Tonight, I attended a lecture at my local community center by a local historian on the largely ignored Eastern half of the city of London, Ontario. My city, as I learned tonight, was originally two- London Proper (what I know as Downtown London) and East London (where the factories and working class people lived). These two halves, divided by Adelaide Street, would amalgamate at the dawn of the 20th century into a single city, but those lines still exist over a hundred years later in class and social divides.
In my city, we have the term East of Adelaide (EOA), which basically means “the bad side of town”, although it’s not technically completely accurate anymore. I grew up EOA, and although I never really felt the divide much at the time, now looking back I can see it in my own youthful experiences and how that shaped my attitudes towards class in some ways. I was one of the lucky ones, since my father was a doctor, as I still had a very middle class existence, but many I knew weren’t so lucky.
Regardless, what I found precious about tonight was the fact that for one of the first times in my life I actually learned about the history of the place where I grew up. It wasn’t that I avoided it, or that I didn’t want to know- it was that there simply wasn’t anyone available to teach it to me. My parents grew up in other cities, and moved here shortly after I was born, so they couldn’t teach me what they didn’t know. (A common situation in many highly mobile Canadian families.) So, how was I supposed to learn it?
The obvious answer should be school, but the sad truth is that school doesn’t teach local history either. They teach world history, national history and provincial history, but almost nothing about the history of the place where the school sits.
And that, is wrong.
Oh, I know why it happens. Here in Canada we’re a young country, and we have this odd Canadian provincial mentality that nothing Canadian really matters much in the greater scheme of things. We’re only three hundred years old, or so, and we haven’t had many wars, or political upheavals, and nothing really all that exciting happened, and Canadians history is boring, so why should we really bother teaching it? Especially local history, right? What good is that?
Except that’s all wrong- all of it. That’s the stupid mentality we’ve developed because of the way we’re taught history, and that creeping sense of inferiority we have to the UK and the United States who look so much cooler and bigger and cooler from where we sit. The truth is that Canadian history is filled with pirates, adventurers, explorers, entrepreneurs, political leaders, sports heroes, uprisings, cultural battles, wars, sex, violence, and everything else that makes history exciting.
We just don’t teach that stuff, because it’s somehow not proper. It’s like the stuff we’re embarrassed about, and we don’t want people having the wrong idea that we might be descended from THOSE people.
And that leaks down to the attitude about local history as well, which has this air of being nothing special or important. I mean, unless you live in Montreal or Quebec, that’s history, but the rest of Canada? Who cares, right?
Well, we should care.
It’s a little bit like not knowing your parents or your family history. The place we grow up shapes us and defines us in a thousand little ways, and unless we know and understand that place and where it came from, we will never truly understand ourselves. We need that knowledge as we go out into the world, because it lets us know who we are, and gives us a center to find our way.
Local history should be taught in schools, and it should be taught in a way which is no less important or detailed than the other “greater” types of history. If anything, it’s more important, exactly because it’s part of the lives of the students learning it.
Of course, I can already hear people sayings- “but local kids won’t want to learn that!”
To this, I reply with what the historian told me tonight. She told me about casually mentioning her area of study to a bunch of teenage boys she knew, and her being shocked when they actually wanted to sit there and learn everything she could tell them about where they grew up. They wanted to know where they came from, and were more than willing to pay attention if there was someone to teach it to them and answer their questions.
And why shouldn’t they? It was history that actually mattered to THEM.
It might not be important to anyone else, but it was their lives, their roots she was talking about, the place they lived in every day, and the questions that they’d always had but never thought to ask about their real world.
We talk all the time about disillusioned young people, voter turnout being down and people not being engaged in civic politics, but we need to ask the question- why should they be? If we don’t teach them to know and love the place where they grew up, how can they be anything but unattached and uncaring? Why should they care when they have no sense of connection to their homes, neighbourhoods and towns? A place is its people, but it’s also its history.
Even if the school boards just gave one semester of one year to local history, it could make a huge difference in the lives of many kids. Yes, not everyone will want to learn it or appreciate it, but don’t they deserve the chance to choose?