Maxed Out 

Re-writing Canadian history

By G.D. Maxwell

History is rarely anybody’s favourite subject in school. I’m not sure why but if pressed, I’d have to lay the blame at the feet of most of the people who teach the subject. Somewhere between deciding they like history enough to want to teach it and actually getting the chance to make good on their dream for, oh, let’s say a decade or so, their passion withers and dies and they spend most of the rest of their careers going through the motions.

Sensing this malaise, their students barely ramp up enough enthusiasm about the subject to stay awake. Memorize dates and places and people. Remember who invaded whom. Ponder the five most significant lessons of the Industrial Revolution. Watch filmstrips of grainy black-and-white archival footage of soldiers on a faraway battlefield.

I don’t know why history is so universally loathed, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact history has already happened. It’s fixed, kind of like math. Two plus two always equals four and the English always wup the French on the Plains of Abraham. No suspense. No drama. No new frontiers to conquer. All you can do if history’s your bag is wait for something to happen or dig a little deeper and muddy the waters about whether William Lyon McKenzie King was really a wacko or not. Ho-hum.

In 22 years of schooling, I only ever had one history teacher who was still turned on about the subject. Well, at least part of the subject. The U.S. Civil War to be exact. In 10 th grade American History, we blew right past the pilgrims, gave short shrift to the Revolutionary War, Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark and industrialization of New England. The first 200 years of American history took about two weeks.

Then everything changed. Walking into the classroom on the day the Civil War started, every inch of blackboard on all three walls filled with blackboard was covered in a diorama of chalk. The siege of Fort Sumter was laid out in painstaking detail. We studied it for several weeks. Ditto Bull Run, Manassas, the Battle of the Hemp Bales, Shiloh, Manassas and Bull Run redux, Antietam, Gettysburg, the fall of Richmond, and many more minor skirmishes. Each clash was drawn in greater detail than the last. The ebb and flow of each uncivil encounter, hour by hour, day by day, was explained and tied into the psychological shortcomings or strengths of the generals directing them. It was fascinating stuff taught by a man all-consumed by events over a hundred years old but still fresh in his mind and now, in ours.


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