Rodrigues - 1

Is there room in a so-called national narrative for the many stories of the past experienced by the various groups that do not make up the dominant classes? This question lies at the heart of four readings highlighted in this essay. In each, the author presents the experiences of either attempting to broaden a historical narrative based on dominant political and military events and people from the past to include traditionally excluded experiences or, in two cases, the author’s argument that these neglected narratives must be included. Without broadening the narrative, these authors argue that a nation’s history cannot be considered complete because of the experiences they do not include. Each author attempts to stake a position on this dominant question but the reader is left wanting for whether or not the expansion of any so-called national narrative would benefit the teaching and learning of history, or more importantly, the role that historical knowledge plays in building an informed citizenry able to fully participate in a pluralist, participatory democracy. In making this argument the authors demonstrate that limits to how broad a single, historical national narrative exist either by design or simply by the fact that it is too challenging to maintain a single narrative that includes all possible, relevant experiences from a nation’s past. This will be shown by examining each author’s main arguments in relation to a theme of a national narrative. The choices each made to make their points will support the view that a limited national narrative, no matter how broad its scope, is a reality in the teaching and learning of history.

Timothy J. Stanley’s “Whose public? Whose memory?: Racisms, Grand Narratives and Canadian History,” provides the first example. In the article, Stanley argues Canadian history is racist, using the exclusion of Chinese experiences in Canada’s past from any Canadian national narrative – such as it may exist – as an example. The exclusion of these experiences from the history being taught to Canadians is a form of racism, given the role that Chinese people played in the establishment of Canada as a confederation and the linking of so-called central Canada, Ontario and Quebec, to the Pacific Coast. He is critical of the use of grand narrative in Canadian history, as it is one written and perpetuated by and from a white, European perspective. As this experience is in the minority, its dominance promotes the continued perception of varying degrees of Canadian citizenship.

I should note that my interest here is less to criticize those responsible for the particular representations that I will discuss than it is to suggest that we are dealing with a cultural pattern of exclusion, part of our taken-for-granted understandings of the categories that frame who and what is Canadian and who and what is not, and hence whose history counts and why. The resulting inclusions and exclusions racialize people living in Canada – that is, they make normal the idea that there are innately different kinds of people who can be sorted hierarchically on a scale from the most Canadian to the least, from those who are naturally and unproblematically belong in the country to those who do not. (36)

Using the Chinese example, Stanley lays out the evidence of their experiences in Canada. How there were Chinese people in British North America before confederation in central Canada and the inclusion of British Columbia into the British North America Act. How the Chinese were denied full citizenship until many other groups, such as white women of more British or European race, had attained these rights. Therein lies the issue— if Stanley’s argument is that any grand narrative shouldn’t be exclusively the one that Canadians have relied upon when teaching and learning history, how can it possibly be inclusive enough? Stanley chose as an example the Chinese peoples’ experiences and how they have been largely left absent from the grand narrative, perhaps due to the experiences of these peoples being one of his own research interests. He could have just as easily, perhaps, chosen to use the experiences of peoples from other Asian nationalities whose own history of discrimination runs as deep. Or the continuing exclusion of the oral and other non-written forms of history of this continents’ many First Nations from any sort of national narrative, whether historical or within current events. Stanley’s choice shows a limit to an all-inclusive grand narrative— that it cannot be accomplished by one person as one person could not reasonably be expected to have knowledge of or research every possible past experience.

The readings from Linda Symcox and, to some extent, Tony Taylor, chronicle two experiences in attempting to broaden the scope of teaching and learning history in expanding a so-called national narrative that met with varying degrees of success. Symcox speaks to the experience in developing the U.S. National Standards for History and then watching from the sidelines and the middle as the initiative fell apart. Her dismay at how an attempt to improve the teaching and learning of history in the U.S. is palpable, and the overall experience has not been attempted since.

I now grasp the essential paradox inherent in the standards-setting process: the attack on the Standards was the logical outcome of their complex genesis. The very conservatives who had pushed for higher academic standards in history in the hope of shoring up traditional canons felt cheated – understandably – by the end product, masterminded by their political adversaries. From their point of view, they had lost control of the standards-setting process and therefore the Standards embodied all the multicultural excesses they abhorred. This resulted in their violent reaction when the document was published late in 1994. (7)

Though the reading was only the introduction to the book where Symcox describes the development, trial and eventual abandonment of the National History Standards Project in the U.S., it serves as a useful example. A nation, perhaps the democratic one whose national narrative of progress is best-known around the globe, could not come to a satisfactory agreement between its historians and its politicians on what history should be taught and learned. As exclusionist, racist and discriminatory as it may be, there was a lack of sufficient political and cultural will to expand this historical narrative. This experience supports that while a so-called national narrative has its ills, an unlimited expansion of this narrative to include all possible experiences of the past may not be possible or palatable. This is said in full recognition that the National History Standards Project’s death came at the hands of those who wanted absolutely no change in their perception of what that historical narrative should include— a prospect that in one sense reinforces the position history should not be controlled by a singular group. Yet, if there is to be a national narrative, the U.S. experience also shows that it must be one whose evolution and/or expansion is able to garner support from all corners of the ideological and political marketplace.

A sense of limitation rises from Taylor text, where he outlines a political drive for history standards based on a prescribed national narrative and the ensuing result that wasn’t fully completed by the time he authored his summary. There is some merit in the argument above however in looking at the anecdotes Taylor provides about the differences of opinion and perspective between high school history teachers and historian academics. As a national standards project got underway and the post-secondary historians lamented the state of the teaching and learning of history, the reaction from school history teachers appeared to cause a realignment of the end goals.

Ryan’s allegations, which, it was suggested, attempted to derogate the role of curriculum planners and teachers in providing good history, only served to inflame incipient mutual suspicions that existed between the two groups who, although part of the same history community, were all too easily driven back into peevish factions. The consequence was that a growing gap now appeared between university historians and school-teachers of history, a dispite that threatened to create two tribes of history educators who had once belonged to the same community. (233)

Refunding (from 2003 onwards) for the National History Project is, of course, at the whim of the electoral fortunes and shifts in government policy, but at the time of writing, the NHP seems to be on track.

The teachers remain cautious about it all. There still exists a tension between the enthusiasm that many teachers of history have for their subject, the ambivalent feelings they have towards academic historians (deference/exasperation), and the case-hardened suspicions they have about government initiatives. (236)

This shows a different opposition to an initiative to expand the so-called national narrative broadly—a backlash from those who first teach history to those who first learn it. A backlash centered not necessarily on the principle of the project, but on its execution from ivory towers with little to no support for those who academics maintained needed to adopt this newer, broader approach. Taylor’s concluding paragraph speaks to the importance of balance in approach as he states, “Glossy curriculum projects parachuted into the school system with little on-the-ground support invariably fail to inspire, and tend to end their days on the dustier sections of school library shelves.” (237) If the end result of broadening a national narrative is that you end up with one that no school teacher can or wants to teach, then that too only serves to keep that narrative limited in scope.

Perhaps the strongest argument for broadening a singular narrative comes from the Dagbovie text. In this article, he argues for the expansion of the African-American historical narrative beyond the works of either white historians or those African-American historians educated by white historians to include what three neglected historians have to say. He draws from African historical methods, centred on the collective past and passed down by caretakers within the community (606) to argue for the inclusion of Malcolm X’s, Harold Cruse’s, Angela Davis’ and Lerone Bennett Jr.’s historical writings and opinions into the African-American historical narrative.

Afrocentricity represents an “orientation to data,” “a location, a position,” “a perspective which allows Africans to be subjects of historical experiences” (Asante, 1993, p. 3). African Americans, like all African people, “possess values and beliefs derived from their own particular histories yet conforming to the African Cultural System” (Asante, 1988, p. 2). In making African American history practical, linking it to the African American struggle for liberation, and validating the first “essential historical quality of the African American” (Asante, 1993, p. 18), Malcolm, Cruse, Davis, and Bennett expanded on an Afrocentric interpretation of history’s function. (605)

He makes a powerful argument that each of these ‘informal’ historians’ perspectives should be taught to expand and bring improved perspective to the use of history as part of identity formation in African-American studies. To be African-American without knowing what these four had to say about African-American history was to be one missing a piece of his or her identity. Yet Dagbovie doesn’t argue in this text that these additional narratives, as part of an African-American history, should be added to any sort of U.S. national narrative. So a narrative can be expanded and broadened to include previously excluded perspectives without arguing that it be a mandatory part of the larger whole. This suggests that limits to how much a so-called national narrative can be broadened are reasonable.

These points echo some of those this seminar course discusses every week. While there is general support around the table that history educational be more than just a singular perspective – a so-called national narrative – there is also acceptance that this goal may not be attainable. In the Oct. 12 debate, students in the course argued for a broad inclusion of many experiences into the teaching of history, pointing to this nation’s multicultural and multi-nation origins and continuing reality. That inclusion into any grand narrative should be greater than “dance, dress and food.” Yet by the end of the discussion, students remained hard-pressed by the challenge of how to do it— how to broaden the narrative so that it included all possible experiences.

In conclusion, if one is to teach and learn any sort of grand or so-called national narrative, it is a near impossibility that it could ever be inclusive enough. The four readings and class debate referenced here show that in each example where a need to broaden a singular historical narrative was argued the author either ran into or still acknowledged limits. Be it in the disagreement between history school-teachers and historians in Australia, the failed standards project in the U.S. or Stanley’s use of Chinese experiences because it was his own research interest, there are limits. Even in the strongest argument for inclusion of other perspectives into a singular narrative, Dagbovie doesn’t argue this expanded narrative should be included into that of the U.S. national narrative. He seems to accept that something which can be accomplished is to broaden the African-American narrative as a foundational part of African-American studies with no mention of how either should fit into American social or political culture as a whole. Given the challenges students in this course face to find a balance between learning and teaching an inclusive history and how to make it – for lack of a better term – accessible for those first learning and teaching it, there may not be a conclusive solution to this challenge. It may not be possible for one student to be taught and learn their so-called national narrative in a manner that adequately respects all the experiences left in the shadows.

 Works cited:

Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo (2007) “History as a Core Subject Area of African-American Studies:  Self-Taught and Self-Proclaimed African American Historians, 1960s-1980s.” Journal of Black Studies 37, no. 5 (2007): 602-629

Stanley, Timothy J. (2006) “Whose Public? Whose Memory?: Racisms, Grand Narratives and Canadian History” in Sandwell, ed., To the Past, 32-49

Symcox, Linda (2002) Whose History?: The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia)

Tony Taylor (2004), “Disputed Territory: the Politics of Historical Consciousness in Australia,” in Peter Seixas, ed., Theorizing Historical Consciousness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 217-39

TPS 1454H class discussion and debate, Oct. 12, 2010