Teaching History: Historical Consciousness and Quebec’s Youth

By Jocelyn Létourneau
Translated by Thomas Peace
On peut lire la version française ici

Letourneau - 1Who was the first Premier of Quebec? In what year did the asbestos strike take place? What was the pivotal moment in the Quiet Revolution? Very few young people in Quebec can answer these three questions correctly. In trying to address this problem, scholars and pundits have explained to us that today’s youth have only a limited historical understanding and are generally disinterested in the past.

I don’t think that this is true, at least not entirely. Young people care about the past, though – with a handful of exceptions – their historical understanding is narrow rather than broad. In fact, my research suggests that rather than having no historical imagination or representations, they employ a somewhat simplistic understanding of the past as a useful tool for situating their lives in the present. In other words: youth understand without knowing; they have a strong personal vision of history at the cost of a comprehensive knowledge about the collective past.

Pioneering Research 

With the help of many students and dedicated teachers, I have spent the past ten years amassing nearly five thousand short texts written by secondary, CEGEP and undergraduate students taking courses on Quebec history. In 45 minutes of class time, the students were asked to answer two general questions. The first asked: “Explain, recount or otherwise describe the history of Quebec, from the beginning, as you perceive it, understand it, or remember it.” The second question was slightly different: “If you had to state what Quebec history was all about in one sentence, what would you write?”[1]

With a few words, 3,423 youth responded to this second question. They told us that “Quebec’s history is a puzzle that’s pieces are found both here and further afield;” “It’s the beginning of a society in search of itself;” “It is time to reap the harvest in the fields of history;” and “Once there were Indigenous peoples, then lumberjacks, and now indecision.” Obviously, not all statements were as rich as these. Some phrases were more trivial: “We have a beautiful history.” Others took on a more negative tone: “We’ve been screwed.” While others employed irony: “Quebec is a free province.” And so on and so forth. (The full list of phrases is at www.tonhistoireduquebec.ca).

Classified according to a general rubric (unhappy, mixed, positive, neutral, etc…), the overall body of statements demonstrate that, after they took their first systematic course of Quebec history, nearly half of young Quebecers situated themselves within an unhappy, melancholic, negative or pessimistic vision of the past. This observation is interesting. It suggests that youth have an overall vision of Quebec’s history (though their empirical knowledge remains minimal rather than comprehensive). Furthermore, it demonstrates that history courses have an impact on students’ historical consciousness.

That said, we shouldn’t conclude that it is only through classroom learning that youth acquire a historical vision. We should equally consider that the course they took – regardless of the what the instructor told them – served to catalyze representations of the past learned elsewhere, in collective memory, political speeches, family stories, song, film and historical fiction, among many other sources.

Generally, youth understand the past through mythistories. By this I mean that their representations of the past are rooted both in reality and legend. They are essential structures for youth (as they are for people in general). Mythistories provide valuable meaning, contributing to mental wellbeing and efficient integration in society. It goes without saying that mythistories are difficult to undo.

As it is, the corpus of phrases we have collected allows us to make interesting distinctions based on students’ level of study (secondary, college, university), sex, place of residence, and language of instruction (French or English). In terms of the meaning they ascribe to Quebec’s history, the principal differences are found between Francophones and Anglophones.

This conclusion should not be surprising. In creating their historical representations, youth draw on raw facts about the past as much as they borrow from histories and vocabularies of the community to which they belong. Among Francophones, the key words used include those related to identity, nation, independence, people (a political community), memory, etc… Among Anglophones, terms reflecting diversity, plurality, European and Canadian heritage are used regularly and framed using positive language. Obviously, French-English duality is an aspect of Quebec’s history shared by respondents from both linguistic communities. They also both identify First Nations as those who have lost the most over the course of Canadian history.

Lessons for teaching history

This research helps us reflect on how to teach history to youth. We know to which extent, over the past twenty years, the historical thinking paradigm has influenced academics and teachers. Without diminishing the important contribution this intervention has made in teaching history, we need to acknowledge that historical thinking is not easily implemented in the concrete context of the curriculum or classroom.

We have arrived at this conclusion by examining a subset of students in Quebec’s mandatory History and Education to Citizenship course who, in principle, have been introduced to historical thinking methods. It appears from their submissions, however, that even after learning about historical thinking, students continue to adhere to canonical visions of Quebec’s past; a past that’s binary, simplistic and divided. Of course, it is possible that the historical thinking paradigm was not fully applied in the classroom and therefore these responses have nothing to do with its putative failure to fulfill its promise. It is equally possible, however, that the strong voices supporting this paradigm under-estimate a number of significant realities:

  • Youth develop their understanding and vision of history outside of the classroom as much, and often more, than inside the classroom.
  • Youth quickly forget most of what they are told or learn in class.
  • The grand national narratives remain a ready-to-use framework or template for young people diligently searching to make sense of the past that allows them to live efficiently in society (or at least pass the exam!).

In fact, based on our study, it appears that the principal source of knowledge about the past – in Quebec’s case at least – comes from collective memory and its mythistories. Given this context, how shall we teach history to youth?

To make a significant pedagogical intervention, we need to meet youth where they are at. That is to say, we need to approach teaching history from the standpoint of their beliefs about the past rather than, as we too often think, from our own beliefs about their reputed ignorance. We must also, therefore, increase our focus on how students process the information they learn in the classrooms. Most of the time, students learn for practical and immediate purposes, looking more for clarity than complexity in the past.

Basically, the pedagogical approach we propose consists of using cognitive conflict as well as historical thinking and methods (interrogating sources, determining historical problems, contextualization, comparison, and drawing multiple interpretations) to confront youth’s representation of the past, taking them beyond memory and mythistory and therefore also beyond belief. Once their templates are put into question, it is much easier to propose a more nuanced interpretation of the past, introducing youth to new facts and a deeper understanding of historical realities; also, bringing prudence, distance and nuance into their thinking about the past.[2]

This said, we must be cautious about the potential benefits of this method. It would be wrong to overextend its possibilities. This approach will not transform teens into historians; attempting to do so would be inappropriate anyway. Neither will it turn them into walking historical encyclopedias. Instead, what I propose here may help guide students towards a more complex vision of the pivotal (and incidental) moments in Quebec’s past, in tune with their will for utilitarian knowledge to face the needs of the society in which they live. Perhaps, also, it will bring them to a more critical historical consciousness. But that is all it can do. In secondary school, is it actually possible to take teaching history further?

Jocelyn Létourneau is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Collégium de Lyon and a Canada Research Chair in the Contemporary History of Quebec at Université Laval.

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

[1] Jocelyn Létourneau, Je me souviens ? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse, Montreal, Fides, 2014, 252 p.

[2] More details in J. Létourneau, «Pour une pragmatique de l’enseignement de l’histoire. Leçons tirées d’une recherche empirique», Geneva/Lyon, March 2014, to be published shortly.


3 thoughts on “Teaching History: Historical Consciousness and Quebec’s Youth

  1. I’m really glad to read this article. I’m one of your former students at Laval University. I have found that people remember history in “tableaux”, that is, a collection of images, rather than a neatly constructed narrative. I’m glad you said it’s impossible to turn them into historians because that is effectively the case, but you’ve hit the nail on the head with respect to the real problem: which is the way we think about the past, and not the content itself. People try to fit the past in ideological frameworks and socio-political narratives. They have trouble absorbing information that doesn’t fit these narratives, and they have trouble working with them mentally. So one important aspect of historical teaching is to approach data with a critical eye, to be ready to see information that doesn’t correspond to expectations.

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