The late educator and media critic Neil Postman argued that successful schooling requires broad cultural agreement about educational ends. Public education can work only if there is an actual “public” that it serves, a culture that’s more or less aligned about essential issues and, in turn, has a common view about what should be taught in schools. Education requires first principles that help create a unifying narrative that, in turn, imbues learning with a kind of spirit and a serious intellectual dimension, giving meaning and unity to the curriculum. Such principles permeate the educational enterprise with shared impersonal standards, to which teacher and learner alike must give their allegiance.
Postman was in good company. G.K. Chesterton, the English novelist and man of letters, in 1924 wrote, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. What we need is to have a culture before we hand it down. It is a truth, however sad and strange, that we cannot give what we have not got and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves.”
An American two generations younger than Chesterton, Postman echoed the Englishman’s views in his 1995 book, The End of Education, noting that the curriculum in his country’s schools failed to “even put forward a clear vision of the educated person unless it is a person who possesses ‘skills.’” In his view, education had degenerated into “a technocrat’s ideal – a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills.” Postman’s conclusion was bleak: “The idea of a public school is irrelevant in the absence of a public…[we] are now so different from each other, have so many diverse points of view, and such special group grievances that there can be no common vision of unifying principles.”
Schooling in Canada has, as in the U.S., devolved into a battleground of acrimonious and divisive skirmishes in the culture wars. Things have gotten far worse since Postman’s book. There has been a deepening politicization of education. Politicized scholarship has undermined humanistic and liberal values in the university, fuelling intolerance in the name of diversity and widening divisions in the larger culture in the name of equality and inclusion. This has all trickled down through the schools – right to kindergarten. “Identitarian” movements based on race and ethnicity announce that history is a repository of oppression and that the proper focus of schooling should be on the redress of past injustices.
Against such a fraught cultural moment, Alberta’s UCP government is currently enduring a lengthy public comment period on its draft K-6 curriculum. Unveiled in the spring, the new curriculum is intended (in the government’s words) to “refocus learning on essential knowledge and skills to give children the best possible chance at success.” It is “radical” in the sense that it goes to the root of many of the problems that have vexed Canadian education for at least 100 years. It seeks to steer an educational path away from the prevailing trend of implementing progressivism’s “kind of single-minded focus on those injustices,” as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney described it in a wide-ranging Facebook Question-and-Answer event in March.
The word “enduring” was used advisedly in describing the comment period, which lasts until next spring, for Alberta’s draft elementary school curriculum has attracted a flood of intemperate critics and shrill polemics. As one who has for many years defended liberal education, I apply to any educational innovation a stark Manichean assessment: is this proposal likely to further or diminish liberal learning? In my estimation, this one offers very welcome changes. It is a thorough and thoughtful document that proceeds from sound pedagogical first principles and is carefully reasoned and supported by empirical evidence. It can be viewed here.
The prominence of history is a critical element of the curriculum – and it would seem a significant motivator in its development. Kenney has spoken at length of his dismay at the progressive elimination of our culture’s past from schooling the latest generations of kids.
“If you look at the K-6 draft social studies curriculum framework that was released about three years ago [under the NDP government], actually zero references to Canadian history, the words Canada and Alberta did not appear, zero references to our actual history, the base of the development of institutions around which our society is organized,” was how the Premier put it at the same Facebook Q&A (transcribed by listener). “Parliamentary democracy, zero mentioned. Confederation, zero mentioned. The settlement of the West, no mention of that. Canadian military history absolutely whitewashed out of the previous draft K-6 curriculum. 120,000 Canadian war dead who weren’t even mentioned. I always said that was the greatest scandal of the previous government.”
Kenney did not, however, present Canada as perfect or tint its past in gauzy rose, acknowledging that it included injustices that needed to be covered. Still, in his view, the NDP government that held office until the UCP unseated it in 2019 had been pursuing an extreme ideological agenda, of which education is a key part. As Kenney put it in the same event, “There are some who would like to teach that Canada is basically a completely unjust or even illegitimate settler state, and that our entire history is one of injustice and genocide. I think that is a terribly distorted historical view of this amazing country we built.”
The Premier’s insistence on reviving fact-based chronological history in the schooling of Alberta children strikes at the heart of the matter. To understand why this is so, we need to understand the hostility to the teaching of history in our K-12 schools and what lies at its root.
The Erosion of the Past
What has happened to our understanding of schooling and education such that we knowingly commit the mental vandalism of denying our students knowledge of what came before? It amounts to a cultural lobotomizing. Although it has reached particular intensity in recent years, it is not a new development.
I taught educational history to pre-service teachers in Burnaby, Kelowna and Kamloops for over 25 years starting in the late 1980s. I would routinely ask the class for an approximate date for the Industrial Revolution – something that, in the past, was covered by about Grade 5. My university-level students were mainly stumped. These were intelligent, diligent and motivated young people. They comprised the sort of class most professors dream of. Why this gaping hole in their knowledge?
The answer was simple: My students knew little history because they had been taught little or none. They had imbibed a species of global “internationalism” that purposefully downplays national attachments in favour of an amorphous cosmopolitanism. Just as in Charles Dickens’ matronly and philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who was so wedded to her project in Africa that she neglected her own children, my students’ awareness of history favoured the remote and abstract over the near and concrete. This explained the gaping void in their civic understanding. Many consequently believed Canada to be an ahistorical entity, an empty shell waiting to be shaped in any which way and filled with whatever policy and content we might choose.
This view is hardly confined to undergraduates, of course. One meets it even in those who should know better. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dismissed the idea that there was even such a thing as a Canadian identity. His son, our current Prime Minister, has referred to Canada as the first “post-national” state. I once shared an office with a sociology professor, a new Canadian who haughtily dismissed the idea that Canadians had any legacy or history, let alone any worth preserving. She believed Canada to be a tabula rasa on which we can write what we will. I pitied her students.
Yet despite the protestations of the Trudeau clan and an immigrant sociologist, Canada has a history, one that has formed and shaped our institutions, politics, culture and education, and that continues to have a profound influence on nearly every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not. How, then, did we come to produce historically illiterate students, professors and politicians? A large part of the answer lies in the progressive pedagogy that has held our schools captive for over 100 years.
Progressivism’s Hostility to History and its Obsession with Process
Educational discourse across North America came to be dominated early in the last century by the “child-centred” progressive philosophy of John Dewey, William Heard Kilpatrick and others. Progressive educators emphasized the importance of “training the mind” through “hands-on doing” and a corresponding diminishment of “book-learning” and factual knowledge, both of which were derided as leftovers from older, more repressive forms of education.
In the study of history, progressivism promoted the so-called “skills” of historical inquiry while downgrading the traditional tasks of imparting a basic understanding of timelines and causation and having students memorize essential names, dates and events. In progressive pedagogy, historical facts are unimportant, useful merely insofar as they lend themselves to teaching “critical thinking skills.”
The ubiquitous and indiscriminate use of the word “skill” as a synonym for “ability” has brought with it significantly misleading educational implications, and not merely for the study of history. While this may seem a picayune verbal point, it’s a matter of more than mere rhetoric – it creates a serious problem of pedagogical method.
The word “skill” implies something physical and repetitive, acquired through practise and training, such as skating, dribbling a basketball, or typing. No one disputes that we want to teach our students to think critically. Yet the fundamental misconception of critical thinking as a set of “skills” reinforces the unwarranted assumption that students can be “trained” to think critically. It leads us to believe that teaching students to become “critical thinkers” is analogous to achieving physical skills. Ponder the distinction between “sex education” and “sex training.” It is the former that we should teach in our schools.
Thinking, on the other hand, depends on substantive knowledge and understanding, combined with intellectual abilities like synthesizing information and getting to the “why” of things.
Despite its fundamental flaws, progressivism steadily swept the field of education, and its emphasis on imparting skills caused much pedagogical damage. The progressive focus on methodologies, processes and the development of generic skills came at the expense of the mastery of subject matter. In such a pedagogical paradigm, there is little need for teachers themselves to know any history. In his 2009 book Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, British writer Frank Furedi puts it succinctly: when it comes to the teaching of history in our schools, “skills trump knowledge.”
And here we get to the nub of the matter. Generic, skills-based activities are ahistorical and can easily be abstracted and removed from time and space or the history of a particular people, rendering the content of what is to be learned irrelevant. The progressive educational ideal is to equip the learner with whatever “intellectual skills” are deemed necessary to navigate life. Contemporary education is filled with slogans such as “learning how to learn,” “experiential learning,” or teaching “critical thinking skills.”
Such catch-phrases underscore the notion that the actual content of what one learns is unimportant. Instead, what counts is the mastery of learning procedures. Students are thus set adrift on a sea of abstract, generic processes, divorced from their time, place and historical realities. Such a pedagogy is much appreciated by the publishers of textbooks, who can now market their wares internationally without regard for the cultural particularities of the student.
American philosopher Allan Bloom had progressivism’s number. He characterized Dewey’s understanding of history acidly in his 1987 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind: “[It] taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestations of progress. No attention had to be paid to the fundamental principles or the moral virtues that inclined men to live according to them…We should not think that our way is better than others. The intention is not so much to teach the students about other times and places as to make them aware of the fact that their preferences are only that – accidents of their time and place.”
Bloom recognized that a process-driven understanding of learning and teaching stands in stark contrast with the particular knowledge, understanding and intellectual virtues required to maintain and cultivate the habits of self-government. He spent the latter part of his life attempting to warn society about the hollowing out of education and the dire implications for civic life.
University of Lethbridge professor John Von Heyking, in his contribution to the edited collection, Liberal Education, Civic Religion and the Canadian Regime, asserts that abstracting students from specific times and communities is politically toxic, for such abstract patterns of thought “prepare [students] to be passive, not active citizens accustomed to spirited political action.” Canadian democracy requires a citizenry fully alive to its duties and responsibilities, something nearly impossible to maintain if we adopt a pedagogy that dissolves national bonds and denies any notion of a shared, collective history.
The Canadian Tradition of Liberal Education
Since the time of Egerton Ryerson, education in Canada has been understood as the democratization of liberal culture. “The best education for some is the best education for all” became a famous catch-phrase. However humble, the one-room schoolhouse out on the lonely Prairies was nevertheless understood to be a venue for conveying the intellectual, cultural and moral understandings representing Western civilization’s best. In the cities, the school was a place where students from all classes, backgrounds and creeds would be socialized into a new society, creating friendships, romances and allegiances that would find common interests and ameliorate social strife.
Alberta’s proposed K-6 curriculum represents a return to this noble tradition. Moving beyond the ahistoricism and generic pedagogy forced upon them by the progressive movement, the province’s schoolchildren will now be taught that they are the inheritors of a proud tradition of liberty and representative government, one which was forged, advanced and preserved at great cost.
Alberta is not some abstract community to be stripped bare of any cultural specificity in the name of cultureless multiculturalism or a homogeneous diversity. Everything it is today grew out of a specific history. The new curriculum stresses substantive content and subject matter knowledge, based on the understanding that students are not abstract entities unanchored in time and space but Canadians with a proud heritage.
Premier Kenney’s popularity is at a low ebb and his credibility has been seriously eroded, but that does not undermine the merits of his views on education, which are clear and incisive. They represent a robust defence of liberal education and a solid intellectual foundation to advance an alternative to a century of damaging progressivism. Kenney’s pedagogical innovations transcend the left-right political divide. They should appeal to any parent who thinks that, rather than merely absorbing a set of abstractions and feelings suffused with progressive ideology and talking points, their child needs and deserves a solid base of factual knowledge, not only to “get ahead” in their future career but to mature into a well-rounded individual and responsible citizen.
Accordingly, Kenney’s description of the new curriculum in the Facebook event cited above is worth quoting: “[It] seeks to teach young people about our society’s civilizational roots from both Western and Eastern civilizations, about the great poets and literature, monuments, and ideas that have shaped our society over time. About, yes, the development of…the First Nations, about the settlement of the West, about the development of our political institutions, the values like the rule of law that underlie them. Hopefully, to develop a sense of gratitude for those who have gone before us, a sense of pride in the society they have built, and a recognition of areas where we have fallen short. A far more balanced context.”
Content Over Process: An Innovation that Deserves to Succeed
Alberta is hardly alone in experiencing an increasing disaffection with public schools and a broadening perception that they are in a state of extended crisis. In an age trending towards what might be termed “hyper-cultural pluralism,” we are daily witness to a breakdown of shared ideals and an erosion and lessening of institutional and cultural authority. It is often asserted that there is no longer any agreement on how we should proceed in our schools, particularly in multiethnic and multiracial societies such as Alberta.
But it is easy to overplay this hand. I believe that one could tease out among Albertans a remarkably stable and widespread consensus of basic principles concerning education and schooling, not least of which is that education represents hope for disadvantaged children.
The necessity for a set of ideas or attitudes which permeates the curriculum is a logical requirement for any schooling system. Yet Canadians rarely, if ever, speak of educational ends but instead concern themselves with the means and management of education, such as policies, assessment, data collection, testing, teaching methods, and other such engineering-style matters. Much to the credit of the UCP government, its proposal offers an ordered and unifying vision of culture, history, and values – critically, one that restores the centrality of content.
Plato revealed how when a state alters its educational aims, social changes are bound to follow, for good or ill. Alberta’s proposed curriculum reforms build on Canada’s hard-earned democratic heritage. They represent a welcome resetting of educational norms and a continuation of Canada’s proud tradition of liberal learning.
Patrick Keeney is Associate Editor of C2C Journal.