CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 10 . . . . January 4, 2007
The On This Day series consists of tabloid size newspapers, each one eight pages in length together with a forty-plus page teacher’s guide. Each one focuses on a particular day and uses it to examine related developments on a wider scale. In the case of the two under review, one takes 29 September 1972, the date of the final game in the Canada-USSR hockey tournament in which Canada won the series; the other uses 18 November, 1916, the day on which the First World War Somme offensive was called off.
While taking the hockey game as its central focus, the 1972 newspaper also contains articles on Canadian and American politics; Watergate and the Vietnam War; the economy; the Philippines; as well as fashion and entertainment. Questions and activities for student use are divided into the following sections: the hockey game; the Canadian political scene; the US political scene; the Vietnam war; terrorism at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the Canadian economy; and fashion and culture in 1972.
Along the same lines, the 1916 issue uses the Somme offensive as its central focus but also contains articles on women’s suffrage; Casa Loma; Beatrice Lillie; Dadaism; hockey; the cancellation of the 1916 Olympics; the renaming of Berlin, Ontario, to Kitchener; war profiteering; the gramophone; and fashion. Questions and activities are organized into these topics: the battle of the Somme; business news; Canadian politics; the women’s suffrage movement; arts, entertainment and fashion; the poem In Flanders Fields; sports news; and advertisements.
Though it uses newspaper format, the series does not use actual newspaper articles. Rather, the articles have been specially written for the series, presumably as a way of ensuring that they do not create problems of reading level while also providing maximum educational benefit. None of the articles is more than half a page in length, and they are all informative and easy to read. They could be used with students as young as Grade 6 or as old as Grade 11.
Each newspaper comes with a teacher’s guide that provides questions for students to pursue and describes what information should appear in their answers. Most of the questions require students to find and organize information that appears in the articles, but there are also some questions that go beyond this comprehension level and require further research and occasionally a reasoned opinion. In this regard, I found the teacher’s guide for the hockey issue to be slightly more user-friendly than that devoted to the Somme offensive. It clearly labels these questions as “enrichment exercises” and separates them from the more straightforward comprehension questions. The Somme issue describes these questions as “follow up” but does not as clearly demarcate them. This is a small point, however, and both guides are clear and helpful. They certainly simplify the task of using these materials in the classroom. In addition, the guides contain black-line masters that state the questions and provide lined space for students to write their answers.
While pedagogically helpful, the guides could do more with their treatment of history. In the Somme newspaper, for example, the discussion of the conscription issue is limited to the way it divided French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking Canada. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that both organized labour and western farmers opposed conscription and says nothing about the calls for the “conscription of wealth” to match the conscription of men. Nor is anything said about the fact that a substantial proportion of the volunteers were British-born immigrants. Conscription was certainly a Quebec issue, but it was also more than that.
The newspaper and the teacher’s guide take the standard view of the Somme offensive and trench warfare in general as a pointless exercise in mindless carnage. This ignores, however, the arguments of some recent military historians who point out that existing military technologies made it next to impossible for strategists to devise any alternative to trench warfare. The machine gun, artillery, barbed wire, and, above all, the primitive state of communications left commanders with little choice other than to rely on mass assaults. They sought alternatives in poison gas, tanks, aircraft, specially trained assault units, creeping barrages, diversionary strategies such as the Gallipolli campaign, and so forth, but none of them proved successful. In short, the generals did what they could, but their options were extremely limited. And, as the newspaper notes, the Somme offensive was intended in part to coincide with a Russian offensive on the Eastern Front and to relieve German pressure on of the symbolically and strategically important French fortress of Verdun. In other words, the offensive was not a straightforward case of bloodthirsty generals using solders as cannon-fodder; it was part of a wider, though ultimately unsuccessful, strategic plan. This is not to say that the revisionist view is correct, but to include it might have provided some opportunity for students to grapple with problems of historical interpretation.
There are other historical points that need clarification, as there are also in the teacher’s guide for the hockey newspaper. We are told, for example that the Soviet players “thought nothing of kicking the Canadian with their skates--hard enough to draw blood” but nothing is said about Canadian tactics. The Canadian team was not exactly composed of angels, and the guide is silent on Bobby Clarke’s deliberate attempt to immobilize Valery Kharmalov. Again, the guide presents students with this question, “What exactly is communism?” (I like the word “exactly”) but then in two short paragraphs equates it with Soviet dictatorship and low living standards. It is true that in 1972 people often defined Communism in terms of what the USSR had made it, but communism is a much more complex phenomenon than this, and we do students no service by perpetuating such cold war stereotypes.
More fundamentally, the materials under review take an unduly narrow view of what the study of history entails. In effect, they equate learning history with reading, digesting, and restating what is contained in a source of evidence, in this case newspaper articles. The underlying message is that history is an information subject that requires some basic reading and thinking skills but little else. In this approach, to know history is to know a selection of approved and validated facts about the past. These days, however, discussion of history education is full of talk of historical thinking, historical literacy, historical consciousness and the like (see for example, Ruth Sandwell (ed.), To the Past: History Education, Public Memory and Citizenship in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2006). Different people define these terms differently but all agree that at their heart lies the question of evidence and its interpretation: What counts as historical evidence? How do we verify its accuracy and reliability? How is it used (or misused) to construct historical narratives and interpretations? In short, how do we know what we think we know and what does it really mean? To pursue these questions involves teaching students how to work with historical documents and other sources, both to analyze them and to use them as a basis for constructing historical accounts. Moreover, recent research suggests that this can be done at earlier grade levels than was once assumed (see, for example, Bruce Van Sledright, In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School, Teachers College Press, 2002).
There is very little flavour of this in the materials under review. Why not include, for example, a Soviet analysis of the hockey series and ask students to compare it with a Canadian account? Better yet, why not construct three or four differing accounts and ask students how or to what extent they could use them to find out what really happened and how it could be verified? In the case of the Somme campaign, the newspaper could have included a German article giving a German view of events. And so on and so on. Similarly, the newspapers could include cartoons or letters to the editor that provide competing viewpoints for the students to analyze and assess. A collection of classified advertisements could be included, and students could be asked to write a brief description of society based on what they learned from them. The key point is that students come to understand that history and the past are two different though related things. History is the attempt to find out what happened in the past and assess its significance, on the basis of limited and incomplete evidence, and so is inevitably an interpretative enterprise. It also establishes criteria by which interpretations can be evaluated as more or less satisfactory and persuasive. This is part of what make history educationally valuable.
In sum, the On This Day series is a worthwhile project, but it could do with some tweaking to bring its materials more into line with current historical research and with recent developments in history education. To the extent that studying history entails learning facts, as to some extent it obviously does, these materials do the job. More could and should be done, however. To use language first used in the 1890s, history must be an “education” and not merely an “information” subject.
Ken Osborne taught high school history in the 1960s and 1970s. He is now a professor emeritus of education at the University of Manitoba.
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