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…)