Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Pop Quiz:
1. Can you name Canada's prime minister during the Second World War?

2. Are you between the ages of 30 and 44?

If you answered 'Mackenzie King' and 'yes' to the above questions you are smarter than most people in your age bracket, or says the Montreal Gazette.

A new survey aimed at gauging Canadians' basic knowledge of the Second World War has revealed a startling blind spot among the 30-to-44 age group. It found that the number of prime-of-life citizens who believe the prime minister during the 1939-45 conflict was Lester B. Pearson exceeds - by far - the number who can accurately name Mackenzie King. The error seems all the more egregious because even younger Canadians - those age 18 to 29 - know enough history to pick King over Pearson.

What's the reason for this? McGill University historian Jack Jedwab speculates:

It's no surprise the two oldest groups - many of whom were born in the King era or just after - tended to get the right answer. Jedwab said he suspects the youngest cohort in the survey still remembers enough of their high school history to strongly associate King with the Second World War, while the 30-to-44 set has simply forgotten what they must have once been taught.

Fair enough I suppose, but how big a problem is this? Does it indicate a woeful lack of knowledge in Canadian history?

Every year around Canada Day, and often other occasions like Remembrance Day, some institute commissions a survey on Canadian history and finds that Canadians can't answer certain (what are assumed to be fundamental) questions. As a history student my head is full of arcane Canadian history facts (just ask my friends). But if my history studies have taught me anything it is that this knowledge is largely useless without a greater understanding of the meaning and significane of historical events.

But does this lack of knowledge of the basics suggest a lack of greater understanding? I'm not convinced. I know many intelligent people, several with Ph.Ds, who do not necessarily score well on those annual Canada Day quizes. They can't say exactly when the First World War started and ended but they understand its importance to the development of Canadian nationality. They may not be able to pinpoint the year of confederation, but how important was confederation anyway? They can tell you that building the railroad was more significant.

The same thing happened in a class of mine just today. The article being discussed centred on the 1804 Sedition Act of Upper Canada. Everyone clearly understood the importance of this law and its related cases to the relations of power and authority between the state and the people in early 19th century Canada. Then the professor asked, "so what exactly did the pertinet section of the Act say?" Silence from the class. Then we all flipped to the first page of the article and re-read what the act actually said. And that's the point. All the trivia kicking around in my head is just that: trivia. Most of it I could look up easily if I needed to.

Additionally, history is the only subject for which popular surveys of this sort are commissioned. No one goes around asking gen-Xers how much of their highschool biology, calculus or grammar they remember. I certainly wouldn't do well on such a test; I can barely remeber how to add fractions. But because history is understood to be such an important aspect of a nation's identity, and because Canada has a perpetual identity crisis, we are constantly lamenting the results of these endless tests.

Is there actually a lack of understanding amongst Canadian's about their history? I don't know. What I do know is that asking people trivia questions doesn't answer that question.

Posted by Matthew @ 2:39 a.m.