Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Monday, October 09, 2006

Saving Canadian History

Reading Granatstein’s “What History? Which History?” and “Professing Trivia: The Academic Historians,” from Who Killed Canadian History?[1] reminds me of Cassius’ line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault dear Brutus is not is our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.’ I guess I think Granatstein is saying that the demise of Canadian History is not due to American television, or the school curriculum, or the move away from political and national history at the Universities - I get the sense that he thinks it is a combination of all these factors. That it is indeed the fault of academia and the government(federal and provincial) and the media that Canadians have no sense of a common past.

Granatstein also says that “incorrect history is worse than no history”. I would agree with this assessment in general. He gives the example of Maggie Siggins, who, “... in her biography of Louis Riel at times favoured imaginative writing over historical accuracy.”[2] This was apparently done in an attempt to avoid the dry academic histories which do little to engage the public. I do not support the telling of untruths or giving incorrect factual evidence. However, some would argue that a ‘correct’ history is very subjective. For instance, Granatstein uses the of The Valour and the Horror as perhaps incorrect and claims this series “ pretended to be a dramatized documentary”.
I would say that it is more of an interpretation. I think Granatstein just has a problem with this particular interpretation of the facts. Just because the evidence does not suit your cause, or offends or embarrasses a particular group, does not mean that it is not historically valid. If we are going to tell a history which allows Canadian to know themselves, then all interpretations must be considered.

Rosenzweig and Thelen[3] would probably argue that without interpretation, maybe even a grassroots or personal interpretation, that political or national history is unimportant. I suppose this links to my thoughts from last day’s seminar about the creation of museum exhibits. I think as Public Historians we always have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing this exhibit?” I believe that an individual must have a connection to the artefact for the exhibit to have meaning. Understanding the past is one thing, but in order for it have importance or relevance a person must relate to what they are seeing, reading, experiencing. That said I don’t think that every artefact needs to invoke passions or emotions but there should be an overall sense that the exhibit matters. People need to be touched by what they are seeing in some way, otherwise, what is the point?

I guess what it comes down to is the idea of connecting historians with a larger audience. Oftentimes political and military history seem to be niche genres which, at first glance, just don’t appeal to everyone. The idea that people can bring to bear on history their own memory and experience and make it personal, makes history relevant. It is the personal narrative which enriches the public’s history. There needs to be balance between fact and experience.

Granatstein’s book was published in 1998 and I have to believe things are changing. The public is interested in Canadian history, we just have to give them the tools to allow them to access it.
Applied learning and technology really help. In last day’s seminar we discussed whether historians should go to the public or whether the public should come to us.I think that the public would be willing to meet us half way if we are willing to go where they are. If this means making historical sources available online or creating television programs, or even creating a contest like CBC’s Greatest Canadian (Tommy Douglas!), then this is what we should do.

Granatstein says history should help people know themselves. I think if history can’t be made personal to them , then they won’t engage. I would argue that this would do more to “kill Canadian history” than never learning dates or facts.

1. Granatstein, JL. Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998)
2. Granatstein, p.12.
3. Rosenzweig,R and David Thelen.“Introduction” and “The Presence of the Past,” The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)


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