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History teachers face an uphill battle

London Free Press, MARISSA NELSON, Free Press Reporter May 29, 2004

Teachers are the key to keeping our country's history alive, but at least one noted historian questions their ability to handle the responsibility. "It's a bleak picture . . . I wish they were up for the job," says Jack Granatstein, chairperson of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century. "Many teachers think war is something that should be taught as a bad thing, which neglects the heroism."

Schools teach children their rights in Canada, but not the responsibilities that come with citizenship, he says. We don't even know what opinions teachers are giving children, he adds, and whether they're sound.

"History is very important in a country that is as multi-cultural as we are. It's very important to understand the price we pay for that. "We teach a kind of human security, peacekeeping history, which strikes me as nuts, given all the violence. You need soldiers who can fight a war when you need to."

But Jonathan Vance, associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, is more optimistic because of the increased attention paid to history on television and in movies.

"They're tuning in more than we might imagine. I'm pretty optimistic about memory continuing," he says. "It's easy to make it boring but just as easy to make it interesting."

He says the key is making history relevant. He once grabbed a school's honour roll from the front foyer on his way into a Remembrance Day presentation and pointed out to the children that the men on the plaque sat in the same seats as them, 60 years ago.

"Suddenly they drew the connection with the past that seems so distant and the present they're living," he says.

The province tests students' aptitude in reading, writing, and math -- the foundations of education -- but how does history fit in? Is it even a priority? High school chemistry teachers need a chemistry degree, but that's not the case for history teachers.

David Harvey, head of the history department at Huron Park secondary school in Woodstock, worries the subject that's been his life passion isn't given enough importance.

He believes his students know history and would fare well against the general population, but he knows that isn't saying much.

Most industrialized countries require more than one history high school credit -- many provinces in Canada don't even require one.

Ten children from Kensal Park French immersion school in London -- who are going to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary -- described their trip as a "chance of a lifetime" because of the stories they'll hear and the things they'll see.

Hands-on experience is exactly what kids want and the kids at Kensal Park say history isn't boring.

University students don't find it boring, either, and are signing up for courses in droves, Vance says.

But a lack of knowledge about military history should be a wake-up call for this country, argues Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute.

A 1998 survey by the institute found most people over age 55 passed a test on Canadian history. But 72 per cent of 18- to 34-years-old failed.

Another 2001 survey showed three-quarters of Canadians are embarrassed by how little they know and four of every five people say high school students should have to take two history courses.

"To me this is the canary in the coal mine," Griffiths says.

A generation that doesn't know history is less likely to vote, less apt to volunteer and definitely less supportive of Canada's armed forces.

"The country has to be grounded in something deeper," Griffiths says. "It has to be based in a shared understanding of the country's history. History will bind people together."

Jack Wright

From Beachville. Signed up at 20. He was a truck driver for the service corps, mostly moving ammunition and supplies to troops.

Bill Ferris

From Port Dover. Signed up at 20. Member of Royal Canadian Dragoons in the NATO force in Germany after the war. They were there to ensure the Russians didn't invade the British sector.

Murray Rettie

From Burgessville. Signed up at 24. Member of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. Helped keep Russians out of the British sector of Germany after the war.