Reflections on one of the experts advising Minister LaGrange
Carla L. Peck
So now it’s all making sense. Remember when Angus McBeath, the Chair of the Curriculum Advisory Panel that Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange formed soon after taking office, disparagingly said this about teaching history during the August 6th press conference announcing the new Ministerial Order on Student Learning?
“oh, let’s drop in on Friday and we’ll study a little bit about Vietnamese cooking and next Monday we’ll be back, we’ll be back in England, and on Thursday we’re going to be back in Saddle Lake reserve out by St. Paul”
Well, now we know where that thinking came from. Enter the “subject matter expert” that Minister LaGrange brought in to provide direction on revising the K-12 Social Studies curriculum: C.P (Chris) Champion, PhD, founder of the conservative publication Dorchester Review, affiliate of the Canada Strong & Free Network (formerly known as the Manning Center), and a senior advisor to Jason Kenney during Kenney’s MP years. While Dr. Champion does have a PhD in history, I cannot find any evidence that he has any qualifications in K-12 teaching, learning, curriculum, assessment, or pedagogy.
McBeath’s incoherent ramblings about teaching history are almost a direct quote from an article that Champion (as editor) published in the Dorchester Review:
The article is published without an author’s name attached (“Rhetor” is listed as the author on the 2011 print edition), but a reasonable person could infer that, as founding editor of the DR, Champion endorsed its publication. Whoever the author is, their ignorance about social studies curricula in Canada is revealed in the above quotation. They conflate history and social studies, as if they are the same curricular area. They are not. As I’ve explained elsewhere, social studies is a school subject comprising various social science disciplines. What makes the subject unique is that one of its foundational goals has been the cultivation of citizenship values, attributes and skills through the study of society via the various disciplinary lenses that make up the social studies.
The definition of “Social Studies” used by Alberta Education is consistent with that offered by the preeminent National Council for the Social Studies, a U.S.-based educational organization that has international reach and influence. It defines Social Studies as follows:
Leaving behind the confusion about the difference between history and social studies, a more concerted focus on Rhetor’s vision for how history should be taught and learned is warranted. In the article “How to Teach History in Schools” mentioned above, the author mocks approaches to history education that are rooted in the discipline and instead advocates the following: “Why not teach history as the classical revivalists suggest, in three waves between grades one and twelve: first memorize, then analyze, and (from grades ten to twelve) learn how to present arguments based on sound knowledge.” It would seem Rhetor’s reasoning depends largely on one aspect of Piagetian theory that has been discounted – that young students are not able to engage in any kind of advanced thinking. I have written about this here. This kind of deficit thinking about students has been debunked for years. Decades – and I do mean decades – of international studies have documented children’s and youth’s ability to think historically, including what they do well and the tricky bits that teachers ought to consider when planning instruction.
The author of the article cherry picks quotations from some history education scholars in Canada and abroad, including Dr. Peter Seixas who was my PhD supervisor and Dr. Anna Clark, with whom I’ve edited a book. You could say I know their work pretty well. The quotation pulled from one of Dr. Clark’s studies is particularly out of context. Dr. Clark says the exact opposite of what the author of “Teaching History in Schools” argues. Rhetor misuses Dr. Clark’s work to argue that students did not feel engaged by the history they were being taught. The implication is they aren’t engaged because they’re doing the evil inquiry learning. However, Dr. Clark’s point is just the opposite. Students want to study a contested history, not the consensus version they’re learning. And they don’t want to memorize. They want to get their hands dirty and learn how to do historical research and construct strong arguments.
This cherry picking of quotations provides a veneer of authenticity but my third year Bachelor of Education students could dismantle Rhetor’s argument with ease. Rhetor writes like they invented the history curriculum they are proposing but it’s been at the centre of public education debate for more than a century and if they really believed that history is important to inform the present, and not simply as a rhetorical club, they’d have done a more thorough job of immersing themselves in the history education scholarship. Although it’s unlikely that that scholarship would support their contention, which is why they’ve cherry picked short quotations.
The author concludes the article with this. “Since the advent of quasi-universal public education in modern times, it’s the only approach that has never been tried.” Wrong.
Again, Rhetor needs to head back to the library. For instance, Dr. Ken Osborne, in a article titled, “‘Our History Syllabus Has us Gasping’: History in Canadian Schools – Past, Present, and Future” published in the Canadian Historical Review 20 years ago, provides a history of history education which demonstrates that the new approaches that Rhetor vilifies are not new, and neither are the solutions they propose. Osborne details five “crises” in history education from the 1920s to the 2000s and shows that they were largely precipitated by established, conservative historians who see their position and worldview threatened. The worldview that is allegedly in danger of disappearing? The one that centres a White European story of progress and that ignores, purposefully, any people, groups, or developments that get in the way of the march of progress such as women’s history, working class histories, and histories of racism and other forms of oppression. It is surprising that a magazine that purports to publish articles on history and historical commentary would publish such an ahistorical rant.
If Dr. Champion is leaning on this article (and others like it) to inform his views about K-12 education, I have some advice for him: He would benefit from actually paying attention to the history of the field of history education – of which Osborne’s piece is only one example. Why is someone who lacks basic knowledge of scholarly literature in history education providing advice to the Minister of Education?
Other aspects of the “Teaching History in Schools” author’s vision for history teaching are equally concerning, particularly the anti-immigrant, anti-Indigenous screed: “Here in Canada the preoccupation with victimhood has mostly centred on Japanese Canadians and residential school “survivors.”” That a history magazine would publish an article with the word survivors as it relates to residential schools in scare quotes is appalling and should tell you all you need to know about the ideology that rules the founding editor’s thinking.
The author of the “Teaching History in Schools” article proposes the following areas for historical study: “(1) classical antiquity, (2) medieval-renaissance, (3) modern history, and (4) national, regional, and local history.” Note that they focus on topics only, and not the nature of the discipline itself. Current scholarship in history education supports the need to do both so that students can not only develop understanding of historical content but they also learn how historical knowledge is produced. And what’s more, they are capable of doing so.
You may want to ask yourself what is missing from the list above: Indigenous peoples, the history of immigrant and minoritized groups, the on-going struggle for human rights, the history of women, to name but a few. Some may suggest that you could include these topics in categories 3 and 4 of this list but as a former teacher and now a curriculum scholar I know that if something is not named in curricula, it isn’t taught.
I will end with this: Throughout the election campaign and in many public statements since, both Premier Kenney and Minister LaGrange vowed to get “ideology” out of the social studies curriculum. They lied. They are just replacing a liberal ideology with the conservative one they prefer.
NOTE: There is much to critique about the composition of the panel – no women, no Indigenous representation, no teachers for a start – but I chose to focus my attention on the area in which I have developed expertise: social studies education.
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