Friday, 14 November 2014

Are we a nation of amnesiacs?

How much do we know or want to know about our pasts?  For the past half century, there has been a widespread discourse about western societies ignoring their collective pasts and their citizens not knowing their national history.  This view is often legitimised in surveys showing that people fail to identify famous events and politicians and is also linked with concerns about the perils facing the nation and questions of citizenship. What is seen as woeful ignorance is used to justify educational reforms in which the state imposes its view of the past through a national curriculum that has less to do with the past than with current political concerns. 

Who is this?

However, there are other ways to look at peoples’ perception of the past particularly discourse on historical ignorance can, itself, be considered a site of memory. The site is an intangible monument carefully constructed, erected for political purposes, widely visited, and dedicated to a particular relationship between peoples and their national pasts. In the ignorance of history discourse, ignorance generally means one thing: the incapacity to answer correctly factual questions about history. In Canada, for instance, The Dominion Institute was created in 1997 to improve Canadians’ knowledge of their national history. In 1997, the Institute published its first annual history survey, which tested general knowledge. The discovery that only 54 per cent of Canadians polled could name Sir John A. Macdonald as Canada’s first Prime Minister and only 36 per cent knew that Confederation took place in 1867. Since then, the Institute’s polls have filtered into the national discourse, quoted in more than 2,000 media stories and routinely incorporated into political speeches.  By the late 1990s it had become conventional wisdom that Canadians did not know their history, in large part because their schools did not teach it or did not teach it properly.  Similar conclusions were reached at the turn of the millennium in Australia—leading in part to the ‘History Wars’ and in the United Kingdom, though here the debate went back to the 1960s.  Ignorance, it seems, was a combination of poor teaching, an un-prescribed curriculum and the triumph of skills over knowledge and by erecting what is in essence a false dichotomy provided justification for intervention by the state not simply in what was taught but its pedagogical character.

What battle is this?

Discourse on ignorance of history is easily digestible because it is built on common sense evidence showing a lack of historical facts that ‘everyone should know’. Implicitly in those facts, there is a normative framework oriented toward a specific and increasingly politicised definition of a nation’s history which, to different degrees in different countries changes when governments change.  Ignorance of history discourse has become bureaucratised and self-fulfilling.   Since 1997, The Dominion Institute repeated its 1997 survey in 2001 and 2009 and found that Canadians have a persistent difficulty with identifying Sir John A. Macdonald. In Quebec, La Coalition pour l’histoire commissioned a similar survey in 2012 to support changes in the history curriculum. In that poll, it was found that 94 per cent of those surveyed were unable to identify Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, the first Prime Minister of Quebec.  In 2002, historian Desmond Morton declared, ‘Canadian ignorance of our history is commonplace, and not just among professors. Politicians and business leaders repeat the mantra’ .

What is most problematic about the evidence is that it documents only ignorance and excludes investigation of what people actually know about the past. Many researchers have contested the validity of the discourse on historical ignorance arguing for surveys that include no factual questions, but open ones, such as: ‘How important is the past of Britain to you?’  Results of these more nuanced surveys add much greater complexity and diversity to the notion of historical amnesia.  The problem is that little attention has been given by the media or politicians to surveys like this largely perhaps because they call into  question their vested interest in government spending and educational reforms.  What history is, how it is defined, how it is taught and how it is received by its different audiences must be set against the widespread popularity of history as a leisure activity—whether as family history or in the audiences for the History Channel.  Historical amnesia, it appears, is a matter of elite rather than populist perceptions.   

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