How Quebec students view the province’s turbulent past.
If obsessive rumination on one’s own history is a measure, Quebec is now highly civilized. Consider the widespread publicity accorded to University of Laval historian Jocelyn Létourneau’s new book, Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse. Provocatively, the book’s title is Quebec’s proud motto (“I remember”) undone by a question mark. A study of historical memory in Quebec based on questionnaires completed by more than 2,700 students, it has attracted numerous…
“When I moved from Montreal to Toronto four years ago, I was startled by the contrast of assumptions in each city regarding what Canada stood for, its history, and what issues were most important.
My personal experience finds an echo in the “Je me souviens” project, a recent study showing the enduring gap of historical consciousness between Anglophone and Francophone youth, in spite of increasing bilingualism in Quebec. This gap is built into us, as the study shows, long before formal history courses, which provide more facts while doing little to change our broader perspective on Canada. How we think about our country derives not from our actual knowledge of its history, but rather from the general public sphere in which we are immersed.”
“It all started with a defeat…” is but one of the numerous catchphrases used by Québec students to describe the narrative experience of their province according to Jocelyn Létourneau’s most recent book, Je me Souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse (Fides, 2014), published last week.
For the last 10 years, Université Laval Professor Létourneau has been interested in the historical consciousness of young Canadians. Refuting survey results showing abysmal lack of historical knowledge among youth, he collected over 3500 historical accounts of Québec high school and university students, asking them to write a short story and sum up in one phrase the historical adventure of their province. The results are both fascinating and troubling.
Despite what political leaders and the media claim, young Québécois are not historically disconnected nor are they amnesiacs. If many undeniably lack basic historical knowledge, often confusing dates and figures, their visions of history are nonetheless rich and telling. They are based on narrative structures which provide intelligibility and orientation to otherwise disparate and incoherent facts. Among the most significant events listed are “Jacques Cartier and the explorers,” “Les filles du roi,” and the “Conquest” of 1759, which top the list. Beyond the recurring themes and historical actors, one is struck by the students’ narrative orientation. One dominant template emerging from the stories of francophone Québécois is that of “la survivance” of a melancholic and unhappy representation of Québec’s place in Canadian history, and still hesitant about its future.
Want to weigh in on a major controversy in history education in Canada? Be a part of THEN-HiER’s national Teaching the Past blog contest this March! THEN/HiER invites you to engage with a major issue in history education (for example, one of the Controversies from our website, or another issue) by blogging about it. Blogs will be judged by members of THEN/HiER’s Executive Board. First and second prize winners will choose from one of the following prizes:
• A Parks Canada Family/Group “Discovery Pass”
• A copy of Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse (2013) by Jocelyn Létourneau (in French)
• A copy of Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology (2014) edited by Kevin Kee
The deadline to submit your post is March 31st. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Winners will be announced in April.
This research helps us reflect on how to teach history to youth. We know to which extent, over the past twenty years, the historical thinking paradigm has influenced academics and teachers. Without diminishing the important contribution this intervention has made in teaching history, we need to acknowledge that historical thinking is not easily implemented in the concrete context of the curriculum or classroom.
We have arrived at this conclusion by examining a subset of students in Quebec’s mandatory History and Education to Citizenship course who, in principle, have been introduced to historical thinking methods. It appears from their submissions, however, that even after learning about historical thinking, students continue to adhere to canonical visions of Quebec’s past; a past that’s binary, simplistic and divided. Of course, it is possible that the historical thinking paradigm was not fully applied in the classroom and therefore these responses have nothing to do with its putative failure to fulfill its promise. It is equally possible, however, that the strong voices supporting this paradigm under-estimate a number of significant realities:
Youth develop their understanding and vision of history outside of the classroom as much, and often more, than inside the classroom.
Youth quickly forget most of what they are told or learn in class.
The grand national narratives remain a ready-to-use framework or template for young people diligently searching to make sense of the past that allows them to live efficiently in society (or at least pass the exam!).
English high school history students summarize Quebec history in one sentence, at the John F. Kennedy High School in Montreal, Friday, February 21, 2014. (Marie-France Coallier / THE GAZETTE)
A team of researchers led by Université Laval historian Jocelyn Létourneau asked 3,423 students from Secondary 4 to university to summarize the history of Quebec in one sentence. These are the words that came up most often. Red words are from anglophone students, blue from francophones. The size represents the frequency of the word as a percentage of respondents. Photograph by: Wordle.net
“Some fear that the new curriculum may only emphasize a troubling trend uncovered in a novel 10-year study by Université Laval historian Jocelyn Létourneau. The scholar asked high school and university students to sum up the history of Quebec in one phrase. He found that while students may not have all the facts, dates and figures, they are clearly marked by an overwhelmingly negative view of the Québécois saga — one defined by endless struggle and repeated defeat.”