Wanderings – Rethinking history learning

Robert Wilkes was my teacher in Grades 7 and 8. He was one of the few teachers that made an impression on me in school that has lasted into adulthood.

Mr. Wilkes taught history like few who I have known. He made it interesting, which for some Canadian history is not that easy. Remember, Canada was formed through negotiation and compromise, not because of a war. Wars are a little more colourful to talk about to students than regaling the stories of a group of middle-aged white men arguing over the finer points of grammar and law.

The one thing I remember most from his history lessons was him saying that we should learn where we came from, but we should not put history up on a pedestal. History is imperfect. Serious words for young brains of mush to remember when many of us just wanted our MTV.

Perhaps it is the more recent bravado influences of our neighbours to the south that have caused the hero worship of our history to become heightened. Or it could be that we are all going through difficult times so collectively, we look back with rose-coloured glasses to times when things were better.

There is a problem with those glasses. Just as you can put filters on cameras to remove colours and other issues, we tend to put them on our remembrances as well. Not everyone has the same camera, the same view, or the same filter.

The same town where Mr. Wilkes taught me and 29 other annoying “youts” was very homogeneous; very representative of Eastern Ontario. The perspective then was fairly narrow, much less diverse than more urban areas of the country. The history that was taught, while interesting, had a relating view to our locale. British refugees fleeing the traitorous colonies to hack out a new future on land gifted by a mad King George III. These refugees pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, and forged a new colony.

Certain figures in history are celebrated, and in some instances idolized by many. Growing up near Kingston, everything was about Sir John A., the man who created Canada (along with 35 other men when not out drinking).

You are the product of your environment. If you grow up in an area with a certain viewpoint, it is likely going to be your viewpoint as an adult.

But the history we learned in school is not the whole history. Mr. Wilkes warned us students that there is always more to the story. History taught in school now is much different than 30 years ago. It’s the same history, but from different perspectives and is a more fulsome picture..

While some celebrate or even idolize our founding Prime Minister, he is also responsible for signing into law legislation that tried to wipe out an entire race of people through assimilation.

There are many public figures in our history who have similar stories. Not all are malicious, a reflection of the environment or what was considered acceptable at the time if you will.

Those ethos, those views, are not appropriate for this era. Just as in the future there may be things people of 2061 will look back at in 40 years and shake their heads at our narrow view.

In the words of Sybil Fawlty, what does it all mean?

I believe it means that we should look at history in a different way: taking a single figure, an event, an icon, statue or symbol, and placing it on a pedestal is not the appropriate way to learn and remember our history.

Like any story, history is the retelling of what happened so the future can remember the past, and also learn from it.

All actions have consequences, positive and negative. We see and learn this every day.

Learning all sides of a story and getting the whole picture means better understanding, and more acceptance of differences. We don’t need statues or painted symbols to do that. Dialogue, story telling, and listening. These are what we need. A broader way to learn history, and not repeat it.

Originally published in the June 2, 2021 issue of The Morrisburg Leader.