It’s an image that endures. It’s not old enough for us to call it historical yet. It only goes back about 30 years. But the frames of video taken by an amateur videographer show a man in a white shirt, dark pants, facing a column of military tanks. It was June 4, 1989. It was the final day of the student-organized, non-violence demonstration at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, just before China’s People’s Liberation Army gunned down hundreds of civilians for protesting government corruption and lack of free speech.
“Tank Man,” they called him. But the Sunday Express newspaper in Britain later claimed the man was Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student, who’d joined the weeks-long protest, despite the threat of annihilation.
As I recall, it was an afternoon in February a few years ago. One of my journalism students came to me with a cell phone in his hands – you know the pose, with head bowed, eyes mesmerized, phone illuminating his face – and a look of incredulity. He looked up at me and announced the news.
“It says here Gordon Lightfoot is dead,” he said.
“What?” I said, then added with a tone of say it ain’t so in my voice “No.” Then, I asked him where he was reading such news.
The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.
“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.
I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”
At about 3 or 3:30 in the morning, one hardly expects anything very important to happen. After all, most civilized people are asleep in their beds at that hour. But last Tuesday night, I didn’t have any choice. I had to drive a long distance – between Winnipeg and Saskatoon – to arrive in time for a media appointment the next morning.
As I drove my car rental late that night, I suddenly became aware that the sky was growing brighter in the wrong place. Not behind me to the East where the sun would be rising in a couple of hours, but to the North. I dimmed the lights on the console of the car and peered off to my right.
“The Northern Lights,” I said to myself in a hushed tone, as if speaking the words aloud would scare them off. “Aurora borealis,” I added.
Maybe it’s the distance they have to travel from the centre of the country to where they live. It might be that they joined Canada (in 1905) later than did the original constituencies of Upper and Lower Canada. Or, quite possibly, it’s something in the air they breathe or the water they drink out there. But last week, when I asked a young Calgary woman how she felt about Canada, here’s what she said:
“My sense of Canada,” she said, “is that a lot more needs to be taught for the country to be understood by its people.”
On Friday morning, I delivered a kind of keynote address to the Calgary Catholic school board on the subject of experiential learning. I offered about 100 high-school teachers some insights about how to help history come alive. And indeed, the teacher I mentioned was absolutely right. Canadians aren’t taught enough about Canada these days. Ironically, the conditions under which I delivered my talk were not the most conducive to learning either; the teachers in my audience sat in bleachers in a basketball gymnasium at St. Mary’s High School in southwest Calgary.
“My job,” I told them last Friday morning, “is to help you forget that you’re sitting on hard, wooden bleachers in a high school gym.”
But I went on to suggest that my challenge was not unlike the job they faced every day – getting students figuratively out of their classroom chairs and literally excited about history, in particular, Canadian history. As many of you know, I can get pretty animated when I talk about people who’ve witnessed historical events – these days the Canadian participants in the Hollywood myth known as “The Great Escape.” And when I offered the story of one of their own, a Calgarian named Barry Davidson, that seemed to seal the deal.
“He learned to fly with a one-hangar flying club at the Calgary airport in 1937,” I explained. “And when he got his private pilot’s licence, he immediately offered his services to Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who was looking for pilots to defend Nationalist China. But the general turned him down. So instead, Davidson joined the RAF and was shot down over occupied Europe in 1940, instantly becoming a prisoner of war for the rest of the war.”
I’m a firm believer in putting a face on history. If teachers can make a historical figure come alive in the classroom – with an artifact, a letter, photograph or a well-researched yarn, they give students a way to connect. I also believe such work should be mandatory; in other words, I would make Canadian history as much a core subject as math, science and English literature. In Canada, we may be separated inextricably by geography, but we can help our history shrink the distances and bind young minds and hearts to the stories of their towns, their forefathers and their heroes, if curriculum and school managers give teachers ample opportunity to deliver Canadian history right between the eyes of every kid in the country.
Ironically, I think Alberta is one of only three education jurisdictions where history curriculum is mandatory. In other words, I was preaching to the converted last Friday in Calgary. Part of the additional problem is the means of delivering the history too. Today, most young people have too much information at their disposal – thanks to social media and the internet. They’re also quite frankly too wrapped up in the world of “me,” whether it’s YouTube, their following on Twitter and Facebook or shooting “selfies” at every opportunity. On one hand I think most teachers would encourage such self-expression. On the other, always pointing the world’s cameras and attention inward might make even the most altruistic Canadians far too preoccupied with themselves to realize there’s more to the country than what’s happened in the lifetime of a 16-year-old.
When he was still a teenager in 1940, Calgarian Barry Davidson had joined the Royal Air Force, become a pilot officer and first combat operations over occupied France. On July 6, on just his second flight with an RAF bomber squadron, Davidson’s Blenheim aircraft was shot down. From his POW prison cell in Germany he sent a first letter home to his parents.
“Looks like I am in cold storage for the duration,” he wrote.
Only for Davidson, the adventure of his wartime experience – as the famous “scrounger” at the famous Stalag Luft III “Great Escape” camp – was just beginning. And as I offered Davidson’s story to the history faculty in Calgary last week, I asked the women teachers in the audience who Pilot Officer Davidson reminded them of.
“Why Brad Pitt, of course!” one blurted out.
Then, it hit me. Maybe that’s what we’ve been missing in the presentation of Canadian history to young people – selling the sizzle of our heroes as much as the substance. Maybe Hollywood has it right after all.
Earlier this week, in a news-reporting course I teach at Centennial College, something suddenly interrupted the classroom discussion. It was just after 8:30 on Tuesday morning and a number of my students had their heads down. I recognized the posture. They were texting on their smartphones beneath their desks. I was about to call them on it, when I realized the source of the distraction.
“Oscar nominations just out,” one of them admitted to me.
This was perhaps his only opportunity to address the electorate in a debate for the 2010 municipal election. His competitors for councillor in the ward were in the public hall in person. But municipal candidate Joe Amarelo could not be present. A family emergency had forced him to miss the event. He did, nevertheless, have an impact on the meeting. A statement he’d written was read.
“I see unresolved issues in our town, including vandalism,” Amarelo’s statement read. “It’s important to … create a dialogue. Why not have a Youth Day?”
I walked into my History of Broadcasting class last Friday morning. I told those present – about 50 Broadcasting and Film students at Centennial College in Toronto – that I was tossing out the lesson plan that day. I suggested I had a more contemporary issue on my mind. But I didn’t want to colour their responses. I simply asked for their take on the alleged gang rape of that student near Vancouver earlier in the week.
Hands up, if you believed the statement that President Barack Obama is a radical Muslim who would not recite the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. Or more recently, and closer to home, the story that began circulating last Thursday, that Canadian folk music icon Gordon Lightfoot is dead. When the legendary singer-songwriter heard about his so-called demise he contacted the Toronto media outlet CP24.
“I haven’t gotten that much airplay of my songs in weeks,” he told them.