In Defence of (Canadian Academic) History

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Adam Coombs

Polemics by disgruntled academic outsiders have recently become a remarkably popular genre of writing. In the United States The Atlantic has published pieces discussing the “problems” of safe space and political correctness on campus, while in Canada we have Ron Srigley in The Walrus and Ted Rhodes in the Calgary Herald disparaging Canadian universities for their supposed embrace of mediocrity. One of the more recent entries in this genre comes from The Dorchester Review. In “What’s The Use of History?” Pepall, a lawyer by training, laments the supposed decline of history from a golden age of popularity and accessibility to a discipline that produces inaccessible and moralistic works written by and for academics. While making a variety of arguments, the overall thrust of Pepall’s essay is that Canadians need to take back history from the academy by producing works for the general reading public.

The problem with this argument is that Pepall relies on a series of assertions to create an image of historical scholarship that is more caricature than reality. Rather than engage meaningfully with the challenging and complex issues facing humanities scholarship in the 21st century, the author draws on anecdotal evidence to make claims his audience is already primed to accept at face value. The goal of the piece that follows is to challenge some of the arguments Pepall makes and present a different picture of academic history in Canada.

The title of Pepall’s article asks a very basic question: What is the use of history? For Pepall, the answer is simple: history is only useful in so far as it is accessible to the public.

Unlike sciences like chemistry, whose principles and discoveries effect people’s lives even if they are unaware of the scholarship underpinning them, history has no such corollary. Its only purpose, according to Pepall, is to be read by the public.

Furthermore, Pepall states that since the 1960s – a golden age of historians, personified by John A. Macdonald’s first biographer Donald Creighton – academics have refused to accept this role and have instead scoffed at those who do, labeling their works “popular history.” For Pepall, as it was for Jack Granatstein twenty years ago, history’s retreat into the supposedly inaccessible ivory tower has killed the discipline and rendered it irrelevant.

Pepall’s claim about the uses of history is clearly false; history is more than writing books for shoppers at Indigo. Historians produce specialized knowledge that they publish through scholarly presses and in peer reviewed journals, much of which Pepall correctly identifies as inaccessible to the lay public. These bodies of research provide the building blocks for other historians who write for a popular audience. Historians like Dr. Tim Cook, whose books on the two World Wars have sold tremendously well and collected numerous awards, could only write  because of the substantial body of research already available to him. Similarly, Dr. Alan Taylor’s 2016 book on the American Revolution and his 2012 book on the War of 1812 were only possible because of the voluminous scholarship on both periods.

While one may correctly state that in Canada these large and important synthesizing works don’t exist for important events such as Confederation or the Great Depression, it is more because of an absence of detailed historical studies of these events than impenetrable scholarship blocking the way. An aspiring author of a comprehensive history of the Great Depression faces a dearth of scholarship in all areas, from the experience of Canadian families through to the politics of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s “New Deal.” While historians like Lara Campbell and Denyse Baillargeon have made a significant contribution to our understanding of this decade, these works are only the first of many more needed before a comprehensive history could be attempted. Ironically, it is a lack of specialized academic works, not an overabundance, preventing historians writing the popular histories that Pepall so desires.

Beyond producing work that will reach the reading public either directly or secondarily, historians also produce specialized knowledge used by policy makers and legal experts. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission drew on the works of many Canadian historians to document Indigenous peoples’ experiences in the residential school system. The Commission employed archivist Marianne McLean, a published academic historian, to help produce this work. Similarly, the Department of National Defence employs historians in its Directorate of History and Heritage for the purpose of educating the public but also, according to their mandate, to provide historical scholarship that can be used by Canadian Forces members to, “deepen professional knowledge of policy evolution, grand and military strategy, operations, and tactics, in the context of social, technological and infrastructure change.”

Similarly, many historians have been involved in court cases across the country. One example is York University historian Bettina Bradbury’s work with Égale Canada in what was the group’s ultimately successful efforts to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Similarly, another York historian, William Wicken acted as an expert witness in the Daniels vs. Canada case which resulted in Métis and non-status Indians being recognized as “Indians” under section 91(24) of the Indian Act (he wrote about this here on ActiveHistory.ca). So, in actual fact, just like medicine works without understanding how, the works of historians influence Canadian’s lives even if they are unaware of it.

Even beyond these examples of historians’ impact on broader society, Pepall does not recognize the most important way that historians working in universities engage with the public; teaching. Every week hundreds of history professors, adjunct faculty and graduate students engage with thousands of members of the public in university classrooms across the country. As anyone who has ever taught at the university level will tell you, it is a tougher audience than any reading public and you are responsible for keeping them engaged week after week. Furthermore, many of these students are not studying history but rather take the course out of necessity or interest. Good teachers are the ones who are passionate about their own research and make it understandable for their diverse group of students.

Often, it is the very areas of history that Pepall dismisses that are most popular with students. Many university teachers will tell you that their students, in light of recent events, are interested in learning about the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, the role of racism in Canadian history and the unique experiences of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. As one student wrote to me after completing my Canadian History course covering the period between 1945 and 2006, “I particularly liked the focus you gave to subjects like indigenous relations and homosexuality (something I do not often see and which was very refreshing).” Thus, the problem for Pepall is not that historians don’t engage with the public, but rather that they don’t engage in the specific manner that he would like them to.

Student engagement is suspect in Pepall’s formulation because history education from K to 12 has already failed to teach these students “what really happened.” Instead of learning the facts, students are increasingly taught “the historical inquiry process” while, according to Pepall, only learning “as much as 1% of the actual history.” Certainly, I agree with the basic claim that primary and secondary school history education in Canada needs to be improved, but to suggest the problem is that students don’t learn enough names, places and dates is absurd. This approach to history education, which I suspect still dominates classrooms across the country as it did 15 years ago when I was in high school, is what students and the general public routinely cite as the main reason they find history boring or inaccessible. I would suggest that fostering an interest in the historical process and preparing students to continue to learn about history once they leave the classroom has greater long-term benefits for historical literacy.

Forcing students to memorize the date of Confederation or the name of Robert Borden’s finance minister (Thomas White, BTW) is making a fetish out of detail and doesn’t deepen a student’s understanding of anything beyond making them successful at their local pub’s trivia night. Teaching students to see history as a study of power and causality rather, allows them to understand not only their own past, but their present as well.

Beyond students’ supposed ignorance, Pepall argues that university professors themselves are also a threat to history’s integrity and accessibility due to both their specific expert knowledge and their left-wing politics. For Pepall, specialization somehow precludes a broader knowledge of a historian’s time period. He goes so far as to claim that, a “historian stuffed with the details of working conditions in late 19th century Hamilton may know less about the general history of 19th century Canada than a well read layman.” What exactly this claim is based on is never stated. Simply having a conversation with any professional historian in Canada would certainly disabuse him of the idea. The very structure of PhD programs in Canada and the United States, with a year dedicated to comprehensive exams, ensures a broad knowledge-base for potential academics.

Furthermore, historians are forced to teach much broader subjects than their research specialties. Sure, occasionally professors may offer seminars on topics dedicated to their specialty, but the vast majority are teaching lecture courses with broad themes. While we may not be immediately familiar with all the details of the period we are teaching, this is why we research and write lectures before hand, rather than just pontificate for three hours a week.

Yet, if one were to believe Pepall, pontificating is what historians do, particularly on left wing issues. For him, the entire project of academic history is a reversal of the Whig model of history where scholars outlined humanity’s inevitable march of progress. Rather, in Pepall’s recounting modern historians go searching through the past to find examples of oppression that, despite heroic and underrepresented resistance, remains a force in present day society.

To highlight his point, Pepall examines one article from 2015 published by the Canadian Historical Review. The article, by Mount Royal historian Carmen Neilson, is an award winner and was published in the leading journal of Canadian history. These facts, for Pepall, only serve to demonstrate how far the profession has fallen. Rather than explaining “how it really happened” Pepall argues that Neilson’s analysis of satirical cartoons in Grip magazine is nothing more than an application of left-wing gender theory to tell Canadians how racist and sexist they were and continue to be. In his attack, Pepall replaces actual engagement with Neilson’s arguments with simple disbelief that Grip could ever contain sexual or racial subtexts. Why is her article so preposterous? Pepall never tells us, other than haughtily dismissing her work as “theory” and arguing that Grip was printed in black and white, so obviously all the people in satirical cartoons had to be white.

But stop and think about the basic idea behind Neilson’s piece for a minute. As recent years have forcefully demonstrated, sex, gender, race and politics are clearly related, often inseparable, and talked about frequently in the media. So, in an age as obsessed with controlling and regulating sex and race as the Victorian era, why is it inconceivable that a popular publication such as Grip wouldn’t deal with these issues?

Yet given the restrictions on overt depictions of sexuality of the time, these themes could only have appeared as subtext, in the same style as they continue to appear in modern satire. Hence, exploring how these cartoons employed ideas about race, sexuality and gender to reinforce certain political positions is extremely valuable work and enables Canadians to understand “how it really happened.” Furthermore, it is only by employing the tool kit gender theory provides that Neilson is able to engage in this fruitful work. If her conclusions make some people uncomfortable, it only serves to highlight the value of her work, not its irrelevance.

Pepall concludes his article by discussing various proposals to rectify the problem he has invented. Ultimately, his conclusion is that people interested in history should take back history from the academy by educating themselves and reading widely, starting with the classics. Certainly, I think all historians would support the recommendation to read widely, including the classic works by Hume, Lecky and Gibbon. But rather than stopping there, or only reading works by writers popular writers such as Conrad Black, people should also read newer works of history, read works they profoundly disagree with, engage with history through mediums that make it more accessible, like blogs (this one for example!) or podcasts.

Beyond that, the public should take Pepall’s advice and question published works, uncover their assumptions and oversights, and identify errors and blind spots. We should do so, however, thoughtfully, providing evidence to support our contentions. Polemics making sweeping claims about academia don’t convince anyone aside from an audience already primed to be angry. In a changing academic landscape historians need to ask hard questions about the future of their profession and what public role they will play. Blind criticism, however, fails to achieve this end.

Adam Coombs is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of British Columbia.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of (Canadian Academic) History

  1. William Young

    Thanks for writing a detailed researched critique of Pepall’s opinion about today’s academic historians. I admire the work of today’s historians who not only research “wars and politics” of nations but look at history as a more all encompassing subject. I look at certain areas of research such as issues with the environment, indigenous people, gender, race and technology as examples where Canadian historians are making a difference. Hopefully, more readers will show an interest in academic research into these topics more rather than reading “coffee table articles’ as a true analysis of these issues.
    I praise ActiveHistory.ca as a forum to spread true historical research and opinions to the greater masses. The volunteer editors and contributors should be complimented for their mission of promoting past historical events that relate to current issues.
    Keep up the good work academic historians in a society that tends to only honour those whose research leads to an immediate financial gain for the few.

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