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ARTICLE Saving an Endangered Subject: High School History in Ontario Schools, 1960-2010

Volume 4, Issue 1, 2016, pages 50-65
Saving an Endangered Subject:
High School History in Ontario Schools, 1960-2010
Paul W. Bennett
St. Mary’s University
The rise, fall, and revival of History in Ontario high schools is full of twists and turns. History
as an academic subject, once king of the social sciences, came, over the period 1960 to 2010,
to occupy a smaller and smaller patch of the secondary school curriculum. Building upon
insights gleaned from Bob Davis’ 1995 book Whatever Happened to High School History?,
veteran teacher, textbook writer and education professor Paul W. Bennett analyzes the
impact of rise of the “new social studies” in the 1970s, the spread of the so-called “skills
mania” of the 1980s, and the demise of the prevailing national narrative on the teaching of
the subject. Summoning up lessons learned in the Ontario history classroom, he demonstrates
how the fragmentation of the history-centred social studies curriculum contributed to the so-
called “Canadian History Crisis” of the 1990s. In the wake of the 1995 Quebec Referendum, the
teaching of Canadian history resurfaced as a major public policy issue. The recent advent of
the “Historical Thinking” movement, sparked by UBC education professor Peter Seixas,
signalled the beginning of a more recent revival and Trent University historian Christopher
Dummitt’s 2009 call in Contesting Clio’s Craft to “move beyond inclusion” has begun to close
the gap in the teaching of history between the university and high school levels.
hirty-six years ago when I was a cocksure, brash 29-year-old Ontario high school
history teacher at Aurora High School, north of Toronto, I issued a long-forgotten
manifesto, disguised as a teacher’s guide, and issued in defence of a subject being
crowded out of the curriculum. Concerned about the rise of the “New Social Studies” and
troubled by the Canada Studies Foundation’s promotion of an integrated social sciences
curriculum, I saw the core subject of high school history as an endangered species. Armed
with an M.A. in Canadian and American History and a “Type A Specialist” certificate, only
Saving an Endangered Subject
five years into my career, I had the temerity to declare that, unless the teaching of the
subject was revitalized and invigorated with current historiographic debates, it may
become “the Latin of the ‘80s.”
And I was not alone in expressing those views.
High school Canadian history survived in Ontario, much like a hardy perennial, but in doing
so became barely recognizable, occupying a smaller and smaller patch of the garden. A
“new social studies” curriculum displaced the self-standing subject and left high school
history teachers in a quandary.
Since “the defeat of fascism and the triumph of American
modernity,” as OISE historian Ruth Sandwell pointed out, teachers of Canadian history
survey courses abandoned “a single unified narrative” in favour of “histories that are more
complex, varied and contested.”
That definitely impacted what and how students learn in
university Canadian history survey courses. It also fundamentally affected, over four
decades, the teaching of history in our high schools. Social history gradually became the
new orthodoxy, even in high schools. Almost every topic was approached as a “potted
plant” and viewed through the lens of the new “multiple identities” categories of analysis
class, race, gender, and ethnicity. Sliced into smaller units of study and in the absence of
an integrating narrative the subject became far more complex, increasingly “skills-
driven,and, rather surprisingly, less appealing for high school students.
The spread of the “New Social Studies,” reinforced by the gradual demise of the grand
narrative in university history courses, exerted a tremendous impact on the teaching of
high school history in most of Canada’s English-speaking provinces. This article attempts to
assess what really happened over the fifty-year span from 1960 to 2010 and its impact on
the vitality of the subject in Ontario schools. It will explain the combined effects of the
advent of the “new social history,” the “skills-mania” curriculum initiative, and the “History
Wars” of the 1990s. The so-called “Canadian History Crisis” generated national surveys and
advocacy books fueling a public debate over the relationship between history education,
public memory and citizenship. While the Quebec context is different, Jocelyn Letourneau
has demonstrated the existence of a strikingly similar debate about historical memory and
nationalism in that society.
The sources of the subject’s decline as a core subject from the 1960s until the early 2000s
need to be examined in all their complexity. That exploration begins with an assessment of
the impact of two interrelated pedagogical and curricular movements progressivism and
“new social studies” on the centrality and health of the subject discipline. Building upon
the work of Sam Wineburg (1991 and 2001), Peter Seixas (2000), and Penney Clark
the article will also examine the inherent contradictions between academic history
and the “new social studiesand assess the potential of the movement to infuse “historical
thinking” into the curriculum.
It concludes with a look at the disconnect between
academic historians and secondary school teachers and the potential for rapprochement
raised by Christopher Dummitt’s 2009 call in Contesting Clio’s Craft to “move beyond
inclusion” in teaching history at both the university and high school levels.
Saving an Endangered Subject
High School History from its Zenith to the Margins
History was once king of the social sciences in Canadian high schools. In Ontario, high
school history experienced its zenith, according to Bob Davis, in the period 1960 to 1967,
when the academic curriculum consisted of five consecutive years of study,
“uncontaminated by geography, grassroots citizenship, or progressive education!”
In his
strongly opinionated, passionate book, Whatever Happened to High School History?, he
tracks the fortunes of the subject discipline from 1944 to 1990 through a content analysis
of a series of history teacher magazines, The History News Letter (1944-1964), The
Canadian Journal of History and The Canadian Journal of
History and Social Science (1965-1974), and The History
and Social Science Teacher (1974-1990). That analysis
demonstrates how history “moved from the centre to
the margin” of the curriculum, effectively, in Davis’s
graphic description, “burying the political memory of
youth” in Ontario.
The one surviving national journal
for history and social science teachers eventually
morphed into Canadian Social Studies, an explicitly social
studies journal.
History lost its primacy in the Canadian West much
earlier than in Ontario. In Alberta, Social Credit
governments, as Amy von Heyking has shown, exhibited
a populist streak and showed a remarkable proclivity for
“progressive” educational initiatives.
Beginning in
1934, the Alberta Department embraced citizenship
education and introduced a new species, the social
sciences, into the curriculum. A cadre of progressive educationists, led by Hubert C.
Newland and Donalda Dickie, favoured “social studies” and gradually succeeded in
eliminating self-standing history courses in the province’s high schools. Some had imbibed
progressive ideas about education in American graduate programs, others simply brought
an elementary school focus on the student rather than the subject to their work. Alberta’s
progressive reformers were highly critical of history as it was taught in schools and
considered it largely irrelevant for children. They espoused a new philosophy of history,
taught within the context of social studies. Whatever the intent, it resulted in the gradual
abandonment of history, first in elementary levels, then altogether in the high school
That absence was particularly acute when it came to pan-Canadian history
content of any kind.
History remained a core academic subject in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and the Maritimes
until it came under attack in the late 1960s. The challenge eventually arose as an
outgrowth of the reform zeal unleashed by the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report. When it first
appeared in June 1968, the Report, entitled Living and Learning and popularly named after
its co-chairs, Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis, was greeted with lavish praise, mostly
generated by the Toronto media. The Report gave official sanction to a brand of romantic
educational progressivism inspired by John Dewey (1959-1952), the renowned American
philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer. Its authors openly embraced core
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Deweyite principles: the child lies at the heart of “education for a democratic society,”
learning comes naturally to every child, but schools as institutions “throttle the free flow of
individual thought and action.”
Mimicking Dewey’s pedagogic creed, the teacher’s
primary role was not to teach the subject or to impose certain “habits of mind,” but rather
to “establish a cheerful, social, permissive climate for learning” enabling the child to
maintain “creative and democratic relationships.”
Unlike previous dry and formalistic
government reports, it conveyed a powerful message with catchy slogans such as “the truth
shall make us free” and images of smiling children at play in the schools. With its
appearance, subject disciplines like history were called into question by powerful
education officials like Ontario Deputy Minister of Education J.R. (Jack McCarthy, steeped in
child psychology, drawn disproportionately from elementary teaching backgrounds, and
openly hostile to educational tradition. Teaching the student, not the subject, was their
mantra and history was in their sight lines.
It was no accident that the most intense public opposition was voiced by professors of
humanities and secondary school history teachers. Among the first to cast stones were
University of Toronto humanities professors whom the Ontario educational establishment
dismissed as “carping academic critics.”
The second wave was spearheaded by McMaster
University historian James W. Daly (1932-1983). His vocal opposition and impressive
command of the English language made him almost impossible to ignore. Soon after the
appearance of his pamphlet, Education or Molasses? high school history teachers rallied to
his cause. Among teachers and so-called “traditionalists” in education, business, and local
politics, Daly’s little book crystallized the gathering forces of resistance against not only the
Hall-Dennis version of “Edutopia,” but what he lambasted as “the supine acceptance of
fashionable piffle.”
Much of the public opposition to the Report was generated by the academics, in league with
secondary school teachers. University of Toronto English professor John M. Robson threw a
well-timed dart on September 2, 1969, marking the first day of school with a column paying
homage to historian Hilda Neatby’s 1953 best seller So Little for the Mind and predicting
that “Johnny” would now be doing more “living than learning” in Ontario’s schools.
Althouse College, University of Western Ontario, Geoffrey Milburn and Gary Meadows
raised objections to the Report’s assault on history as a subject discipline and warned that
educational equalitarianism had often been associated with “intellectual flabbiness.”
Meadows went so far as to predict that “those tardy souls who need a little pushing to
sweat for their knowledge” would provide “a classic monkey wrench for Ontario education
a la Hall-Dennis.”
High school history teacher Norman Sheffe was more muted in his
criticism, but reported that the upheaval caused by the Report left his fellow teachers
feeling like “Hansel and Gretel after the birds had eaten up the trail of bread crumbs.”
A massive survey conducted in the spring and summer of 1969 by the Ontario Teachers’
Federation polled 6,127 teachers and purported to demonstrate that most teachers
supported the general philosophy espoused in the Report.
Yet many veteran Ontario
history teachers felt threatened by the call for a fundamental change in methods and even
potential allies, such as Toronto’s George Martell of This Magazine is About Schools, found
fault with the supposedly “liberalizing” education manifesto. To Martell and more radical
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progressives, the emphasis on “individualized” learning was seen as corporatist idea
threatening to undermine the “sense of community” in public schools.
The periodic murmurs of misgiving began to turn into signs of protest, in spite of Lloyd
Dennis’s strenuous missionary efforts. When Dennis spoke at McMaster University, the
forum was sponsored by the History Department and he entered a virtual lion’s den.
Professor Daly glared at Dennis and the normally impartial meeting chairman, historian
John Trueman, could not resist making his personal views known.
At McMaster and in
other places, Dennis was lustily booed.
The charge that the Hall-Dennis Report sought to
disassemble the prescribed curriculum provoked genuine outrage. Seeing the Report’s
evidence drawn mostly from the early grades, academically-inclined teachers instinctively
agreed with Daly that the proposed Hall-Dennis curriculum as a “melange of mush”
organized around little more than “general areas of learning.” With the proposed
abandonment of prescribed curricula, teachers would be left on their own to design new
curricula without any training in the field. Academics and classroom teachers alike claimed
that the Report utterly failed to make adequate provision for certain “core subjects,” such
as English, Mathematics, Science, and History, which were essential for an effective,
balanced curriculum.
History teachers were in the forefront of the resistance. Ontario’s history and social studies
teachers complained about the proposed curriculum’s presentist bias and seeming
acceptance of the assumption that the present and the future are all that matters.” After
viewing the resulting Ontario History Guidelines, John Ricker, Chairman of History at
Toronto’s Faculty of Education, confirmed their worst fears, declaring the Hall-Dennis-
inspired changes “an invitation for teachers to do their own thing.”
The highly-publicized crusade failed to roll back Hall-Dennis-inspired ‘romantic
progressive’ reform but the message eventually sunk in, even within the bowels of the
Ontario Department of Education. By January 1983, the bloom was off the Hall-Dennis rose
and The Globe and Mail published a news feature by Judy Steed entitled “Crisis in the
Schools.” West Toronto history teacher John Sheppard, President of the Ontario History
and Social Science Teachers Association (OHASSTA), told Steed that teachers held the Hall-
Dennis Report responsible for “destroying education in Ontario.” The popular Toronto
media began to proclaim that the Hall-Dennis era was coming to an end. “Now, it’s the
eighties,” Steed stated, “and it’s back to the basics with more structure.”
While the Hall-
Dennis upheaval subsided, its effects lingered and marked the beginning of the gradual
eclipse of history as a core component of the high school curriculum.
Strange Bedfellows: History and the Rise of the New Social Studies
High school history survived the onslaught of Hall-Dennis reform only to succumb to a
more insidious challenge. The rise of “social history” in the universities was accompanied
by a high school mutation, known as the “new social studies.” The emerging trend gained
ground throughout the 1970s, aided and abetted by a new Canada Studies Foundation.
Although founded in response to A.B. Hodgetts’s 1968 study, What Culture? What
, it evolved into a ‘trojan horse’ for multidisciplinary social science and further
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eroded the “traditional” Canadian history curriculum. In concluding their work with the
Canada Studies Foundation, A.B. Hodgetts and Paul Gallagher were intent on carrying the
process one step further. Their summary report, Teaching Canada for the ‘80s, called for a
common multidisciplinary framework for studies of Canada spanning the full range of
school years. Their proposed Canada Studies curriculum was “pan-Canadian in its
perspectives and culminated in senior high school students studying public issues in
Canada and the world.
The Canada Studies movement, however well intended, challenged the primacy of history
as an academic discipline. History and social studies departments began offering “new
social studies” courses in “Canadian Studies” or in self-standing courses such as civics, law,
economics, and sociology. With the spread of the credit system after 1969, students
enjoyed more choice and gravitated to courses with a more contemporary focus.
school history teachers found it ironic that a project aimed at promoting “national
understanding” actually contributed to the further erosion of history, an intellectual
discipline well suited to promoting such understanding. Secondary school history
departments became increasingly cannibalized, as enrolments in pure history courses
declined in favour of the new offerings. By 1994, history educators like Peter Seixas were
accurate in describing history as “a subject adrift” in an “integrated curriculum.”
The shrinkage of high school history was also accelerated by the introduction of “social
science skills,” actively promoted by a new species of school administrators, known as
curriculum consultants. One of the first to identify the threat was Robert J. Clark, a history
education professor at Althouse College, University of Western Ontario. While surveying
the new Ontario guidelines in May 1977, he came to a startling realization.
His ground-
breaking 1979 essay, “’Hot Housing Tomatoes’: History in Ontario Schools” blew the
whistle on the creeping influence on history curriculum design of a new breed of social
scientists who were neither history teachers nor historians. Teaching skills was beginning
to take precedence over teaching history itself. Respected University of Toronto historian
J.M.S Careless who had popularized the phrase “limited identities” also began to have grave
doubts about the ‘watering down’ of history in secondary schools.
Allan Smith of the
University of British Columbia saw the erosion of the subject in a broader context, as a
prime example of the decline in Western thinking of the “faith in historical progress.”
Such changes in the teaching of history passed almost unnoticed in the professional history
teaching journals and among regular secondary school teachers. Preparing lessons,
creating activities, and marking assignments tended to obscure the underlying changes
revolutionizing the teaching of the subject.
The changes besetting high school history ware really part of a broader movement to
introduce “information age” skills into the curriculum. Veteran history teacher Bob Davis, a
co-founder in 1966 of This Magazine is About Schools, and recognized as the voice of
Toronto teacher activists, dubbed the phenomenon the “skills-mania.”
It “crept in
slowly”, in his words, in the 1970s, and “arrived full blast in the 1980s.” Provincial
ministries of education and schools, publisher Rob Greenaway of Prentice-Hall Canada,
were demanding new types of textbooks and learning materials. In an interview, published
in the Summer of 1988, he went so far as to declare the 1980s “the decade of skills.”
Saving an Endangered Subject
History teaching was not immune to the advance of skills-mania. Teaching skills gradually
came to supplant history itself, further separating school history from the academy.
Curriculum planners and writers became “skills-obsessed” and driven by the
overwhelming pressure to establish “learning outcomes,” to teach “information-age” skills,
and to prepare students for standardized performance testing. Teaching skills was viewed
as essential to prepare students for what was termed the “New Global Economy where
greater competition and new “thinking skills” would rule. Leading corporations and
business groups embraced the Conference Board of Canada’s focus on promoting
“employability skills.”
Even liberal and left progressive educators were drawn to “critical
thinking skills,” which they saw as an opportunity to “teach students a critical view of
society without having to preach to them.”
A close analysis of the Ontario school curricula and textbooks in the 1980s demonstrated
that Canadian history in high school had suffered a ‘double whammy.’ The dissolution of
the national narrative was lamented by Michael Bliss in his controversial Donald Creighton
Centennial Lecture, entitled “Privatizing the Mind: The Sundering of Canadian History, the
Sundering of Canada” and delivered on the eve of the 1991 federal referendum. According
to Bliss, historians had dedicated themselves to exploring the “limited identities” of region,
class, gender and ethnicity and were, therefore, party to the gradual fragmenting of any
collective sense of national community.
Another outspoken member of the so-called
Toronto school of historians, J.L. Granatstein, put it more bluntly. Historians of the 1970s
and 1980s, he charged, had spent most of their time researching and teaching students
about pork-packing, Marxist labour organizers, prisons and insane asylums, parish politics,
and what he derisively described as “the history of housemaid’s knee in Belleville in the
1890s.” “Really,” he added, “Who cares?”
The Ontario high school history curriculum did gradually come to reflect that “limited
identities” outlook. After the introduction of a new History and Contemporary Studies
curriculum in 1987-88, Canadian history came to be taught in Grade 9 or 10 under the
rubric “Life in Contemporary Canada” and again in Grade 13/OAC level within a North
American comparative history framework. In both cases, the units of study reflected a
“limited identities” perspective heavily weighted to regional, social class, and gender issues.
Conspicuous by their absence from the senior history curriculum were units focusing
explicitly on the national question and specifically on the Conquest, Quebec-Canada
relations, or the ongoing constitutional crisis.
The most popular textbooks, including my
own Canada: A North American Nation (1989) sought, for the most part, to heighten
student awareness of our “limited identities” and the social experiences of life in regional
or local communities.
The second blow to the subject was the virtual abandonment of the teaching of history in
favour of “the sociology of current social problems.” Much of Bob Davis’ Whatever
Happened to High School History? focuses on the spread and debilitating effects of what he
termed “sociology-across-the-curriculum.” Davis had little use for J.L. Granatstein’s
defence of the History Canon because it championed the achievements of “white, bourgeois
males” and excluded women, people of colour, aboriginals, recent immigrants, labour, and
youth. Yet he did concur with Geoff Milburn, long-time editor of The History and Social
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Science Teacher, who remained steadfast that “sociology and skills” were the “crucial
causes of history’s decline.”
Unlike most educational progressives, Davis could read the
nuances in the politics of history education. After spending a decade investigating the field,
he recognized that both traditional academic teachers and old Tory academics were deeply
distrustful of the spread of “pop sociology” as well as the “skills mania.” He even had the
temerity to wonder if the old “master narrative” was actually better than “no narrative at
Saving Canadian History - The Restoration Movement and Its Impact
The smouldering debate over the state of Canadian history erupted as a major public policy
issue in the 1990s. Michael Bliss’s intervention fanned the flames of public concern stoked
by the unsettling findings of Keith Spicer and his
1991 Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future, an earlier
storm warning about public disillusionment with
politics and the established political order.
Dominion Institute, founded by Rudyard Griffiths
and small group of recent university graduates in
1997, began producing national surveys raising
serious questions about the state of public
knowledge about past politics, wars, and civics.
Amid these rumblings, historian Jack Granatstein
produced his controversial best seller, Who Killed
Canadian History? (1998) reinforcing the message
and identifying the alleged perpetrators, most
notably the “new” social historians, ministries of
education, faculties of education, and curriculum
Saving Canadian history emerged as a cause celebre.
The Historica Foundation, co-founded in October
1999 by Charles Bronfman and BCE’s Lynton R.
(Red) Wilson, emerged to fund greatly expanded
resource programs, including the Heritage Minutes,
Heritage Fairs, and the Canadian Encyclopedia
Online. Responding to the public mood, CBC-TV and Radio Canada poured millions into
Mark Starowitz’s epic (2000-2001) Canada: A Peoples’ History series.
With generous
funding from federal Liberal governments, the Ontario government, and the corporate
sector, three different organizations entered the field: the Historica Foundation, the
Dominion Institute, and Canada’s National History Society (CNHS), based in Winnipeg and
publishers of The Beaver, now Canada’s History. The McGill Centre for the Study of Canada,
headed by Desmond Morton, was an influential catalyst. A Governor General’s Award for
Teaching Excellence, founded in 1996 and sponsored by CNHS, recognized a dozen or so
exemplary teachers each year. Each of the three national history advocacy groups offered
its own programs to ensure that “more history was taught better” in the schools. From
1998 to 2003, a Canadian history consortium, led by Historica and later the Association for
Front Page Story and Editorial,
The Globe and Mail, 30 June 2001.
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Canadian Studies, sponsored a Biennial National History Teaching Conference and, from
2001 to 2003, a Montreal-based national Summer Institute for Teaching Excellence in
Canadian History.
All this activity managed to energize Canadian history enthusiasts, but
it ran foursquare into the Ontario secondary school system where the subject discipline
continued to occupy a diminishing place with limited course offerings.
The initial wave of Canadian history initiatives was gradually superseded by a new
movement championing “historical thinking”, spearheaded by Peter Seixas and Penney
Clark at UBC. Backed by Seixas's UBC Centre for Historical Consciousness and heavily
influenced by the work of Sam Wineburg, a new model for teaching “historical thinking”
was actively promoted, leading eventually to Benchmarks of Historical Thinking.
By then
Canadian history advocates had discovered the World Wide Web and its enormous
potential for engaging students in the study of historical issues and problems. One of the
first such projects was a website, designed by John Lutz of the University of Victoria with
Ruth Sandwell and carrying the improbable title “Who Killed William Robinson?” It
attracted immediate attention, and was adopted in university and senior high school
classes alike. Yet the Website also revealed a skills-deficit among students enrolled in
history courses. “Students repeatedly identified the site as interesting and engaging,”
Sandwell reported, “but were at the same time frustrated and annoyed by the demands
placed upon them ... to engage with the material.”
Such discoveries gave rise to an
expanded website series known as Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History and the
most recent venture in history education networking, The History Education
Network/Histoire et Education en Réseau (THEN/HiER). Like its predecessors,
THEN/HiER aspired to lofty goals. The new network, Joel Schlesinger proclaimed in the
March 2010 issue of Teaching Canada’s History, is to build a community from elementary
schools to universities, attempting to bridge “the disconnect between the ivory towers of
academia and the classroom.”
How much of all of this feverish activity actually penetrated the secondary school system?
The Dominion Institute did conduct a national study of the Canadian high school history
curriculum during the 2008-09 school year. The Canadian History Report Card,
commissioned by the Ontario-based Institute and written by Bishop Strachan School
history teacher J.D. M. Stewart, provided a detailed analysis of the official curriculum in
each province and territory.
The first Canadian History Report Card reflected the known
biases of its sponsor, the Dominion Institute. It focused on identifying discrete “history
courses” and assessing provincial curricula in relation to the Ontario conception of history
as a self-standing subject. Quebec ranked first with a B+, scoring 42 out of 50 points (84%),
largely on the strength of requiring two full years of Quebec-Canada historical study before
Grade 11 graduation. Only four provinces require students to take a Canadian history
course before graduating, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia, and they were not
only singled out, but fared better than the others. Provincial curricula was essentially
benchmarked against the Ontario standard.
After more than a decade of commissioning surveys, the Dominion Institute could
legitimately claim to have dramatically raised public awareness of the so-called “national
malaise about our past in Ottawa and Ontario’s Queen’s Park. Judging from the Report
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Card, however, Stewart and the Institute expressed disappointment over the progress.
“Provincial ministries of education”, the Institute claimed, must be held responsible for
what they ask or do not ask their teachers to teach their students. It is clear from this
curriculum analysis that high school students in Canada are not required to learn enough
about their country’s past.” Critics of the Dominion Institute may quibble about its focus on
the mastery of discrete facts, but that 2009 curriculum analysis demonstrated that the
subject continued to be marginalized in Canadian high schools.
Epilogue: Signs of Hope for the Future
The public debate over the place of history in the Ontario curriculum had by 2010 come
almost full circle. A youthful and somewhat restless Trent University professor of
Canadian history was among the first to break ranks in the historical profession. It all
started in May 2007, in London, England. That recently-minted Assistant Professor,
Christopher Dummitt, got together with a small group of others at the University of London
and began asking a few troubling questions.
Where were the new syntheses to replace the
all-but discredited “noble dream” narrative of Canada’s history? After more than two
decades, what had happened to the public concerns first voiced by two prominent public
intellectuals, Michael Bliss and J.L. Granatstein, former titans now quietly derided as
dinosaurs of the profession? Now that the “new social history” and “inclusiveness” reigned
triumphant, what came next? And, while professing a new openness, how had academic
historians come to be talking in a largely inaccessible language and mostly to each other?
In a thought-provoking 2009 article, “After Inclusiveness:
The Future of Canadian History,” he proclaimed the
“History Wars” over and declared that “inclusive history”
encompassing class, gender, and ethnicity had become
the new orthodoxy.” A bottom-up, inclusive, “Peoples”
history of Canada,” he pointed out, “is now the standard
version of Canadian history in the universities.” Dummitt
and his band of allies identified a major disconnect,
plainly visible to high school teachers. On prime-time
television, in theatres, on magazine stands, and even in
bookstores, history enjoyed new-found popularity. Yet
historians continued to produce mostly detailed, dry
monographs and seemed intent upon fighting the same
old battles. And perhaps more ironically, while the focus
was on “inclusion,” history was increasingly being
written in a fashion which excluded the public.
Dummitt was refreshingly frank in a field normally
constrained by tribal loyalties. If Canadian history was at a crossroads, he claimed that it
was because the academics had become increasingly stale and irrelevant to popular tastes.
Few academic works sold more than 800 to 1,000 copies, while more engaging books by
popularizers like Pierre Berton, Charlotte Gray, and Ken McGoogan continued to sell well.
In Dummitt’s own words, “the majority of the public is not with the professors.” Such
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revelations were not new to high school practitioners such as J.D. M. Stewart, but coming
from a rising academic they sent out shock waves in the rather small Canadian history
Speaking at The History Education Network (THEN/HiER) Symposium,
November 4, 2010, in Toronto, Dummitt, explained, in detail, the sources of the widening
gap between academic history and the interests of the general public.
In Contesting Clio’s
Craft, Dummitt did not mince any words: Historians had gone overboard on social scientific
research, seemingly “dissecting every little species and pinning them to the wall.”
of simply rendering visible and categorizing the species, he quipped that what historians
needed was a “catch and release” strategy to rejuvenate the disciplinary field and recapture
the hearts and minds of students.
The Canadian History Wars were essentially over by 2010 but many of the professors
were still fighting old battles. Now that the older generation of warriors had all but left the
field, Dummitt and his contemporaries were beginning to openly challenge the limitations
of the new orthodoxy. Some like Ruth Sandwell and Peter Seixas chastised their academic
colleagues for practicing teaching methods at odds with best practice in inquiry- based
historical research.
Rethinking Canadian history for the 21st century came to mean
asking penetrating questions and seeking inventive ways of recapturing the reading public
and reconnecting with those oft-forgotten high school history teachers. Popular magazines
like Canada’s History/The Beaver were finding a place in high school classrooms and
leading the way in making history accessible to enthusiasts of all ages.
The History
Education Network, spearheaded by Penny Clarke and the UBC Educational Studies
Department, was in its infancy, but a “coherent conceptual framework” for teaching
historical thinking was taking shape in the faculties of education.
After four decades of the “new social history,” the pendulum was swinging in a different
direction. Most Ontario high school history teachers and new initiates (i.e. history
undergraduates) had been longing for more accessible, readable books and articles that
captured the “Big Story,” addressed some of the recently neglected themes, and truly
engaged the audience. There were signs that Canadian history was beginning to reconnect
with what Dummitt aptly called “the town as well as the gown.”
It was becoming
fashionable again to stand up for the subject discipline as part of the essential core of a
liberal education. Some were revisiting the critical issues raised in Bob Davis’s Whatever
Happened to High School History? Emboldened by Dummitt and a new generation of
historians, they were even musing about whether the old master narrative” was actually
better than “no narrative at all.”
Many secondary school practitioners, and a growing
number of their university confreres, expressed the hope that the teaching of high school
history was on the rebound.
Time would tell whether the convergence of forces would
lead to a more accessible history education fully engaging Ontario high school students and
better equipping them the historical thinking skills to help shape Canada’s future.
Saving an Endangered Subject
Paul W. Bennett, Rediscovering Canadian History: A Teacher’s Guide for the ‘80s (Toronto: OISE Press, 1980),
pp. 2-3 and 29-30. Originally published as a Teacher’s Guide by the York County Board of Education, Division
of Planning and Development (Aurora: YCBE, September 1979).
Peter Seixas, “A Discipline Adrift in an ‘Integrated Curriculum’: History in British Columbia Schools,”
Canadian Journal of Education, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1994). See also Geoffrey Milburn, Teaching History in Canada
(Scarborough: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972) for a number of earlier critiques.
Ruth Sandwell, “School History Versus the Historians,” International Journal of Social Education, Vol. 20, No.
1 (Spring/Summer 2005), p. 10. For a much fuller exploration of the breakdown in consensus , see Ruth W.
Sandwell, “Introduction,” in Sandwell, ed., To the Past: History Education, Public Memory and Citizenship in
Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), pp. 1-7.
Jocelyn Letourneau, A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and History in Quebec (Montreal and
Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), pp. 3-29.
The pioneering works on teaching historical thinking are Sam Wineburg, “On the Reading of Historical
Texts: Notes on the Breach between School and the Academy,” American Educational Research Journal, Vol.
28, No. 3 (19910, pp. 495-519; and Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Weinburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching
and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
For new insights, see Penney Clark, "Introduction,” and Clark and Peter Seixas, "Obsolete Icons and the
Teaching of History," in Penney Clark, ed., New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada
(Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011)
See Penney Clark, “Clio in the Curriculum: Vindicated at Last,” Canadian Issues (Spring 2013), pp. 42-46.
See Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions in Canadian History, edited by Christopher Dummitt and Michael
Dawson. London: UK: Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London, 2009.
Bob Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History? Burying the Political Memory of Youth, Ontario: 1945-
1995 (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1995), pp. 33-34.
Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History?, pp. 82-163, and 210-212.
See Amy von Heyking, Creating Citizens: History & Identity in Alberta’s Schools, 1905 to 1980 (Calgary:
University of Calgary Press, 2006), pp. 5-6.
On the triumph of Alberta social studies, see Von Heyking, pp. 53, 61-71, 108-10, 114, 128-9, 131-33, 140-2,
and 149-50. See also von Heyking, “Selling Progressive Education to Albertans,” Historical Studies in
Education, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 &2 (Spring and Fall, 1998), pp. 67-84.
Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the
Schools of Ontario (Toronto: Ontario Department of Education, June 1968), pp. 9 and 21; and John Dewey,
Democracy and Education (New York: Free Press, 1966), pp. 6, 8, 20, and 114.
See Living and Learning, p. 121; and John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed (1897), p. 9, accessed
at (17/03/11)
See R. D. Gidney, From Hope to Harris: The Shaping of Ontario’s Schools (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1999), pp. 66, and 69-86. On the illusory appeal of the Report, see Brian Crittenden, “Slogans handle
with care,” in Crittenden, ed., Means & Ends in Education: Comments on Living and Learning (Toronto: Ontario
Institute for Studies in Education, 1969), pp. 25-42.
Saving an Endangered Subject
Eric W. Ricker, “Teachers, Trustees and Policy: The Politics of Education in Ontario, 1945-1975,”
Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Toronto, 1981, pp. 487-488.
James Daly, Education or Molasses? A Critical Look at the Hall-Dennis Report (Ancaster, ON: Cromlech Press,
McMaster University, 1969), esp. pp. 1-2.
John M. Robson, “First Day of School: Why Johnny will do more Living than Learning,” The Toronto Daily
Star, 2 September 1969.
Geoffrey Milburn, “The Historian and the Hall-Dennis Report,” Reactions to Hall-Dennis: A Collection of
Comments from the Point of View of the Secondary School (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), pp.10
and 12-16.
Norman Sheffe, “A Teacher Looks at the Hall-Dennis Report,” Reactions to the Hall-Dennis Report, pp. 24-7.
OISE Library, Ontario Teachers Federation, “Survey of Teachers’ Professional Opinions, 1969” (Vertical file:
Hall-Dennis Report); and the executive summary in “Focus on the Hall-Dennis Report,” Orbit (December,
See George Martell, ed., The Politics of the Public School (Halifax: Formac Publishing, 1974), Introduction,
and articles from This Magazine is About Schools.
Personal Interviews, John Trueman , 16 September and 25 September 2010.
Dennis Gruending, Emmett Hall: Establishment Radical (Toronto: Macmillan, 1985), p. 115; and The Toronto
Daily Star, 12 June 1969, p. 8. See also Lloyd Dennis, “Living and Learning: After Sixteen Months,” Orbit,
Preliminary Issue, No. 2 (December, 1969), p. 6.
R.W. B. Jackson, The Hall-Dennis Report: A Personal Comment,” Headmaster (Fall, 1968), pp. 29-30; and
Editorial, “An Educational Leap in the Dark,” The Toronto Daily Star, 2 September 1972.
Daly, Education or Molasses?, p. 64; Crittenden, “ Slogans – Handle with Care,” p. 38; and John Ricker,
“Reaction to the Ontario Ministry of Education Guidelines: History, Intermediate Division, Canadian Journal of
History and Social Science, Vol. IX (Fall, 1973), p. 4.
Judy Steed, “Crisis in the Schools,” The Globe and Mail, 15 January 1983, p. 10. Professor John Trueman
provided his pithy assessment in a Personal Interview, 16 September 2010. See also Robert Neilsen, “A
Report Card on Ontario’s School System,” The Toronto Star, 1 June 1974, pp. A1 and A4.
A.B. Hodgetts, What Culture? What Heritage? A Study of Civic Education in Canada (Toronto: Ontario
Institute for Studies in Education, 1968). See also Richard M. Alway, “The Future of Canadian History in the
High School,” in E.H. Humphries, ed., Focus on Canadian Studies (Toronto: OISE, 1969) , pp. 41-43.
A.B. Hodgetts and Paul Gallagher, Teaching Canada for the 80s (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education, 1978). Much of the impetus for the “new social studies” came from Edwin Fenton’s influential
books, Teaching the New Social Studies in Secondary Schools : An Inductive Approach (New York: Holt, Rinehart
& Winston, 1966) and The New Social Studies (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967).
See W.G. Fleming, Education: Ontario’s Preoccupation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 209-
210, and 221. See also Warren Gerard, “Let Teachers, Pupils Select Subjects, Hall-Dennis Report Suggests,”
The Globe and Mail, 13 June 1968.
Saving an Endangered Subject
Peter Seixas, “A Discipline Adrift in an ‘Integrated Curriculum’: History in British Columbia Schools,”
Canadian Journal of Education, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1994).
Robert J. Clark, “’Hot-Housing Tomatoes,’: History in Ontario Schools, “ The History and Social Science
Teacher ( May 1979), pp. 233-39.
Letter to the Editor, J.M. Beattie, J.M.S. Careless, and M.R. Marrus, “”U of T Historians Condemn New
Course,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 1977, p. 7.
Allan Smith, “Once More with Feeling: The Sate of History and the Teaching of History, The History and
Social Science Teacher, Vo. 18, No. 3 (March 1983), p. 157.
Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History? , pp. 148-9.
Bob Davis, Skills Mania: Snake Oil in Our Schools? (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2000), pp. 5-6.
Rob Greenaway, “The Publisher’s Perspective,” Interviewed by Paul W. Bennett, The History and Social
Science Teacher, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Summer 1988), pp. 200-206.
Ontario Premier’s Council, People and Skills in the New Global Economy (Toronto: Government of Ontario,
1990), p. 85.
Davis, Skills Mania, p. 8.
Michael Bliss, “Privatizing the Mind: The Sundering of Canadian History, the Sundering of Canada,” Journal
of Canadian Studies, Vol. 26 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 5-17.
J.L. Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? ( Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 73.
Paul W. Bennett, “Saving History from Endangerment: The New Ontario High School History Curriculum,
Canadian Historical Association Newsletter, Vol. 15 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 5 and 10.
Paul W. Bennett, Cornelius Jaenen, Nick Brune, and Alan Skeoch, Canada: A North American Nation
(Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989); and Second Edition with Cecilia Morgan (Toronto: McGraw-Hill
Ryerson, 1995).
See Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History?, pp. 18-19 and 97; and Davis, Skills Mania, p.70 and
Davis, Skills Mania, pp. 10-11, and 72-73. A clear defence of history’s central place in liberal education is
offered in Peter C. Emberley and Waller R. Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in
Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994). For a conflicting view, see Ken Osborne, In Defence of
History: Teaching the Past and the Meaning of Democratic Citizenship ( Toronto: Our Schools/Our Selves and
James Lorimer, 1995).
See Keith Spicer, Chairman’s Report, Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future (Ottawa: Government of Canada,
1991), p. 9.
The first Canadian History Quiz, conducted in May 1997 for the Dominion Institute by Angus Reid Group,
released June 28, 1997. For the headline news coverage and editorials , see The Toronto Star, 1 July 1997; The
Calgary Herald, 28 June 1997; The Edmonton Journal, 2 July 1997; and The Ottawa Citizen , 2 July 1997. See
also Rudyard Griffiths, Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009), pp. ix xii.
Saving an Endangered Subject
Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History?, pp. 3-17; and 19-50. For the best known critiques, see A.B.
McKillop, “Who Killed Canadian History? A View from the Trenches,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 80, No.
2 (1999), pp. 269-99: and Tim J. Stanley, “ Why I Killed Canadian History: Conditions for an Ant-Racist History
in Canada,” Histoire sociale/Social History, Vol. 33, No. 65 (2000), pp. 79-103.
Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? ( Revised Edition, 2007), pp. xiv, and 167-8. See also Gene Allen,
“The Professionals and the Public: Responses to Canada: A People’s History,” Histoire sociale/Social History,
Vol. 34 (November 2001), pp. 381-91: and John Herd Thompson, “Saving Floods of Useless Ink: Academic
Historians and Cinematic History,” Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education (November 7, 2008)
On the three national Canadian History organizations and their competing programs, see The National Post,
7 November 2009. One such Historica-funded program is profiled in Walter Baslyk, “History Comes Alive at
Montreal Summer Teachers’ Institute,” LCC Lion (Winter/Spring 2002), pp. 10-11.
See University of British Columbia, Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, Dr. Peter Seixas,
Director, and Benchmarks of Historical Thinking, http://
Sandwell, “School History Versus the Historians,” pp. 11- 12.
See Heritage Canada and University of Victoria, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, http://; and Joel Schlesinger, “Making Connections: THEN/HiER removing
barriers between ivory tower and classrooms,” Teaching Canada’s History/ Special Issue (March 2010), p. 12.
The Dominion Institute, The Canadian History Report Card, A Curriculum Analysis of High Schools in
Canada, June 2009 (Toronto: Dominion Institute, 2009), pp. 2-3.
“Analysis and Rankings, “The Canadian History Report Card, pp. 5-6 and 9-21. See also Marc Chalifoux and
J.D. M. Stewart, “Canada is failing history,” The Globe and Mail, 17 June 2009, p. A15; and Editorial, “Failing the
Grade, “ The Chronicle Herald (Halifax), 22 June 2009, A9.
“Overview,” The Canadian History Report Card, p. 2; and Peter Seixas, Kadriye Ercikan, and David
Northrup, “History and the Past: Towards a Measure of ‘Everyman’s Epistemology’,” Unpublished Paper,
Canadian Historical Association Conference, Vancouver, BC , 2 June 2008, p. 11.
Dummitt and Dawson, eds., Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, vii.
Dummitt, “After Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History,” in Dummitt & Dawson, pp. 98-103.
Dummitt, “After Inclusiveness,” p. 103. For a similar critique, see J.D. M. Stewart, “We Need to Peel Back the
Curtain on Our History,” The Globe and Mail, 4 August 2010. See also Stewart, “Ten Days That Changed
Canada,” Workshop Presentation, Ontario History and Social Science Teachers’ Association Conference, 7
November 2008; and Rudyard Griffiths, “Prying Apart Canada’s Civic Compact,The National Post, 19 June
2008; and Who We Are, pp. xi-xv.
Christopher Dummit, Public Lecture, “After Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History, THEN/HiER
Symposium, “Teaching Canada in Diverse Contexts,” 4 November 2010.
Dummitt, “After Inclusiveness,” pp. 119-20
Ruth Sandwell, “To the History Undergraduates,” p. 13; and Seixas, “The Purposes of Teaching History,” pp.
1-2 and 5-8. A prime example of recent advances in teaching practice is Exemplars in Historical Thinking: 20th
Saving an Endangered Subject
Century Canada (Vancouver: TC2 Critical Thinking Consortium, 2009), introduced in Rapport, Journal of the
Ontario History and Social Science Teachers’ Association (Winter 2009), pp. 5-10.
The Beaver, now Canada’s History, is widely read by history buffs, teachers, students, and historians with a
popular interest. With the publication of 100 Photos That Changed Canada (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2009),
editor Mark Reid is tapping into an even wider audience.
Annual Report, Year One, The History Education Network/Histoire et Education en Reseau (THEN/HiER),
April 2009; and Clark, “Clio in the Classroom,” 2013, p. 43.
Dummitt, “After Inclusiveness,” p. 122. For a prime example of telling the “Big Story” well and in engaging
fashion, see Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History ( Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008).
Davis, Skills Mania, pp. 10-11, and 72-73. A clear defence of history’s central place in liberal education is
offered in Peter C. Emberley and Waller R. Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in
Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994). For a conflicting view, see Ken Osborne, In Defence of
History: Teaching the Past and the Meaning of Democratic Citizenship (Toronto: Our Schools/Our Selves and
James Lorimer, 1995).
Renewed optimism was expressed in Clark, “Clio in the Classroom,” 2013, pp. 42-46; and in Ruth Sandwell
and Amy von Heyking, eds., Becoming a History Teacher: Sustaining Practices in Historical Thinking and
Knowing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The writing of Canadian history during the past twenty-five years has been characterized by an intense degree of specialization which has replaced older Canadian historians’ concern for explaining the nature of the country. A declining sense of Canada as a national entity underlies much of our current political and constitutional malaise. The Liberal nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s was an inadequate replacement for the more deeply-rooted vision of the country that a well-developed sense of history might offer. Without becoming nationalist mythologizers, and remembering the need to understand the country in its pluralism and diversity, Canadian historians might usefully remind themselves that their subject, after all, is Canada.
Reviews the development of new Ontario History and Contemporary Studies Guidelines directed by Ontario Ministry of Education. Explains changes that occurred in curriculum such as Canadian and U.S. history courses being dropped in favor of a new course entitled "Canada in North American Perspective." Concludes that the new curriculum has revived history instruction and that students are better prepared. (SLM)
The Hall-Dennis Report: A Personal Comment Headmaster (Fall, 1968), pp. 29-30; and Editorial An Educational Leap in the Dark
  • W B Jackson
W. B. Jackson, " The Hall-Dennis Report: A Personal Comment, " Headmaster (Fall, 1968), pp. 29-30; and Editorial, " An Educational Leap in the Dark, " The Toronto Daily Star, 2 September 1972.
Ontario Teachers Federation Survey of Teachers' Professional Opinions (Vertical file: Hall-Dennis Report); and the executive summary in
20 OISE Library, Ontario Teachers Federation, " Survey of Teachers' Professional Opinions, 1969 " (Vertical file: Hall-Dennis Report); and the executive summary in " Focus on the Hall-Dennis Report, " Orbit (December, 1969)
Whatever Happened to High School History?
  • Davis
Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History?, pp. 148-9.
New Directions in Canadian History
  • See Contesting Clio 's Craft
See Contesting Clio's Craft: New Directions in Canadian History, edited by Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson. London: UK: Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London, 2009.