Doctor Who Wednesdays # 45 on Friday

“1941. Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country, after country, falling like dominos. Nothing can stop it – nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says ‘no’. ‘No. Not here.’ A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. I don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me. Go on. Do what you’ve got to do, save the world.”

— Ninth Doctor, The Empty Child


History Fridays # 9

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”

— Aldous Huxley

Okay – so I know that this is not at all in keeping with this months theme. But so far the History Friday’s have been the hardest segment and it was that much harder trying to get the quotes to fit the theme of Love and Friendship. So I have branched out so that I could get back to the main theme for Friday’s which is History and thinking about history.

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History Fridays #3

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

— Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works

I have a Masters degree in History. People have a lot of different responses when they find this out. Some people ask more question – such as what area of history I studied. A large number of people respond with some variation of “I didn’t like history because there are too many dates.” (Now I ask you is that any reason to dislike history? You wouldn’t dislike a relationship because it had too many dates would you?)

This sentence, and all of it’s variations,  hurt my history loving heart. I know that many students have been subjected to the “memorize all of these dates” method of teaching history. No part of me agrees with this method. Yes, you are going to come across dates throughout your study of history. Certain dates are important. Eventually you’re going to need to know things such as, The First World War (1914-1918) occurred after Canada began to join up and officially became the Dominion of Canada (1867), but before Canada became a mostly independent nation with the Statute of Westminster (1931). But you do not need to know these things right away. And forcing students to remember these dates above all else stifles the sense of historical curiosity.

This focus on dates and memorization and teaching only the “important” parts of history, contribute to the response I often get to the revelation that I study Canadian History. You would not believe the number of times I have heard a variation of “Canadian History. Why in the world would you want to study that. Canadian history is the most boring history out there.” <Excuse me while I go whimper in the corner>

If you knew the stories I know, you wouldn’t think Canadian history was boring. (Well, I guess you might, but at least it would have a fighting chance). The problem is that so much of the history taught in school focuses on “the boring bits” (though I have found that sometimes a boring event is actually really interesting once you start to discover the stories around it). The curriculum is often designed to force feed students key events, which are then regurgitated and forgotten. It would be so much more effective if history was taught through stories. Sure, this method of teaching history might not produce a nation of people who know all of the important dates in their history. But guess what? Neither does the current method.

Okay, so Canadians aren’t great with dates, but where is my evidence that stories would work better? I have to admit, I don’t have anything concrete, but let me ask you a question. Do you remember those “Heritage Moments” that were on television for awhile? They were kind of cheesy. But I bet there are a few bits and pieces of history that you remember from watching them (Kanata means village, anyone? “Doctor, I smell burnt toast”?). And you remember them because they were told as stories (though granted not always the best storytelling).

It is my experience that learning the stories leads to curiosity about the details. And as you read more and more about that story, and the stories that connect to it, a funny thing starts to happen. You start to remember the dates, or if not the exact dates, then a rough chronology. And then maybe you look up other events that happen around the same time and you start to place the initial story into the bigger story. Keep doing that and before you know it, you’ve learned a pretty significant amount of history. After all, history is really only one big story made up of millions and millions of smaller stories.

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History Friday’s #2

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
— George Orwell, 1984

This is one of those short quotes that has a lot in it. It’s easy to pass it off and say that this level of control does not exist today. Does not exist where you live. You may say that the Internet has allowed for the free and uncontrolled dissemination of knowledge. But while we can argue over the validity of that last statement, it does not necessarily directly impact the validity of the above quote.

Even the availability of information does not guarantee that people will access that information. People believe without questioning or examining all the time. For instance, what is the likelihood that someone will go home and research the facts of an event after watching a movie “based on a true story?” Some people will, yes. Some people will find out just which aspects have been the result of artistic license no which aspects contain truth. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that most people won’t.

Take for instance the shock so many people exhibit when it is revealed that not every single aspect of that popular auto-biography was100% true. What? They made themselves out to be bigger, better, stronger, more important, than they actually were to sell books? In our world of obviously scripted reality tv, one would think that people would be a bit more cautious in believing every sensational story that reaches their ears.

But I digress.

Control takes on more faces than “obviously evil dictator.” Yes, those types of control may be the most easily identified, but what about the control that looks benevolent? What about the control that maybe looks like freedom? The control that does not so much restrict access to information but puts forward an alternative story with seemingly subtle changes. What if it makes it very believable. A carefully constructed lie may not be able to kill the truth but it can give it a swift beating, tie it up, gag it and drop it into a hole.

I would go on, but this post is quickly getting long. As I said initially, it’s a short quote with a lot in it.

Keep Smiling!
(Because this was such a smiley topic)

History Friday’s #1

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
— L.P. Hartley

I don’t remember when I first heard this quote. I think it may have been during an undergrad History class. It is the opening line of a work of fiction, but it is an excellent source of perspective for the historian. It is important to remember that the past was a different place and, as difficult as it may be, we should resist the urge to impose our present day sensibilities and understandings on the people who lived then.

It is impossible not to view the past through a particular lenses of experience. Each historian has their own individual lens shaped and defined by the time and area in which they live and their personal history. The important thing is recognizing that we have a lens and understanding the influence it has on our understanding of the past.

My understanding of the First World War, for example, will be slightly different from yours. Variations will arise based on country – Canadian, French, German, British, Australian, American, etc. Generations will see the history of the war differently. I must write a different history than the first historians on the topic, and a historian writing in 15 or 20 years must write a different history than me. For that matter, I will write a different history than any of my peers.

Where am I going with this? If we forget that events happen within a specific time and place, we risk allowing our own bias to have too much influence and we risk getting things very wrong. The same thing happens if I go to a different country and expect everything to be the same as my home country. I will always look at the rest of the world through a Canadian lens, and that is fine. I gain nothing by insisting that the rest of the world look and behave exactly like my understanding of Canada. Notice I say my understanding of Canada? I gain nothing by insisting the past follow the same rules as the present.

This does not mean that we must condone past events or explain them all away as “just the way things were done.” But perhaps we can agree that a book that claimed to be a history of the First World War that focused only on explaining that the war was “wrong” or “barbaric” or “stupid” or “glorious” or “just” would give us a very skewed understanding of the events.

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100 Years Ago: A Post for Remembrance Day

"Tending to a Grave" "Two Canadian soldiers care for the grave of a fallen comrade. White stones, a wooden cross, and the deceased's helmet act as grave markers." George Metcalfe Archival Collection.

“Tending to a Grave”
“Two Canadian soldiers care for the grave of a fallen comrade. White stones, a wooden cross, and the deceased’s helmet act as grave markers.”
George Metcalfe Archival Collection.

I look out my window and wonder what this world was like 100 years ago.

There were no computers, fewer cars, no cellphones, no internet, no televisions. Letters were popular, as were newspapers and radios. Snapshot cameras were just beginning to make an appearance in the general population.

And there was no memory of the events we think about on this day. War itself was not new. But people had no knowledge of what “modern war” entailed.

100 Years Ago.

Was there conflict in the air? Were the signs all there? Did they recognize the signs at all? Maybe.

Perhaps they worried that war was coming. Perhaps they watched the developments in Europe with a sense of unease.

If they could have seen the new realities the war would bring…

November 11, 1913 – what did you know?

100 Years Ago.

You could not know that over the course of the next 5 years, millions of men would die. Millions more would be wounded. Fathers, brothers, sons, friends. They would leave your homes; never to return again.

You never imagined that in 1 year, or 2 or 5 you would lie cold, alone and scared in a field in France. Far from your family. far from your sweetheart. Would they be alright? Would they remember you? 

You planned to become a scientist. A writer. A Father. A teacher. You can’t know that you won’t live to see your 20th Birthday. Let alone 30 or 50 or 60.

In less than 1 year, 1914, a war will start that will forever change Your World. Your men will never be the same (even those who make it home). Your women, your children? They may not have fought with guns and shells, but there World is forever altered.

The lives they could have had, should have had, lie broken and abandoned in the muddy fields of France. What do shattered dreams look like? I’ve seen pictures; read accounts. You soon will know firsthand.

But 100 years ago nobody knew.

Nobody knew that in a year, “Home by Christmas” would be a hope and dream quickly fading as the reality of trench warfare began to set in.

Do you know of Ypres, have you heard of Flanders? Dear friends, in just one year these names will begin to haunt your thoughts and your nightmares.

Ypres, Arras, The Somme, Passchendaele, The Marne. Right now these are places you may have heard of. In a matter of years I can almost guarantee you will have heard of them. They stole your hopes, your dreams, your future, your men, your boys.

Within 5 years you will wish you had never heard of these places. You will wish you could go back. You may have conflicting feelings about the war you signed up for. Camaraderie felt and even enjoyed, coupled with loss of friends, family and innocence on a scale few experience in their lives.

You dreamed of being remembered, by your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Maybe you dreamed of your legacy. You never dreamed that in 100 years strangers would hear (or see your name) and remember. But only  your name. As a combination of letters etched in a stone.

You aren’t remembered for the book you wrote or your contribution to science. We will never see your paintings. Never hear your poetry. You never became the great leader you dreamed of. You never made an impression on the lives of countless young people through your talent as a teacher.

You are remembered because you fought for your country, for your children, for your ideals. Maybe you fought because you had no choice. Whatever your motivation before you left, whatever kept you fighting once you were there. Whatever the last thoughts that crossed your mind. You are remembered because you fought. And you didn’t come home. Now your name is etched on a monument of remembrance.

You never dreamed that this form of remembrance, that of only your name, would be more than some of your fellow soldiers would get. That boy in your unit, you know the one, he signed up under a fake name, a fake age, so that he wouldn’t be sent home. He died under that name. His family never got the telegram. Will never know where he lays.

Or what of the grave I am viewing right now? The one that is labeled “unknown.”

100 years in your future, I am a historian. I sit in the comfort of my home and I think about you. We speak of remembering. We ‘remember’ the day in November 1918 when the guns were finally silent. We ‘remember’ but we’ll never really know. The relief you felt? The sadness? The grief for your friend who fell hours before (or after) the guns officially went silent? The hope that maybe you had achieved the impossible?

You had survived. And maybe, just maybe history would see what you hoped. That this hell you had survived would be the war to end all wars. Never again was the cry heard. The desperate hope of your heart.

But it wasn’t to be. In less than 25 years the guns would begin again. You remember as you watch your children don their uniforms. Familiar and yet unfamiliar. Normandy, Dieppe, St. Nazaire, the Falaise Pocket. New names etched onto old monuments. This time, there are no allusions that the peace will last.

The wars continued to this day. And so, for two minutes, one day a year, we ‘remember.’ We think about all you did. We think about why you fought. We pause ‘lest we forget’ that you fought and you died for a hope of freedom and a ‘never again.’  What do shattered dreams look like? The fields of France in 1918. The beaches of Normandy in 1944. The single casket that travels down a highway in 2009.

We remember a century of war speckled with brief moments of peace. November 11, 1918 what did you remember? Who did you remember? Who did you mourn?

Did you remember what you were doing November 1913, before the Great War came and ushered in vast fields of shattered dreams.

Lest we Forget.

(Note: in this piece I mostly talk about the men who fought – I am also aware of the women who have fought and served in some capacity in both on the war front and the home front. This is just the way I chose to focus the piece today.)

(Crossposted to Blogher)

What about today?

NaBloPoMo November 2013

“Remember, Remember the fifth of November.” I have to admit, I don’t generally remember Guy Fawkes night until I see my friends posting about it on Facebook on the morning of the fifth. I know the basics of what Guy Fawkes day/night commemorates, but not a lot pas that. So, needless to say, this post is not going to be about that.

But what is this post going to be about? Well dear reader…that is a good question.

Have I mentioned that I am a historian? I think I may have mentioned that I (very) recently graduated with an M.A. in History. As of yet, I have not had any history related posts on this blog, not really anyways. Am I planning on including history related posts here? I’d like to. So why haven’t I? Well, in part at least, it’s because I have been so focused on writing history related material for the last year that I’ve been itching to write something different. My “non-academic” written voice is so rusty, musty, and dusty that I’ve needed to work on airing it out and making sure it still exists. You could say that for the last couple months I’ve been enjoying stretching some less used writing muscles while letting some other overused muscles rest.

“Okay. So this post is going to be history related then? That, dear reader…is a good question.

This morning my brain is in history mode. Why is that, you may ask? Maybe it’s because I’ve been gradually editing a paper that may end up published in the local history report/journal. But I don’t think that’s it. “Okay, then what do you think it is?” Well, remember how I mentioned Guy Fawkes night? “Yes, but you said you don’t really know much about it.” You’re right. I don’t. But I do know the phrase “Remember, Remember, the fifth of November.” “Yeah, you mentioned that already. But what does that have to do with anything?” Well, let me ask you this. Have I ever mentioned that one of the historical topics I study relates to memory and commemoration? Ah, there it is.

“Remember, Remember…” What does it mean to remember? As I discovered while writing my Major Research Paper this past year, writing about memory can be like trying to catch a handful of smoke or fog. Just when you think you’ve succeeded, you realize it’s all seeped out of your tightly clenched fist. “Okay, now you’re beginning to sound crazy. You can’t ‘catch’ fog or smoke.” Well, I admit, it’s tricky. And it’s not so much about catching it as it is about watching the swirls and movement and capturing as much of the essence and body as you can. I still sound crazy don’t I? Don’t worry, that’s just you catching a glimpse of the difficulties a historian who studies memory faces. And can I tell you a secret? I love it.

“Okay, so this post is going to be about history and memory then?” Well, I guess in a way it has become that way but only because I started out writing this post thinking, what about today? What am I going to write about today? What’s that? You’re confused? I’m sorry – that’s because there’s still another part of my thought process from this morning. Let’s go back to the story at hand, shall we?

“Remember, Remember…” Now that you know that one of the historical topics I study is memory you may have another question. The memory of what, exactly? Well, one of the other topics I study (and probably the topic that really got me into studying history), is military history. In particular Canadian military history. “Oh, so you’re one of those historians that glorifies war and battle then.” No, I most certainly am not. “Okay, then you must be the one who studies boring tactics and weapons and numbers.” No, no, I’m not that either. Don’t get me wrong, my studies often include a knowledge of tactics and weapons and numbers (and all of them have a place in military history), but that’s not all of it. Not even close. I’ve always had an interest in the battles themselves – how they were fought, who won etc. But more than that, I’ve always been interested in the people. I’m most interested in the soldiers. Why did they fight? What kept them in one piece? What happened when they broke mentally and emotionally? What did they do to keep up their morale? What exactly was, the soldier’s culture that developed. I like to refer to myself as a cultural military historian. I study battles and tactics yes, but also topics that aren’t traditional. Like morale, and entertainment. And memory.

“Remember, Remember…” November 11, at least in Canada and some other parts of the world, is Remembrance Day. The day that we collectively remember the war that officially ended November 11, 1918 at 11:00 a.m. We remember that war, the war that was to “end all wars.” We also remember the wars that followed it. Because it didn’t end all wars. November 11, 1918 did not usher in an era of peace. Far from it in fact. So that, dear readers, is what I have been thinking about today. I have been thinking about the post I am going to publish on Remembrance Day. I have to admit I started an outline and some basic writing on it today. I hesitated, because I am trying to start my posts with as little “pre-written” as possible for each day in November. But the ideas were there this morning, and I’m enough of a writer to know that if I didn’t get them down, they would be like smoke and fog next Monday when I sat down to write. Maybe on Monday, when you read my post you’ll think it was worth it. Maybe you’ll think I should have just waited to start the post on Monday. Whatever the case, I’m okay with that. Because, as a historian who studies war and memory, I think a post written on a day set aside to remember, should be given some thought and care. And as of right now, I don’t know what my schedule will be like on Monday.

So, dear reader, that is why my post today is entitled “What about today?” Because when I sat down to write I was thinking about war, and memory and people from a century ago who did not know how much change one year would bring to their lives. And all I could think was, “okay, there’s a post for Monday. But what am I going to write about today?”

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Marcel Proust

(Crossposted to BlogHer)