When my kid was in grade seven, he was taught about the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was not taught that the conquest of England was just another unconscionable act of Norman colonialism. There was no valourizing the victor or canonizing the vanquished. It was taught as just the last of a long sequence of invasions and assimilations that produced the people we now call the Brits.
But that is not how it was taught to me in grade seven back in 1166. In 1166 it was taught to us twelve-year-olds as ‘The Great Injustice’. Kids of mostly Norman extraction were taught they had to apologize to their classmates who were of more mixed blood. Why? Because the latter were allowed to speak their native English at home, though few did. But in the courts and in the schools only the new bastardized language was allowed, the argument being that by learning French the kids were learning Latin, which was at the time the only language-of-letters in the rest of the civilized world. Still, I remember that the resentment lasted well into the Fourteenth Century, by which time no one could remember whether he descended from conqueror or conquered, nor did anyone care.
In this year of our Lord 2020, there are middle schools in this city that are teaching grade seven students about the cultural and physical genocide committed by the white colonialists who ran reeducation camps called residential schools. In the same way that it’s considered racist to point out that the Creek Nation of eastern Oklahoma had black slaves to pick cotton until 1866, no teacher here in Alberta is allowed to question whether an indigenous child was more likely to die back on the reserve than in the residential school. The very posing of that question would be regarded as a defence of the residential school system, and therefore racist. In fact, or so I’m told, any questioning of indigenous exceptionalism is regarded as racist. Teachers are told what to teach. Teachers value their jobs. School administrators value theirs. The Minister of Education values hers. And so on up to you and me, who say what we must, and refrain from saying what we mustn’t, if we hope to get another dinner invitation, even if we have to wait until after Covid.
This is not a complaint. It’s a pair of questions. First, at what point, do you think, – after how many more centuries – will we be able to teach about the colonization of Canada the way we teach about the Battle of Hastings? And second, of the two ways of teaching about these kinds of events, which is the more pedagogically responsible? The answer, I suppose, hangs on what we think education is for. I’ve been an educator for almost thirty years. Damned if I know.