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James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

Questioning Commemoration in the Classroom

With 2014 barely a month old, it feels as if there has been an extraordinary amount of media attention on the past. Politicians and journalists are falling over each other to commemorate, condemn, comment on, and celebrate the various historical anniversaries that are occurring this year (and to question how they are taught in schools). The First World War centenary in particular has provoked extensive debate both here in Canada and around the world. My question, in relation to all this attention, is what is the best way to engage students in discussions around the politics of public historical commemoration and to question its relationship to the history curriculum. Put more simply, how can we as educators help students examine the uses and abuses of history.*

In the UK, Education Secretary Michael Gove sparked controversy by declaring that left wing academics, and television shows such as Blackadder, had distorted the truth about the First World War by making it out to be a shambolic war led by inept Generals. In an article for the Daily Mail, Gove declared that the war was in fact “just,” and “noble,” but had since been misrepresented by historians, such as Cambridge Professor Richard E. Evans.  Evans of course took the opportunity to hit back at Gove in an article in the Guardian, criticizing what he referred to as Gove’s attempt “to redraft the national schools curriculum to force schools to teach an uncritically celebratory narrative of English history.”

Here in Canada, with commemorations such as the upcoming 150th Anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference and the recent Sir John A. Day, one can’t help but wonder what the place is for such events in the history curriculum.

In my classroom I do not want to either ignore such commemoration or mindlessly celebrate them, but instead to engage in critical discussions with my classes around how we remember certain events, what they tell us about grander narratives of history, and also what they tell us about the present. The celebration of John A. Macdonald raises many questions as recent articles have elaborated upon, asking us to think more critically at Sir John A.’s record, particularly on Aboriginal peoples and Immigrants from China (THEN/HiER has collected a great list of articles on commemoration here). 

Because commemorations often ask us to look uncritically an event or person from the past it becomes important to critically look at commemorations themselves. They offer educators and students an excellent opportunity to analyze the stories being told using the concept of historical significance. For addressing a commemoration I have come up with the following questions to help students think historically about commemorations of events and historical actors:

1)   Why do societies and nations commemorate the past?

2)   What makes an event/person significant enough to commemorate?

3)   In what ways is national identity and commemoration of the past linked?

4)   What/whose purpose does this commemoration serve?

5)   What/whose values are celebrated through this commemoration?

6)   What/whose stories might be ignored in this commemoration? 

Of course these are not easy questions for students (or anyone for that matter) to answer. They are designed to provoke debate and thinking around what parts of the past, governments and societies choose to remember. The goal is to help students think critically about the past, and to question it uses and abuses by politicians, journalists, commenters and of course even teachers. In other words, to help students think about what stories are told and perhaps more importantly which are not. This is important because as Professor Evans suggested in his article, History is not about celebration; it is about debate and critical thinking.

* Margaret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008) is a great short overview of this topic.

What is a Benchmark?

<p>John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising &amp; Marketing History,<br />Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections</p>

A surveyor cut a "benchmark" into a stone or a wall when measuring the altitude and/or level of a tract of land. A bracket called a "bench" was secured in the cut to mount the surveying equipment, and all subsequent measurements were made in reference to the position and height of that mark.

The term "benchmark" was first used around 1842 to refer to a standard of quality by which achievement may be measured.

The foundation documents available through the Benchmarks site attempt to help teachers establish standards for assessing student learning of the modes of thought that constitute historical thinking.

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History,
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections