Monday, May 23, 2011

Teaching Patriotic History

Why do Americans not learn about other countries in school? OK Maybe I need to back up, because many Americans do not even realize that other countries have their own histories, nor do they understand what American history has to do with the histories of other countries, such as Canada for example.

Now this is going to seem a bit rambling, because I want to discuss why some maps should show neighbouring countries or states and some do not, and really don't need to. Then I will get back to why it is often necessary to study some of the history of neighbouring countries to understand your own history.

I am often amazed looking at US TV station weather maps, where the weather is shown on a map of the USA, but on the other side of the US borders, no weather is shown. Remember the stations we get here are from Detroit, Erie and Buffalo, all places either on the border or across the water from Canada. You would think they should be concerned about what the weather is only 40 km away. In my opinion, weather maps should not stop at any borders.

Road maps are the opposite, but for a good reason. If you are producing a road map of one state, you do not need to put all the roads in neighbouring states. This makes sense, because you are expected to buy the road map of any state you are travelling to, if you want to see all the roads up-to-date. Another situation I remember, I was in Mexico talking to some travelling motorcyclists from Texas about the best way to get into California from Ensenada, Mexico. I suggested Tecate as a border crossing that was easier than Tijuana, especially since they were heading home to Texas from there. They looked at their Mexican road map and said Tecate was no good because there were no roads leading from the border checkpoint into the USA. I told them that yes indeedy there were roads in California, and if they wanted to see the roads on the California side they should get a California road map. It is quite normal for any country or state to produce road maps that cover their own roads, but not all the roads in bordering states. When travelling in Ontario, for example, the 401 says "Windsor 250 km". It does not say "Detroit 252 km". That does not mean Detroit does not exist, nor does it mean Windsor is more important a city than Detroit. You are just expected to know that Windsor is the border city near Detroit and get a Michigan map to continue your journey. They do the opposite with road signs on the US side of the border.

Now back to history. What could Americans possibly learn about their own history by learning about the history of Canada? First they would learn that Canada has repelled several US invasions, especially if you count some of the fighting that went on before the USA got its independence from Britain. The second thing that you could learn is that many English speaking Canadians are descendants of refugees from the US war of Independence. At one time, just after the war of independence, the number of American refugees in Canada was so great that they became a majority of English speaking Canadians.

Here is the next question. Why do Americans not want to know about this part of Canadian history, which actually seems to be an integral part of their own history? Well, apparently some Americans did want to teach this part of American history. The part where Americans who were loyal to the British were forced out of the country after Independence. But other Americans decided that this part of their history should be buried, covered up, for the sake of national pride.

After WW1. Charles Grant Miller, a writer for Hearst Newspapers, (forerunner of Fox News), started a campaign to rid America of unpatriotic history books. In particular a book called "An American History" by David Saville Muzzey. The Muzzey book had its flaws, for example a quote from it about native Americans reads "a stolid stupidity that no white man could match". But that's not what caused the hoopla. It was the part of the book that suggested some Americans, before the war of independence, considered themselves as Englishmen, and supported the King's government. That was the part that was treasonous to America.

(Ref "History on Trial", Nash Crabtree and Dunn, p. 25-28.)

Further reference online

But once you remove the reference to loyal English-Americans from US history, how do you explain Canadian history? And how can you explain the American defeat in the war of 1812, in the attempted conquest of Canada? You can't, so you just better ignore that invasion altogether. And how do you explain that Canada started fighting Germany before the USA did? You can't, so you ignore the war before 1941. How do you ignore the part played by France in the US War of Independence? You can't so you just belittle the French generally to make yourself feel strong and brave. That's why teaching "patriotic" history requires large doses of ignorance.


  1. You're wrong in assuming that no Americans learn about the section of the War of 1812 that dealt with Canada, or that France helped the US in our struggle for independence, or that Canada started fighting Germany before the US did. I'm not saying all Americans are familiar with all of these facts, but they're certainly not "hidden," as you suppose. You ask "how you explain" these things, and then stated that you can't, so you just cover them up. They're clearly explicable. There's no shame in any of those historical facts.

  2. Maybe you would be able to bring me up to date on this, as I assume you are an American. I remember 40 years ago discussing the war of 1812 with some American friends, I believe they were all college educated, and they had no knowledge that the USA had attempted to invade Canada, or that the burning of Washington was in retaliation for the burning of Toronto (then called York). They knew none of the battles that were fought, starting with Canada taking Detroit, and then fighting defensively against the American soldiers who counter attacked into southern Ontario, killing the top Canadian General Isaak Brock.

    When I Google the war of 1812, the top thirty or so web sites are all Canadian (except of course Wikipedia, which is international), but that is probably because Google knows I am from Canada. Does your Google search do the same thing?

    What percentage of Americans were expelled after the war for supporting the King, according to your history lessons?

  3. The teaching of history, even at the undergraduate level, requires that the curriculum be selective. Given the overall body of material and the subtleties and nuances involved, the treatment of any aspect of 'history' will involve judgments as to not only what is included, but the 'slant' which is used to present it.

    I believe it is generally acknowledged among historians that teaching of history in the U.S. has tended to favour the 'development of patriotic citizens' approach, which often entails excluding or minimizing the negative aspects of American history. Similar criticisms can be made of the British Empire bias in Canadian schools until fairly recently.

    Mainstream teaching of history in the U.S., for example, tends to describe the Colonial Revolution ('War of Independence' to most Americans) as a spontaneous popular uprising against egregious English exploitation. Whereas, the actuality was quite different and much more nuanced than that.

  4. Quoting from "The Actuality" link by Howard Zinn

    "the Americans, aided by a large French army, with the French navy blocking off the British from supplies and reinforcements, won the final victory of the war at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781."

    In this sentence it is implied the Americans won the final victory (with French blocking and aiding"). But reading between the lines, you could easily come to the conclusion that the French won that particular victory (Yorktown), but cleverly chose to give all the credit to the Americans in order to discourage the British government. A successful move, as it turned out.