Something’s rotten in the state of Clio. Clio, of course, is the Greek muse of history. Sadly, depending on which way the wind blows, the smell of Canadian history’s decay is more or less pungent. In the hallowed halls of academe, the stink seems greatest at the end of term, during course assessment time.
“The lectures are fine, but it’s still about Canada,” the students write. “Professor Loo tries hard, but what can you do with Canadian history?” “Wake me up when it’s over.”
As I tell anyone who’ll listen, Canadian historians often labour under the weight of students’ preconceptions: They come in expecting to be bored, and sometimes they are. That got me thinking about whether at least part of the present discontentment with Canadian history has to do with our expectations.
What is it that we want from history?
A lot, as it turns out. History is supposed to be a teacher, instructing us about what to do: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Or it’s a judge. How many times have we heard political analysts temper their opinions, leaving the ultimate assessment of a policy or leader to “the judgment of history”? The jobs of teacher and judge have come together in truth and reconciliation commissions — institutions established in places as diverse as South Africa, Chile, the Philippines, and Canada to help the members of these societies move forward together by coming to grips with a shared and violent history.
Lessons and judgments aside, we also seek other things from the past, like identity and enjoyment. We want history to tell us who “we” are — to give us the story of our lives and to validate our present-day experience, perhaps as members of different groups who struggled, resisted, persisted, and, in certain circumstances, prevailed. In some instances, we want those experiences publicly recognized, or commemorated, as, for instance, is the case with the Famous Five who fought successfully to have women recognized as “persons” in 1929, the victims of AIDS, fishermen who lost their lives at sea, or the Sikh passengers on the Komagata Maru, who, after they were denied entry to Canada in 1914, were shot at during their disembarkation in Kolkata, India.
Finally, and not least, we consume history — literally, as heritage foods, and figuratively, as entertainment, whether in the form of documentary films, historic sites, or museum exhibits. For history to be worth the price of admission, we want it to be flavourful and fun, to appeal to our emotions, especially our sense of nostalgia, the immediacy of the passage of time.
Teaching, judging, reconciling, identifying, validating, and entertaining — that’s a heavy load for history to bear, and an unwieldy one. There’s a fundamental tension between the analytical tasks we assign to history and historians and the others that require us to suspend some of that critical capacity.
We want history to teach and judge, but are we always open to the lessons and judgments historians offer? Like, for instance, the argument that Canada is founded on settler colonialism, the displacement of indigenous peoples, and the theft of their lands? Or that political policing, the surveillance and detention of individuals or groups deemed suspicious by the Canadian state, is necessary and legitimate?
Arguments like these, rooted in a close combing of evidence and a careful consideration of context, are the stock and trade of history and historians. But they can’t do the work of reconciliation on their own; among other things, reconciliation requires effort from all of us, the cultivation of empathy and compassion, not just for each other, but also for people in the past — all of them.
Nor do historical arguments necessarily work to validate experience and confer identity. They may, but that’s not their main purpose. In fact, it’s equally likely that they’ll complicate and muddy identities as much as clarify them. What do we do, for instance, with the anti-Asian racism of union members and their leadership in British Columbia at the turn of the twentieth century? The support for eugenics from some first-wave feminists, such as Emily Murphy? The fact that Calgary millionaire and Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett could approve of the violent suppression of the peaceful On to Ottawa Trek for improved conditions in Canada’s relief camps but at the same time send his own money to individuals who wrote to him about their troubles during the Great Depression?
Not everyone finds this kind of complexity entertaining, at least not all the time. Sometimes we just want to escape into the past, a place where we remember things being much simpler: That, after all, is what makes it seemingly different from the present. We aren’t always in the mood to be told otherwise and to learn the difference between memory and history.
There’s nothing wrong with putting the past to all these purposes; but, when we do, we should be aware that what we’re doing isn’t exactly what history is made for, at least the kind practised by professional historians.
If history can’t easily carry the load we give it, what is its capacity? What should we ask of it? We’ve long moved past the time when we think the job of history is simply to tell us what happened, to give us the “facts,” no more and no less. So the first thing we should expect — even demand — of history and historians is an argument, an interpretation based on evidence and a deep understanding of context.
But, because arguments by their very nature are conversations, we should also expect to carry some of the weight of history ourselves when we read and watch it, or go through an exhibit. We need to engage by asking questions, to be prepared and want to be challenged and surprised, delighted as well as dismayed and disgusted.
Beyond argument, maybe the most important thing history can convey is a sense of distance. According to intellectual historian Allan Megill, history might not be able to show us where to go, at least not easily. But it can tell us where we’ve been — not in any “march-of-progress, benighted- past-enlightened-present” sort of way, but much more subtly.
The gift of good history lies in evoking the pastness of the past, taking full measure of the worlds we have lost without using today’s standards to do so, and, through that, fostering a sense that we too are history, creatures of context and circumstance. If anything, history should make us humble.