“Local Effort Brings Our Past to Life”: Halifax Chronicle-Herald

A recent article in the Halifax Chroncile-Herald discusses a fascinating project mounted by the Dartmouth Historical Association which will see 2,500 local histories of Dartmouth, Preston, Cole Harbour and Eastern Passage distributed free of charge to Halifax area students in Grades 4, 5, and 6. Local historian Harry Chapman raised an interesting point in the newspaper article:

“We were discussing history in general, and my view is that the history curriculum from Grade 4 to high school, they deal with Canadian history, Nova Scotia history, the American revolution, American civil war, the British empire, ancient Greece, but nothing of the community that the children are living and growing up in, whether it be Dartmouth or Digby or Annapolis Royal or Parrsboro,” said Chapman.

In this book, then, the Dartmouth Historical Association discussed schools, ferries, canals, street names, and the general local history of people. They’re certainly connecting “historians with the public,” as ActiveHistory.ca aims to do.

This raises several fascinating questions. Should local history have a bigger role in history curriculums?

I know at the post-secondary level, it’s often useful to drop a local anecdote or story into a tutorial discussion. It helps make history seem less abstract and more immediate, more directly relevant. Buildings that students might not have thought twice about suddenly assume additional meaning, or they can try to imagine an earlier history in the same space they now live. It’s also something that seems to have nearly universal appeal: why does this road curve this way? What is that statue? Why is Toronto’s Front street so far from the water? Seemingly mundane things, but stories that interest many people in a way that other historical topics might not immediately pique one’s curiosity. They can often be tied into broader topics too.

Yet there are downsides to local history. Civic boosterism, for one. Could a historian be too close to the community in question, providing an uncritical narrative of its past? It also may need to be connected to a broader narrative, generating broader arguments.

I’m curious to see if readers have any views. What do you think of local history? If you’re a teacher, do you use it in your pedagogy? Is this Active History, or a direction that we could be taking more often? Are local histories only important if tied into broader arguments, or does that ignore the important role the local plays in the lives of everyday people?

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3 thoughts on ““Local Effort Brings Our Past to Life”: Halifax Chronicle-Herald

  1. Sean Kheraj

    This is a good topic for the Active History community to consider.

    As a university history educator, I think local histories should play a more prominent part in our curriculum for a couple of reasons:

    1.) I agree with Harry Chapman’s argument that students should learn about the places they live. Not only does this have the potential to make a history education more immediately relevant, it is crucial for students to know the history of their own communities, if they hope to be engaged participants in those communities.

    2.) When learning the methodologies of archival research, it is vital for undergraduate students to work with primary source documents. While there is a bounty of digitized primary source documents available on the web, most undergraduate students will only be able to access full collections of physical documents in local archives. By offering students an education in local history, we can provide important opportunities to work with primary source documents in local archives.

    This is not to undermine the importance of broader national and global histories. Any good local history will, obviously, consider trends, patterns, and conditions beyond the boundaries of a local community. At the undergraduate level, however, I think a component of local history is important.

  2. Catherine Caughell

    Thank you for using this act of charity as a springboard for an important discussion on the inclusion of local history in our history curricula.

    The truth is, the role of local history in our curriculum (at least at the secondary level in Ontario) is already well-established. Although we currently only have one mandatory history credit in high school, it does include a strand entitled “Communities: Local, National, and Global” which explicitly includes the study of local history. The larger description for this strand is as follows:

    Communities may be viewed from local, regional, national, and world perspectives. Communities interact with one another through commerce, cultural exchanges, colonization, war, and international agreements. These interactions are the basis of today’s globally connected world. Over time, communities and their interactions have changed because of factors such as changing technologies and patterns of human migration. It is through the study of communities that students begin to understand who they are in time and place. [1]

    Since teachers are legally bound to the curriculum as laid out by the Ontario government, it is not a matter of should but of must; it is part of our responsibility as secondary school teachers to include local history in our lesson plans in order to ensure that all curriculum expectations for the province are being met. The problem is that few teachers do and those that do often don’t do so effectively. Perhaps the question that we should really be asking is “how do we, as teachers and historians, go about incorporating local history in more MEANINGFUL ways within history curricula?”

    I believe that one way to do this is for schools and teachers to allot time not only for discussing history on a local level with their students, but also showing it being done. I realize field trips are difficult and time consuming to organize, but as educators we should be exposing students to local archives, historical societies, historical architecture and historic sites and/or monuments. This type of exposure to local sources of history would fit seamlessly (I think) into the Historical Inquiry section of the curriculum and is therefore easily justifiable to administrators.

    [1] http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/canworld910curr.pdf

  3. Ian Milligan Post author

    Thank you so much for your comment, Catherine, and I agree that you’ve put the question far better. I know Tom Peace (another one of our steering committee members here) would strenuously agree with your idea of hands-on engagement with history, and that can create a meaningful relationship with history that goes beyond the book.

    Readers might be interested in seeing a slightly longer version of Catherine’s comments on her own blog at http://catherinecaughell.blogspot.com/2010/01/where-ontario-curriculum-meets-local.html.

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