Merger of the Dominion Institute and Historica

9 11 2009

The National Post recently carried a story on the merger of the Dominion Institute and Historica, two rival charities devoted to increasing public knowledge of Canadian history. Historica is well-know for its Canadian history TV PSAs. Here is an example:

The NP story explains why the organizations were separate for so long and how they were recently able to overcome their differences. The article recounts how Historica’s establishment was sparked by the publication in 1999 of historian Jack Granatstein’s book Who Killed Canadian HistoryLynton “Red” Wilson, a prominent business leader, read Professor Granastein’s book and decided to fund an organization to promote awareness of Canada’s past, Within six months of Historica’s foundation, however,  Granatstein had left its board of directors. He had come to the conclusion that the organization had been taken over by social historians. Granastein: “Historica had been taken over by the people I thought were the killers of Canadian history”. Granastein then joined the Dominion Institute, which promoted a more conservative interpretation of Canadian history. The future direction of the merged organization remains to be seen.

Survey of Canadian Attitudes to the United States

4 11 2009

I used to make fun of Dominion Institute polls. The new Historica-Dominion Institute is, however, doing some useful polling work. The Historica-Dominion Institute, a Canadian non-profit also commissioned a poll about Canadian attitudes to the United States on the first anniversary of Obama’s election. The poll finds that while Obama is very popular in Canada, anti-Americanism is still widespread.

Dominion Institute Shuts Its Doors

13 09 2009

The Dominion Institute, the Canadian heritage charity, is merging with the Historica Foundation. Christopher Moore discusses the reasons for the merger on his blog.

The Great Canadian Historical Ignorance Debate

6 07 2009

Here are yet more newspaper stories prompted by the Dominion Institute’s poll on historical ignorance in Canada. See here, here, and here.

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.

Dominion Institute Poll

23 06 2009

A number of newspapers have recently published stories bemoaning Canadians’ ignorance of Canadian history. See here, here, and here. I expect that as Canada Day (1 July) approaches, we will see even more stories of this sort. This is because the Dominion Institute releases a survey every year on 1 July that deplores the public’s ignorance of Canadian history.

I must say that the Dominion Institute’s news releases are always well timed in terms of the annual news cycle. Generally speaking, not a lot happens in Canada in late June, so unless there is a crisis abroad, there is bound to be plenty of space in the newspapers for long articles denouncing historical ignorance.

As I have said before, the real problem is not that Canadians don’t know about their country’s history, it’s that they simply do not know that much about history in general. Being an educated person means knowing about world history as well as the history of one’s own country and locality. One of the many problems with the Dominion Institute surveys is that they only test knowledge of Canadian history. The apparent reasoning is that as long as Canadians know who Louis Riel was, it doesn’t matter if they know about the Holocaust,  the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Industrial Revolution, or all of the other things that happened outside of Canada’s current borders.

The thinking that informs the Dominion Institute’s poll is deeply flawed, since you can’t really understand Canadian history without knowing about the histories of other countries. National histories are interconnected. This is true of every country that isn’t a hermit kingdom and it is especially true of Canada, a country that was born globalized. 98% of Canadians are descended from immigrants. From the time of the cod fishery, Canada’s economy has revolved around the export of raw materials to other nations. Canada was part of two great European empires, the French and then the British, and it is now part of the quasi-Empire of the United States.  Simply put, you can’t understand Canada’s past without situating it  in a global context.

I would also like to point out that  gross historical ignorance is not a problem confined to Canada. Polls similar to the Dominion Institute’s in other industrialized countries have produced similar results. For the US, see here. For the UK, see here.

Instead of devoting resources to running the same poll each year, the Dominion Institute could investigate a more interesting question, namely, which Western country has the most historically informed population?  I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the Iceland, since its education system is rather good, per capita book ownership is high, and Icelanders can comprehend the form of Icelandic used in documents written a thousand years ago.  Many Icelanders today read the Norse sagas for fun– and in the original. In contrast, many English-speakers find it hard to under Shakespeare’s language.

Let’s conduct a study comparing the levels of historical literacy in various countries. This would allow us to see what the most historically literate countries have in common. I would hazard a guess that historical literacy in a population correlates with high participation rates for tertiary education. Various international comparative studies of scientific literacy have been done. (See data for 15 year olds from Nationmaster).  I wonder how strongly historical literacy correlates with scientific literacy.  I suspect that the relationship is weak, since Japan scores well for scientific literacy, yet many Japanese people are ignorant of Japan’s WWII-era atrocities in mainland Asia.

Historical Education in Canada

17 06 2009

Today’s Globe and Mail has an opinion piece bemoaning Canadians’ lack of knowledge of the history of their own country. As a history professor, I have a vested interest in favour of more historical education, so I’m inclined to sympathize with anybody who advocates that our citizens learn more about the past. The fact some provinces do not require the study of any history in high school is a disgrace. However, I’m struck by the fact that the piece’s authors (Marc Chalifoux and J.D.M. Stewart) focus exclusively on the public’s knowledge of _Canadian_ history. It seems to me that an educated person ought to know about both the history of their country as well as that of the world as a whole.  They should also know something about the history of their locality or metropolitan area.

Yes, Canadians should be familiar with the Last Spike, Macdonald, Trudeau, Louis Riel and all the rest of it. But they should also know something about the French Revolution,  Edison, Jenner, Mao, Auschwitz, Lincoln, and Mandela.  Reasonable people can disagree about the right balance of local, Canadian, and world history in the school curriculum, but I think that there should be at least a bit of all three.  To only teach students Canadian history would breed parochialism. In any event, you can’t really understand Canadian history without knowing something about the histories of Britain, France, and the United States. (I say this as a specialist in Canadian history).

Note re the authors of the article: Marc Chalifoux is executive director of the Dominion Institute and J.D.M. Stewart is a teacher of Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.