JASON KENNEY, SWORN in as Alberta Premier on Apr. 30, should not only cancel the revised social studies curriculum drafted under Rachel Notley since 2016. He should scrap the extant 2005 curriculum too, and do what he can to shift the teaching philosophy behind it.
Kenney re-entered the History Wars with finely-calibrated counterattacks in 2016-17, renewed this year on Feb. 16, against “social engineering and pedagogical fads.” He should now bring forward the reserve guns.
Mandatory testing to the end of Grade 12 is laudable and should continue. The deeper problem lies in the current thematic approach to history and civics, in which a series of disjointed topics displaces sequential narrative. As against narrative history, too difficult for most academics, the teaching establishment prefers “‘issues-centred,’ interdisciplinary Social Studies courses,” beloved of two of Kenney’s antagonists, University of Alberta educationists Lindsay Gibson and Carla Peck. But even they admit that educators have been “over-privileging thematic approaches and disregarding chronology.”(1)
Thematic history is lazy, dispensing with the need to juggle sequence and analysis and put people and events in context. True understanding absolutely requires narrative, a discipline that forces teacher and student to interpret and explain, as they should be able to do both orally and in writing (but most of course cannot). A bundle of isolated topics — last week women’s suffrage, tomorrow divestment from Israel, next week Oka — half-fills the student’s head with random happenings, creating the illusion of insight, whose only glue is the social-justice temperament that left-wingers equate with good citizenship.
Just look at the “themes” of 2005. Grade 4 socials is about “analyzing various actions taken to address historical injustices.” Say again? This implies that current fads of the left are the engine of history, turning 9-year-olds into little SJW’s. In Grade 5 it’s “examining Canadian identity,” an inappropriate, post-secondary sociological approach. Grade 7 covers “origins, histories and movement of people” (dry social history). Grade 9 offers “a few isolated topics in Canadian history” such as the Indian Act and local Treaties. It gets worse, with “multidisciplinary investigations” of “globalization” in Grade 10, “nationalism” in Grade 11, and “ideology” in Grade 12. The problem is not that this stuff is, as Notley asserted, “out of date”; it is too up to date: it’s a curriculum designed by a committee, it would seem by some childless educratic clerisy.
It’s deadly stuff! When Kenney accused Notley’s experts of omitting military history, her minister countered that wars would continue to be studied in the context of “ideology.” But that’s the problem. To reduce war to a byproduct of ideology is reminiscent of Lenin’s deterministic “highest and last stage of capitalism.”
Nor should “Nationalism” be taught as a tedious “-ism” with sermons about equality, discrimination, and the menace of ideology. Instead, tell the story of Cardinal Richelieu putting the state ahead of the church; of Napoleon, his wars, and the nations’ backlash. Tell the romance of Bolívar and the South American Republics; Garibaldi vs. the Pope in the Risorgimento; or, more ominously, Bismarck and German unification. Teach that ideas have consequences; that peace comes at a high price; that all of this lay in the background when Canada was cobbled together and mounted its own make-or-break colonial adventures in the West. “Ideology” be damned!
'A.J.P. Taylor believed that if you sacrificed narrative, you opened the floodgates to laziness, for it was no longer necessary to take enormous pains organising a moving structure into which everything fitted'
-- Paul Johnson
The ongoing fad is that we need “more” First Nations “perspectives.” Far from being new, this must date from at least the 1970s if my own repetitive West Vancouver experience with oolichan, cedar masks, and trickster stories is any guide. The plug must be pulled on the deplorable agitprop of the “KAIROS Blanket,” which brainwashes children into thinking of themselves as “settlers” stealing the land — the kind of “truth and reconciliation” that is not evidence-based but relies on “knowledge keepers” to “foster truth.” The scientific tradition is that truth is discovered and authenticated. By contrast, the “truth” of Indigenous Elders sometimes contradicts the evidence.
Thematic history seems ideally suited to transmitting left-wing dogma. Is this fair to students? Better to equip them with the great stories and give them a key life-skill by the end of high school: the capacity to think critically about men and ideas and their place in history, as opposed to imposing sterile doctrines of race and “gender.” As my old Latin teacher was fond of saying, “He who marries the Spirit of the Age will be a widower in the next.”
If more proof were needed that educational approaches are in crisis, it is that today’s publicly-schooled millennials have negative impressions of the role of capitalism in history. They seem never to have been exposed to the idea that markets are probably the only system that has ever lifted the mass of people out of poverty. Instead the kids accord high notional support to — of all things — socialism.
Talk about turning the clock back! Oddly that is what CBC Edmonton reporter Alexandra Zabjek now accuses Kenney of doing in Alberta Views magazine. She sees a conspiracy to “grow the privatization movement ... to encourage more Albertans to educate outside the traditional public system.”(2) But surely it’s an overly-powerful public monopoly that should be made a thing of the past.
The CBC fired a dud rocket when they called for a “focus on competencies” and “inquiry and discovery — not just the dissemination of information and recall of facts.”(3) Yet contrary to the CBC, one has the impression that facts and recall have been passé for decades.
They shouldn’t be. Elementary-age minds are sponges for memorizing poetry, stories, songs — and yes, dates. Canadian children have a right to know our stories, and by heart. Elementary graduates should also take home with them their own compendious time-line of European and North American history with hand-coloured maps and drawings, from something like 2500 BC to 2000 AD. This could be a project begun in Grade 4 and attentively improved and revised up to the end of Grade 7. Canadians especially need Classical, European, and US history because North American societies are offshoots of Europe’s, particularly those of Britain and France. Of course there is value in other cultures but we can never truly appreciate or evaluate foreign cultures without first knowing our own.
When it comes to content, part of the solution may be to film Ted Byfield’s Alberta in the Twentieth Century, an illustrated series of twelve oversize books, published between 1991 and 2006, that is already approved for use in schools. It’s a comprehensive analytic narrative of the Province in the context of historians’ debates and Canadian and world history. As Byfield told me when he recruited me in 1994 to work on Vol. 5, his dream was that the set would one day become a Ken Burns-style documentary like “The Civil War” on PBS. I’m sure the books could be spun into a few compelling Netflix dramas too, if competent directors can be found.
Once filmed, the documentary could be required for mandatory testing, perhaps in Grade 11. Watch Episode one at home, discuss with your peers, take a supervised test at school. Test the teachers while you’re at it. If you fail, you get to watch the video again and retake until you pass with 85%. Watch Episode 2, repeat. This alone would increase students’ knowledge of the past and provide counterbalance to the prevailing, politicizing social justice tendency that has already gone too far.
-- C.P. Champion
1. Lindsay Gibson and Laura Peck, “The Place of History in the Alberta Social Studies Curriculum,” Active History online, May 9, 2018.
2. Alexandra Zabjek, “Jason Kenney’s Vision for K-12: Turning back the clock,” Alberta Views, Apr. 1, 2019.
3. “10 questions about changes to Alberta’s school curriculum,” CBC News, Mar. 12, 2014.