Where I spray-paint my thoughts…



Many many years ago, I went to college and majored in History, because it had been my favourite subject in school. People who know me as a writer and English teacher are often surprised by this. In fact, it wasn’t until my third year in university, with a sense of giving in to my inevitable fate, that I changed from an History major, English minor, to a double major in History and English.

I can’t remember ever NOT being fascinated by history. Some of my earliest favourite books were juvenile historical novels such as Sally Watson’s Mistress Malapert. The idea that books (or movies — I was completely obsessed for a while there with the CBC miniseries Riel) could give you a glimpse into what life was like in another era absolutely captivated me. And the academic study of history was no disappointment: while not every history course I took was scintillating, the process of learning about the cause-and-effect that connected those long ago times to the present day intrigued me.

I quickly realized that I didn’t have the level of interest and dedication needed to become a serious historian; I didn’t pursue graduate studies in history. I figured my love of history would be explored through writing historical fiction, and through teaching high-school history.

One of those things has worked out better for me than the other.

“History teacher” is a category that barely exists anymore. In my 14 or so years of teaching I have taught mostly English courses, but have also taught “social studies” which seems to be less and less about history. So naturally I was happy when I got to the Murphy Centre and found that they needed me to teach Grade 12 Twentieth-Century World History. At last, a Real History Course I could sink my pointy little teeth into.

I have, indeed, enjoyed teaching World History 3201 over the last three years. But I become increasingly frustrated with the course material and its focus. Apart from the fact that I have to prepare students to write a final government exam worth 50% of their mark, and thus have to spend much of time “teaching to the test,” I am also frustrated and sometimes discouraged by the fact that the history of the 20th century is, apparently, the history of war. I teach World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. I get a couple of weeks on contemporary post-WW2 issues other than the Cold War, and another couple on today’s major issues, but even much of that time is given up to the genocide in Rwanda, civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I’m enough of a traditionalist to believe that kids need to know these things, need to have this framework of “major events” upon which to hang their understanding of the world they live in. Yet I long to explore other perspectives, to discuss some of the ways in which the world has changed in the last 100 years apart from the ways we’ve learned to kill each other. I get one day to spend talking about Gandhi and non-violence. I’d like to spend more time talking with my students about other people who have changed the world, particularly through the use of non-violent means. I’d like to discuss how we change the world, what part each of us can play in that, within the perspective of history.

If all we ever teach young people is about humanity’s attempts to solve its problems through violence, what will they ever learn about solving problems any other way?

With that in mind, I’m playing around with developing a “local course” — that is, a course that I make up and teach in my particular school, but for which (if the Department is merciful and grants my request) they can get a high-school credit. I’m developing it under the working title of “How to Change the World.” It’s not intended as a replacement for, but as an adjunct to, the traditional World History course, and I’m looking for ideas about social movements and social change in the last couple of hundred years that can be used to spark assignments and discussions about alternative, non-violent approaches to making a better world.

Dedicated Hypergraffiti readers know how deeply I was moved by Amazing Grace, the movie about William Wilberforce and the English abolitionists. It was during my second viewing of that movie, that I started thinking about this course and wondering, “Why don’t we teach kids more about this sort of thing in school?” So I’m going to do a unit on slavery and abolition, and the anti-slavery movements in England and North America. I also want to do a unit on suffrage and women’s rights, one on labour movements and the rights of workers, and something on non-violence featuring Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others.

Any suggestions? If you were going to take a history course to learn (or teach) about something other than Great Wars of the Twentieth Century, whose accomplishments would you want to highlight? What lessons would you want to include? Or is the whole project just madly idealistic? (not that “madly idealistic” has ever been a deterrent to me before…)


9 thoughts on “History

  1. “If all we ever teach young people is about humanity’s attempts to solve its problems through violence, what will they ever learn about solving problems any other way?”

    “Perhaps this final act was meant to clinch a lifetime’s argument that nothing comes from violence…and nothing ever could..”

    As far as other things to teach, how about some of the stories from “The Forgiveness Project”. Many of the stories are from South Africa, and have to do with justice that involves forgiveness and a restoration of sorts. Some of the stories made me cry.


  2. Oh that’s a great idea, Jamie … thanks!

  3. Marie Curie and the invention of the X-ray through radiation, which morphed into eventually the Hydrogen bomb, in which the scientists who developed the technology were deeply wary of using the technology for weapons, but saw the good that could come out of it. So many of them have since made statements about wishing they had not developed the technology because governments misused it in such horrific ways. Not a cheerful unit, but one in which they could learn that almost everything we do has a positive and negative consequence.

  4. And I would so LOVE to take that course from you. I love history and I wish there were more excellent history teachers in the world because it’s such an important part of our lives!

  5. It probably wouldn’t be relevant, but I loved learning about New Zealand history when I took this history course at uni. The story of Parihaka might be a good one for non-violence.

  6. I grew up during the WWII — almost 3 when it started, almost 9 when it ended. At the end of hostilities my major concern was that this would end the production of newspapers, and thus my source of entertainment — King of the Royal Mounted; Terry and the Pirates: et al.
    I have come to realize that the advances in the printed word, from movable type through to the invention of the linotype, and now vast resources for spreading information through computers have, along with spreading news of disasters, also opened up a world of information, readily available through the old technology of books (that’s the former publisher talking), newspapers and magazines, and blogs such as yours. These have been the most effective means of telling all sides of the story. Your job, as a teacher, is to help students to separate sound information from propaganda. Keep up the good work.

  7. It doesn’t sound madly idealistic at all. Bully for you for reaching beyond the violence of war. I give two thumbs way up on including material on the suffrage of women, and the re-defined role of women in the 21st century.

  8. Thanks for the great comments and suggestions, everyone. If anyone else has any suggestions to add, I am all up for it!

  9. What a wonderful idea. Teachers really do have the opportunity to change people’s lives, and in that way, change the world. Amazing Grace was a wonderful movie, and an example of how historical fiction can inspire and move us by bringing the sometimes dry bones of history to life.

    If you’d like to use historical fiction as one teaching tool, you might be interested in exploring the Historical Novels website I’ve been developing at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info.

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