In this weekend's Spectator, British historian Gavin Mortimer lamented the apparent paradox that millions of poppy-themed trinkets should inundate the U.K. over Remembrance Week but a majority of British high-schoolers cannot so much as date the start of either world war. "Once upon a time," he writes, "when history was still a serious subject in schools and kids had a grandparent or two to tell them a war story, we honoured our warriors with a plain old paper poppy. How quaint and uncommercial."
Though he would have no reason to know it, Mortimer's jeremiad hearkens back to a fiery debate that consumed Canadian historians exactly two decades ago, and for exactly the same reasons. Professor J.L. Granatstein sparked the furor by claiming—in a book entitled Who Killed Canadian History?—that the once-robust study of history in our public schools and universities had been gutted by "political correctness,” multicultural “airbrushing” and bureaucratic bungling. But what dispirited Granatstein above all was the growing gulf between the sacrifices made by Canada's ageing veterans and the perfunctory annual rituals observed by younger Canadians who had no genuine appreciation of what they meant.
These many years later, the brouhaha Granatstein put in motion seems, to borrow Mortimer's term, quaint. It did nothing to stop the precipitous decline of history as a taught subject. Indeed, it stands in retrospect as one of the more naïve intellectual conceits of the 1991-2001 Interregnum—the years between the end of the Cold War and 9/11—when it appeared that Francis Fukuyama was right and we really had achieved the end of history. Mortimer appears to believe, as Granatstein did before him, that young people should be force-fed history in school because it's good for them, like Vitamin K. But in an era of hyper-accelerated social, economic and especially technological change, it seems unlikely that the imaginations of the young will be diverted en masse from the frontiers of the future, even by the very best teachers.
We must face the music. The formal study of history is today akin to furniture restoration or butterfly collecting—a passion for committed antiquarians but no longer the sine qua non of engaged citizenship.