History Wars: The Danger of the Broad Brush

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By Jim Clifford
Is Stephen Harper, as Terry Glavin argues, right to “not trust the history establishment“? Posts on this website and elsewhere do suggest that a broad spectrum of Canadian historians disagree with Harper’s use of history. Does this vocal minority represent the establishment? If not, who makes up the establishment? The Canadian Historical Association’s executive members? Leading historians at the large graduate programs?

Glavin’s column pivots from mentioning the concerns of Tom Mulcair and Scott Simms with the Conservative’s efforts to re-brand Canadian history to rehashing Jack Granatstein’s critique against “faddish social histories” from the 1990s (a fad that appears to have outlasted three to four generations of popular culture fads). Glavin, an author who has written a number of books about indigenous history, laments:

If it’s “a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors” you’re after, the very last place to go looking for it would be the history faculty of a Canadian university.

To bolster his argument, Glavin interviewed Christopher Dummitt (the author of a great history blog, Everyday History), who began his career as a historian of masculinity, to confirm the Conservatives are

“right not to trust us… The historical profession has become kind of an activist organization. The result is we have lost authority, as a discipline, and we can’t talk about history writ large.”

Dummitt posted a follow up article on his blog and, while acknowledging a number of recent exceptions to the rule, he stands by his general point that cultural and social history have replaced the study of political and economic history in Canada. Glavin traces the problem back to the New Left, who emerged out of 1960s radicalism. Dummitt suggests this generation of historians have become the new establishment shaping the study of history in Canada. Looking at the big personalities in Canadian history, there is clearly some truth to this point. That said, at least some of these 1960s activist are now critiques of the politics of their youth. Broad brush strokes are dangerous, as there are lots of exceptions to all of these rules.

I am a Canadian and a historian, but not a Canadian Historian. As a result I read these new contributions to the history wars without the deep knowledge in the field to judge the arguments, particularly as newspaper columns and blog posts necessarily provide limited evidence. So I would like to simply highlight some questions that come to mind and ask the readership for some answers.

  1. Are political and economic history really dead in Canada? Was the recent conference focused on political history and the well-attended session on political economy (featuring Dummitt) at last year’s Canadian Historical Association conference evidence of a growing interest in these fields?
  2. Considering our limited pool of professional historians, what are the pros and cons of more of us writing political biographies? This kind of history is very popular in the United States, with contributions from both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
  3. What about military history? When I read about the lack of conservative friendly history the comparison tends to be political vs. social/cultural history. I did an MA at Wilfrid Laurier University and there were plenty of military historians doing great work. Their politics ranged across the Canadian political spectrum, but I don’t think many self identified with the New Left.
  4. At what point does history become activism? Are indigenous or gender historians activist based on their choice of topic alone? In my field, environmental history, many of our leading scholars ask questions that challenge core beliefs held by many environmental activists (see W. Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness). Is this true in other sub-fields?
  5. Are efforts to understand the social transformations related to gender and sexuality not an important contribution to “the basic history of our politics, and how things changed over time”? The recent Ontario Liberal leadership race suggests these topics are increasingly interconnected.
  6. Should the “history establishment” do more to open up debate in Canadian history? Would the field be strengthened by more contributions from conservatives and contrarians? Is there something in particular the Canadian history community should do to draw more conservative historians away from other fields to study Canadian political history?


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2 thoughts on “History Wars: The Danger of the Broad Brush

  1. Daniel Ross

    Great post, Jim.
    6. To what extent are we talking about two different phenomena here: a) that many members of the historical profession are left-leaning politically, or b) that their interpretations of history, often influenced by the rich variety of social/cultural history methodologies, conflict with nationalist versions of the Canadian story? Are the two the same? You mention the case of William Cronon and the relatively new discipline of environmental history not necessarily being about catering to the activist left. I’d add that many people who study political activism go far beyond simple identification with their subjects, even if they would personally agree with many of their ideas or objectives.

    Also, not to sound like a faddish, un-Canadian Canadianist, but:
    7. At what point does writing “a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors” conflict with the critical evaluation of evidence that we consider the basis of our profession?
    Or, at what point do we start questioning the interests of the state in giving us direction on what kind of history we should write?

  2. Alexander Freund

    History has always been an activist endeavor. Ranke, often painted as the founder of modern history as a discipline, was a bureaucrat writing in defense of the Prussian state. Almost all historians since then have been conservative men and women writing “a proud national story rooted in the great deeds of our ancestors.” Social history has been around almost as long, beginning with Burckhardt’s cultural history, Dilthey’s hermeneutics, as well as the French Annales school studying mentalite and the long duree, to name but a few. Conservative activists, however, have been much more successful than critical historians at casting themselves as marginalized and voiceless (even though they’re the ones who regularly appear on the CBC’s The National and other media and who shape national discourses about Canadian history. The militaristic fashion in which much Canadian history is written and taught is evidence of this). Conservative historian activists have been very successful at making themselves out to be neutral, objective researchers simply telling the public “what actually happened” while portraying everyone they disagree with as “leftist” and “activist.”

    The claim that Canada does not teach its children positive history is simply not true. The vast majority of K-12 history teachers have, unfortunately, never taken a history course at university and thus are well equipped to teach our children nationalistic myths rather than history. To argue that history should teach national pride is equivalent to saying that biology should teach creationism — that is, to teach ideology rather than science.

    To ask whether political history is dead is the wrong question. All history is political and about politics. The old notion that social history is history with the politics left out was always wrong. This is not say, however, that we can’t do better at writing more on histories of political economy.

    History already is one of the most conservative disciplines around. It would be a disaster for public discourse about Canada’s past, present, and future to make it even more so.

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