What is History? Part 2

Dr. Cian McMahon, UNLV

Dr. Cian McMahon, UNLV

Last week, Dr. Morton gave us a tremendous amount to think about as he equated history with experience.  This week, we shift gears a bit (and geography) and look at Dr. Cian McMahon‘s understanding of history. Dr. McMahon teaches at UNLV but grew up in Winnipeg. Does his understanding agree with that of Dr. Morton? Where are the differences? Where are the similarities? How do they inform your understanding?

Here are his comments:

Anyway, what the hell, I have locked the door and turned off the phone and am going to pound out a couple of paragraphs on “What Is History” for you–can you copy-and-paste it into your blog? I’ve actually been thinking about the question over the past couple of days since receiving your email so here goes…
“What is history?” It’s a good question because at first glance the answer seems obvious: a record of the past. And yet once you scratch the surface, you realize that history is much more than a bald catalogue of past names and events. In fact, history is just another tool used by humans to make sense of the present.
But that definition, by itself, does not really give you much to chew on, so try this: between now and the spring, when you are trying to decide what history is, try looking at how we study history. What dates/people/events do we focus on? In so doing, you will see what purposes history is serving.
Some concrete examples: in the old days, history was basically a list of names and deeds of powerful white men. Why? Because powerful white men ran contemporary society. To legitimate their authority, they presented a picture of past society that was… dominated by powerful white men. Nowadays, historians are more interested in investigating how women and indigenous peoples impacted past societies. Why? Because women and indigenous peoples have acceded to positions of power in today’s society and bourgeois liberal academics (to be honest, like myself) want to legitimate that change. They and I believe that the diversification of the polity was a change for the better. If a dog ever gets elected to Parliament, you can rest assured that books and articles will soon appear showing how dogs impacted politics in the old days.
There are two inter-twined parts to “doing” history.
The first is consumption. This is mostly through reading but it can also be through video documentaries, radio dramas, museums, etc. But the consumption of history is not a passive activity. As you consume history, you ought always be thinking. What message was the person who created this book/video/exhibit trying to get across? What parts did they conveniently leave out?
The second part is production. You need to produce new history. Unfortunately, for a long time, all students below a PhD program were expected to ONLY CONSUME history and NEVER PRODUCE it. But thanks to the internet (and fantastic teachers like Mr. Henderson), students of all ages are now being enabled to produce their own versions of the past. But as you produce history, remember to keep thinking. What message am I trying to get across? What parts am I conveniently leaving out?
Ultimately, you will find that in order to PRODUCE good history, you will need to patiently CONSUME a bunch of it first. But once you start producing it, exciting things can happen.
What is your message going to be?
Cian T. McMahon, PhD
Department of History
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

What is History? Part 1

Desmond Morton with Governor General Johnston

Desmond Morton with Governor General Johnston

Throughout the year in Canadian History, Law, and Canada in the Contemporary World, we will be exploring an incredibly rigourous and difficult question: What is History? Over the past few thousand years in both the West and East, historians have been grappling with the how and why of history.

As such, as a learning community, we will be exploring this question together and we will try to offer new understandings as a group and as individuals. To do so properly, however, we will need to speak to elders and experts in the field and listen to what they have to say. Each week we will look at a text, listen to an historian, and/or look at alternative perceptions of history and the doing of history.

As we use Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada as our main text in this course (and because Dr. Morton is an SJR alum and Rhodes Scholar), we will seek his wisdom first. Last week, he emailed me his interpretation of history:

History is another word for “experience”  and experience is our best way to profit from the errors our ancestors made because they had not really understood what was happening. At the moment, this is most apparent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

When I “do” history, I try to move my mind back to the era I am considering and to read whatever survives or is available in writing from that era.  Our forebears lived in an environment of belief and custom that, in many ways, has changed out of recognition.  

Usually we have some understanding of why our contemporaries behave and react as they do because we are pressured by parents, teachers and other authority figures to behave in much the same way that they were taught. The young grow up in a world shaped by social media and forms of  technology that simply did not exist a generation ago.  If we look at the Great War of 1914-18, we must look back a full century, to a time no living human being can now remember directly. To know how and why our ancestors did what they did, we must do our best to understand them and their time.  Those who enjoy history welcome the chance to understand those strangers we call our forebears.

                                                                Desmond Morton, OC, CD, FRSC.

                                                                Hiram Mills Professor of History emeritus

                                                                McGill University

Now it’s your turn. Based on Dr. Morton’s insight here and the introduction to his book, what do you take from his understanding of history? Can you take it and further it? Spin it? I look forward to your thoughts and ideas.

Many Roads: Three Day Road Redux

This project was created to support specific cross-curricular objectives between the Grade 11 English Language Arts and Canadian History courses. The learning activity had learners read Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road in ELA while looking at the colonial, imperial, and indigenous history that weaves throughout the story in their Canadian History class. Learners were immersed in an environment whereby they analyzed themes in Canadian literature while critically investigating Canada’s relationship, both historical and contemporary, with its First Nations people. The end product was a collection of alternate chapters of Three Day Road written from the perspective of other characters in the book. This collection is scheduled to be published nation-wide at the end of May as a means for the learners to share their knowledge with an authentic audience.

The objectives of the learning experience focussed on the understanding of specific structures of narrative through the reading and writing of fiction while commenting on their own experience in a colonial or post-colonial society. The experience sought to develop empathy in the learners while allowing them to experiment with writing and open their consciousness to a variety of stories within Canadian history.

From Library & Archives Canada

From Library & Archives Canada

The learning community began by taking the time to read Three Day Road in both course periods so as to provide meaningful time to digest that methodology and content of the book. During the reading of the book, there was a great deal of time discussing imagery, character development, symbolism, and conflict within the novel.  Also, time was spent deliberately spent making personal connections to the characters, broader historical movements, and Canada’s colonial past/present. For example, we asked students “How did Xavier and Elijah, two cree boys from the Hudson Bay, end up in the middle of a European War?” These types of questions forced our community to think at the highest levels, research primary documents (like the Indian Act), understand the cause consequence of global events, and empathize with the characters.

In the Canadian History course, students were asked to write a formal history on how colonialism, in the form of treaties, legislation, and attitudes, of the 19th century enabled the characters’ participation in the war. Learners needed to access primary documents, create an argument, and use evidence to support this argument. We heard from experts on the Indian Act, the Royal Proclamation, and the Numbered Treaties in order to understand the dynamic created at the end of the 19th century.

In the English course, learners were asked to reinvent specific chapters from the perspective of lesser characters. Learners chose German snipers, prostitutes, trappers, trench-mates, officers, and other characters to explore their understanding of the literary structures and also their understanding of the First World War.

Learners were assessed on both writing pieces and were able to rewrite and rewrite their work for publication. Following the revisions of the chapters of the book, the principal of the school was asked to make the final edits.


Women & Confederation

It seems that all students of Canadian History are taught about the causes of Confederation and about the Fathers of Confederation. It’s a neat little package that helps educators get to the next “unit” and then issue report cards at the end of the term. I find that it’s almost a rite of passage – that is that we must learn this stuff before we are issued our passport, or something.


Taken from CBC.

But what if we looked at Confederation in a more critical light? What if we looked at it from a Chinese or First Nation perspective? What if we put ourselves in the position of women, or as feminist historians? Dr. Lorna Marsden, a former Senator, University president, and currently a sociologist at York University, has attempted to do just that. In her book Canadian Women & The Struggle for Equality, she focuses a great deal on how women were not being considered persons 150 years ago, and that this caused one of the most incredible social movements in modern history.

In Chapter II, Marsden refers to the “Great Flaws of Confederation.” What were these and why is it important to critically analyze them? Why is it important to look at history from all perspectives? Are we obliged to do so? Is it unethical not to do so? How does this relate to Zinn’s understanding of radical history? Let’s discuss!

Here is a review of her book from the Winnipeg Free Press by a former SJR parent, Brenlee Carrington, that might help us. I also find this topic intriguing, firstly because I consider myself  feminist, but also secondly because the CBC is currently running a series entitled The Mommy Myth. Have a look. How does looking at the role of women in history help us deconstruct some of the barriers they face today?

What is History? Depends who you are?

Today in Canadian History we read the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Granted, it does seem like a strange read for a Canadian history class, but I think that it does speak to our purpose this year and the purpose of historians. In fact, I think this chapter not only highlights the appalling events which occurred at first contact between Europeans and first peoples, but it also speaks to the debate that is required in the pursuit of History.

So what is History then? This is a question that has plagued western society for the past few thousand years, principally since Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War and Herodotus wrote The History. These historians took different approaches to history, and have been critiqued ever since.

To help us with this question, let’s take a look at a contemporary issue where history might help us. Recently the Quebec Parti Quebecois government as proposed a new charter that would disallow the wearing of any religious symbols in government buildings and seems to, as some have said, a pro-secular offensive.

Here is the CBC’s At Issue Panel giving us a breakdown on the Charter (and among other things):

 Here are a couple of opinion pieces on the Charter of Values. One is from Ian Henderson, an SJR grad and a professor at McGill University. The other is from Edward Greenspon from the Toronto Star. Read both, and then comment on how the doing of history can help us understand this contemporary problem. What pieces of history do we need to know? Why might history be important in this case? What would happen if we took an A-historical look at this issue?

Lastly, let’s do some history of our own. How did Quebec get to this point? Why would Premiere Marois advocate for such a policy and why would Quebec have a different Charter of Rights?

I look forward to your insight!