Neil Armstrong the Canadian, and Other High School Myths

Norman Rockwell was a Canadian artist. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is also a Canadian.

Actually, both are American. But about one-third of young Canadians believe the late artist was home-grown and another 10 percent identified the US astronaut as Canada's first man in space, a national survey reveals.

Canadians do not yearn to steal American icons. The problem is simply that Canadian history is poorly taught, says Rudyard Griffiths, director of the Dominion Institute, a Toronto-based nonprofit group promoting the teaching of Canadian history.

"The Canadian educational system has failed to impart to youth a basic understanding of the country's past," he says.

But Canadians are hardly alone. Education critics see a "North American" history crisis in which both Canadian and United States school systems are "failing" to teach history.

On July 1, Canadians celebrated their nation's birthday. But who knew the actual year the dominion of Canada was born? Just 36 percent of 1,100 Canadians surveyed by the Angus Reid Group, a prominent polling firm, knew the date: 1867.

This lack of basic history knowledge may surprise many Canadians. But not Anne Metikosh, a Burlington, Ont., homemaker. From Grades 4 to 7, she says, her daughter's history lessons jumped from Victorian Christmas (Queen Victoria's popularization of holiday and Christmas trees) to the English Tudor period, leaping then to the War of 1812 between Britain and the US, while visiting the Canadian fur trade three times.

"It was very choppy," Ms. Metikosh says. And what history was taught lacked context because it was submerged in a social studies class called "Self and Society." "Basics have been shuffled aside," she says.

Still others point to history-deficient freshmen arriving at Canada's leading universities. Joanne Harris Burgess, who teaches Canadian studies at Glendon College at York University in Toronto, decided last fall to test her arriving students to find out where she should begin teaching them.

To her shock, she discovered only 7 percent could name the last five prime ministers, and that 92 percent could not name the four founding provinces - Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Nearly two-thirds could not name the first prime minister - Sir John A. Macdonald.

"It was unbelievable," she says. "To me it represented the complete and utter failure of the teaching of Canadian history in Ontario high schools."

Professor Burgess and others say a national history curriculum is essential. Yet this appears unlikely unless the federal government takes the lead. At present, Canada's 10 provinces are in charge of their own school systems.

American children are at least as "bad off" as Canadian children in not knowing their nation's history, says E.D. Hirsch, president of the Charlottesville, Va.,-based nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation, which advocates specific criteria for learning in schools.

In a 1994 national history test in the US, more than 60 percent of students in Grades 4 and 8 reached the "basic" level, but fewer than half the Grade 12 students achieved the same level.

"There are some American kids who don't know which came first - the Civil War or the Revolutionary War," Professor Hirsch says.

American schools lack a clear history curriculum in the early grades, he says.

Another problem is the "child-centered" theory of education widely adopted by Canadian and American schools in which "you teach kids how to think rather than [giving them] content," Hirsch says.

Back in Canada, both Burgess and Metikosh also cite child-centered philosophy for Ontario's fragmented approach to history teaching. Several provinces, however, including Ontario, are moving steadily back to "basics."

Janice Crawford, a spokeswoman at the Ontario Ministry of Education in Toronto, says the province will soon implement a more specific educational curriculum. It will include detailed history requirements for Grades 1 through 8. She adds, though, that history will still not be a stand alone subject.

And that unsettles John Hastings, a former history teacher, now a member of the Ontario Parliament. He has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get Ontario Premier Mike Harris (also a former teacher) and parliamentary colleagues to make history once again a core subject.

"Education is not just a matter of teaching someone to be work oriented," he says, "but to make them well-informed, functioning citizens or [else] you won't have a good democracy."

Hirsch, the American professor, agrees. Yet when asked if George Washington is in danger of falling into the same anonymity with young Americans as Sir John A. Macdonald is with Canadians, he demurs.

"There is the [Washington] birthday that everyone in America celebrates," he says. "And, of course, there is the cherry-tree story that saves American students from oblivion."

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