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.