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Dry facts, artificial heroes won’t bring
our history alive
Edmonton Journal, October 10th, 2000
By Adriana. A. Davies, Ph.D.
(Copyright Southam Publications Inc.)
EDMONTON - I would like to applaud The Journal for its editorial Sept. 25, supporting "the revival of interest in history" as well as its tackling of issues around social justice and historic building preservation.
Today, we appear to live in a state of perpetual present, as Tennyson's Lotus Eaters lived in a "perpetual afternoon." This "presentness" prevents us from making distinctions about what motivated human beings in the past to do good or ill. We, therefore, constantly repeat our mistakes.
This issue is not one simply to be addressed by curriculum change, though the well-thought-out reintroduction of historical material at all grade levels is desirable. It is all of us, whatever our age, gender, ethnic or socio-economic group, who suffer from the loss of the past.
Our lives lack the richness and depth arising from an understanding of the past in all of its glory and misery and how it has shaped the present and influenced the future.
How, then, do we get the dimension of the past into people's lives? Is it through a revised curriculum that actually uses the "H" word, history?
Is it by insisting that students memorize key "nation-building facts?"
Or is it by something more fundamental than all of this -- an understanding and sharing of learning across generations, cultures and epochs? And if so, how is this to be done?
Excellent reference materials in a range of media are crucial, as is the revision and enrichment of curriculum so that students at every grade connect with the past of their community, region, province and country.
I had the privilege of being a senior editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia. For four years I researched, talked to and edited the work of thoughtful individuals drawn from a range of disciplines and regions across the country.
I also travelled across the country seeing the change of land forms, flora, fauna, city and townscapes, from the air, and also at ground level. I will never forget this experience.
How can we recreate it for our young people? That is the only way in which we can deal with the pernicious heritage illiteracy that plagues us.
I think that it is important to remember that before Mel Hurtig conceptualized The Canadian Encyclopedia in the late 1970s, and before it was funded as an Alberta 75th anniversary project by Premier Peter Lougheed, generations of schoolchildren had been raised on the American-published Canadiana.
The Canadian Encyclopedia was an amazing achievement: Canadian scholars, writers, scientists, journalists, educators, professional and amateur historians wrote about this country for the broadest of audiences. Because of the generosity of the government of Alberta, this significant work was placed in schools and libraries across the country.
Today we have enormous opportunities to educate young and old about the past, making it relevant to the present and future. Many organizations, including my employer the Heritage Community Foundation, are trying to make a difference by "linking people with heritage through discovery and learning."
Dry facts don't do it. We do not have to create "artificial" heroes. We simply have to allow students to connect with the common humanity that we share.
In a pilot project the Heritage Community Foundation funded in Olds, high school students studied the Depression and Second World War in texts and then conducted oral history interviews with local seniors. They discovered, first-hand, through the memories of those they interviewed, what it was like to be poor on the farm in the thirties and what it was like waiting for the news of the young men at the front.
As these elders paused, reflected and sometimes wept, the students learned about "living" history.
Another project, which began with looking at industrial architecture in the City of Edmonton at the Rossdale power plant, exposed the students to an archeological dig revealing the palisades of old Fort Edmonton as well as an aboriginal burial ground on another part of the site.
Unless we expose our young and ourselves to the depth and breadth of this experience, the past will remain unknown.
Adriana A. Davies, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Heritage Community Foundation.