Why Teach History? Part 4

Published on November 2, 2020

Engaging with Contemporary Issues

Alan Sears, University of New Brunswick

This blog series is focused on articulating the humanizing and civic reasons for teaching history. In the first post I argued that historians and history teachers often fall into the trap of justifying historical study in terms of its use in preparation for employment. While that is not unimportant, my view is that history is far more valuable for its contributions to human flourishing more generally and civic engagement in particular. The second post made the case that historical study can foster more nuanced and sophisticated understandings of evidence and truth, while the third outlined the potential for history to contribute to developing specific aspects of civic reasoning. This installment makes the case that the study of history is critically important for informed and thoughtful engagement with current public issues. It can do this in a number of ways including the four discussed below.

Providing Important Context for Contemporary Issues

As I write this, the southwest shore of Nova Scotia is fraught with tension resulting from a dispute between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers. The dispute has manifested itself in demonstrations, blockades, and the destruction of property, among other things. It has generated significant media coverage and political angst. After what seemed to be a slow start, governments at various levels have begun to respond and work towards a solution to the issue. 

Without the consideration of the historical contexts of this disagreement, there is no way forward to a comprehensive solution and some degree of healing in the communities involved. It did not begin when the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its self-regulated lobster fishery on September 17, 2020, but has long historical antecedents involving multiple eras and specific events and actions. These include the original Peace and Friendship Treaties signed between the British Crown and Wabanaki Peoples in Atlantic Canada in the 18th century; the tensions around resource use since the treaties; 20th Century legal rulings on the implications of those treaties, particularly the Marshall Decision in 1999 (https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100028614/1539611557572);  and the history of other disputes and agreements that flowed from that ruling.

Historical context can help those involved understand the complex social, legal, and institutional elements of the issue. It can also develop understanding of how the various communities involved have come to this point in time, what role the resource has played in their individual and communal lives in the past, and what it means for them culturally and economically in the present. That kind of understanding lays the foundation for civic empathy, which is critical in resolving any tough dispute.

It is vital that community leaders charged with finding solutions know something of this history, but this is important not only for leaders. Solutions to enduring issues such as this one require long term buy-in and commitment from the individuals and communities involved. The civic participation of all citizens and the health of civil society are enhanced through deeper understanding of the historical contexts of contemporary issues.

Fostering Deeper Understanding of Key Civic Concepts and Principles

At the core of all important public issues are questions about how key concepts or principles are operationalized in the institutions and processes of civic life. The thoughtful consideration of issues is enriched, therefore, when citizens hold more complex understandings of the concepts and principles involved, and knowledge of history is essential to developing this kind of understanding.

The first thing citizens should know about democratic concepts and principles is that they are contested and fluid.  That is, we argue about what they mean and how they should be operationalized, and the meanings, policies, and practices that flow from them change over time and across contexts. Let’s take the most basic democratic principle, rule by the people, as an example. Knowing and believing the principle is not enough, we also have to address several other questions: Who are the people who will comprise those who rule? How will that rule be exercised? No democracy in history has included all people in the company of those who rule, and all have developed institutions and practices to enact the principle. Restrictions on those who participate, and the mechanisms for participation have been and continue to be contested and ever changing.

When contemporary citizens are asked to wrestle with the question of whether the vote should be extended to sixteen-year-olds, or with proposed changes to the electoral system, they are joining a conversation about the principle of rule by the people and how that principle is enacted in our time and place. That conversation would be greatly enhanced by considering how others have thought about and operationalized the same principle in different times and contexts. This is a key component of complex civic knowledge as illustrated in figure 1. The point is, being able to describe the critical attributes of any concept or principle is only the first level of knowledge. Thoughtful citizens understand the ways in which it has been thought about and enacted over time, the tensions inherent in working these things out, can articulate an informed position based on this knowledge, and act on that position.[1] The study of history plays an important part in developing that complex knowledge.

Figure 1: Complex Civic Knowledge

Inside Image WTH4

Assessing the Arguments of Those Who Use History to Promote Particular Approaches to Public Policy

In March of 2015 Justin Trudeau, then leader of the third party in the House of Commons, made a major speech at McGill University in Montreal (https://www.macleans.ca/politics/for-the-record-justin-trudeau-on-liberty-and-the-niqab/). In the speech he challenged the position of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the issue of whether Zunera Ishag, a Muslim immigrant to Canada, should be able to wear a Niqab at her upcoming citizenship swearing in ceremony (https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/03/16/why-i-intend-to-wear-a-niqab-at-my-citizenship-ceremony.html). The Prime Minister thought Ms. Ishag should be required to show her face, Mr. Trudeau vehemently disagreed and used three specific historical references in characterizing the PM’s position. He said, “This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends. It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of ‘none is too many.’”[2]

As Penney Clark and I argue elsewhere, Mr. Trudeau’s invocation of these examples was not only an attempt to illustrate his position on the issue of whether or not it was appropriate to wear a niqab when taking a citizenship oath, but was also an attempt to tie Prime Minister Harper to the virulent xenophobia associated with the three references.[3] There is not space here to argue the specific merits of the analogy but Mr. Trudeau’s technique clearly employs history as a device to impugn both the stance and character of his opponent. He takes three complex and nuanced historical events or policies and uses them simplistically without providing context or specific evidence to support his assertions. To be clear, Mr. Trudeau is not uniquely guilty of this, it is something politicians and other people do all the time. This is one example of what historian Margaret MacMillan calls “the uses and abuses of history.” She writes that humans regularly “spin the events of the past to show that we always tend to behave well and our opponents badly, or that we are normally right and others wrong.”[4]

History is often invoked by those seeking to shed light on contemporary events or promote a particular policy solution to them. As pointed out in the section on context above, it is often very helpful in providing perspectives that can illuminate issues and indicate possible ways forward. Historical study can help prepare citizens to assess the degree to which historical references and illustrations are helpful in more fully understanding contemporary issues and where they are being employed as superficial slogans to rally support for a particular cause.

Recognizing and Dealing with Obligations of the Past

The past itself is a compelling public issue in many countries today, including Canada. As Elizabeth Cole points out, “In most societies recovering from violence, questions of how to deal with the past are acute, especially when the past involves memories of death, suffering, and destruction so widespread that a high percentage of the population is affected.”[5] She goes on to list a range of public policy responses to difficult pasts including:

official acknowledgement of harm done; official apology and other official gestures; the promotion of public fact-finding or truth-telling fora (such as truth or historical commissions), including a platform for victims; the payment of reparations or the making of restitution; justice in the form of trials or lustration; establishment of rule of law; public gestures of commemoration through the creation of monuments, memorials and holidays, and other educational and cultural activities; institutional reform and long-term development; and finally public deliberation.[6]

Beginning with the apology to Japanese Canadian survivors of World War II internment and their families in 1988, Canada has been engaged in considering and implementing most of these kinds of responses in regard to a number of historical phenomena.

In their book, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts, Peter Seixas and Tom Morton discuss the complexities of making ethical value judgements about the past, including the problem of presentism, and set out a set of guideposts for how students can learn to “make informed judgement about contemporary issues” related to past atrocities and/or injustices.[7] Given the context of ongoing deliberations about how to address the legacy of colonialism across many aspects of society, it would be difficult to think of a more important role for history education in Canada today.

The American novelist William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[8] The past is indeed inherently present in the issues we face as a society in the present. Recognizing that, understanding it, and drawing on it in thinking about how to foster the common good is a requirement of thoughtful citizenship, and nurturing those abilities should be a key focus of history teaching.

[1] For a longer discussion of this see, Andrew S. Hughes and Alan Sears, “Situated Learning and Anchored Instruction as Vehicles for Social Education,” in Challenges and Prospects for Canadian Social Studies, ed. Alan Sears and Ian Wright (Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press, 2004), 259–73.
[2] Aaron Wherry, “For the Record: Justin Trudeau on Liberty and the Niqab - The Text of Justin Trudeau’s Controversial Speech,” 2015, http://www.macleans.ca/politics/for-the-record-justin-trudeau-on-liberty-and-the-niqab/
[3] Penney Clark and Alan Sears, The Arts and the Teaching of History: Historical F(r)Ictions, 1st ed. 2020 edition (London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 246.
[4] Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History (Toronto, ON: Viking, 2008), 103.
[5] Elizabeth A. Cole, “Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education,” in Teaching the Violent Past: History Education and Reconciliation, ed. Elizabeth A. Cole (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 1.
[6] Cole, 7.
[7] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013),
[8] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Random House, 1951).


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