew,

Only an academic would suggest that an academic should be in charge of our official history. Isn’t history about contention, not about imposing a top-down, academically certified version of the past?
On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more with you that academics should be contributing more to the public discussion.

Dan

12 04 2010
andrewdsmith

Because historical knowledge is based on a very advanced division of labour, no single historian should be in charge in monitoring historical statements made by taxpayer funded individuals and institutions. The central historical officer would be more of a coordinator/clearinghouse. The average historian in Canada knows almost nothing about the Armenian genocide, but he or she knows how to get in touch with an expert on this topic. That might come in handy if the PM or GG ever has to visit Turkey.

By the same token, no single scientist should be the government’s sole consultant for all areas of policy from climate change to drug approval. The Chief Scientific Adviser should be a coordinator of information flows. But in the final analysis, the government ought to heed the consensus view of the academic experts working in the field most relevant to the policy area in question, be it history or climate science or HIV prevention.

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