Monday, November 20, 2006

Learning a lot.

I came back this afternoon from a day-and-a-half Historica Council meeting. I'm not sure what I expected the thing to be like, but boy I did not expect what I experienced!

The Council is a large body which advises the foundation's Board of Directors, and is made up of a number of committees that do a bit of work each year. Council members come from across the country, and include teachers and historians as well as a large number of business/corporate types. At the meeting were also representatives of most of the provincial boards of education and a smattering of academics. The annual Council meeting is a chance for members to come together and deal with business, but primarily (to my mind at least) a chance for the foundation's staff and board to show what they've been up to and are planning. The event was well organized and expensive, with members and invited guests---including me!---brought in to Toronto, housed, and wined and dined on the foundation's tab.

So, I learned about the foundation, both from what I heard and what I gleaned from the discussions. But, what was most valuable and completely unexpected from the weekend was what I learned about different kinds of people. I have spent most of my recent life in the company of academic and intellectual types, engaging with them and learning from them. What this weekend afforded me a chance to do was learn something about how "bean counters" and others like them think. And, wow, what an experience!

These people are not intellectuals. Don't get me wrong: these are smart, accomplished, very successful people, highly respected in their fields and for their contributions to Canadian society. I have no quibble with any of these things (though for the most part I have to take this on faith, not knowing much about these people personally). They are also generally friendly, if not super chatty with outsiders (i.e. me). They have lead interesting lives, have good ideas, and are extremely capable, efficient people, able to make things happen in a relatively short amount of time.

All of this is great, of course. But what I came to realize the more I listened and interacted with them, is this: They have not been taught or encouraged to ask why. They are not critical thinkers in the way that many of my friends and colleagues are. We try not to essentialize or accept things as fact without analyzing our thought processes. Or, at least, this is what we are supposed to do. "Just because" is never a sufficient answer, and we struggle to teach our undergraduate students this. We understand the power of discourse---not only because language is a marketing tool, but because it creates reality.

The one lesson I take away from this weekend is that communication is crucial. If people from different backgrounds and worlds are to understand each other, we must try to speak each others languages from time to time. The "bean counters" recognized that they did not understand "academese," and quickly became frustrated by this. But who can blame them? The academics were on their turf, and it was thus up to the academics to translate their ways of communicating into the appropriate language. Of the two main "academic" speakers at the meeting, one did this more successfully than the other. At first, I interpreted his talk as less sophisticated than the other one. And although I was right, I also missed the point: He may have been grappling with less complex ideas, but he also managed to make himself understood very well. Incredibly well, in fact. What an accomplishment for a talk which was delivered without any visual aids coming right after a long visually- and orally-stimulating (if mentally unchallenging) presentation. Impressive, that.

The second academic speaker was eloquent, engaging, and just plain impressive. To my mind. But left most of the audience members cold. This was partly because they did not understand where he was coming from---a failure on the part of the foundation, I think, to communicate effectively ahead of time to Council members. But it was also because he simply was not speaking the right language. I'm sure Council members are certainly capable of grasping most of what he was talking about without too much difficulty. He took away from the weekend a very valuable lesson about communication, and the challenge ahead of him will be to translate the complexity of his ideas to people who aren't used to thinking critically. And this is a necessary task. If he---and the others involved---fails to communicate effectively to a "general audience," and especially to a group of people dedicated to history education in Canada, the project will likely fail. This would be a sad thing; the foundation is involved in creating an exciting set of tools for ministries of education, teachers, and all others interested in history education and "historical consciousness."

My weekend was clearly a learning experience for me, and I'm very grateful to the foundation for having a chance to participate in it. It was also interesting (for reasons both mundane and intellectual) to meet and see people whose names I have heard and books I have read. I shook hands with Charlotte Gray (whom former CTV head Trina McQueen thought was representing the Dominion Institute!), heard Denise Chong report on the work of her committee, had a little disagreement with Desmond Morton, questioned Irving Abella, met current and former commissioners of two of the northern territories---and heard one of them speak in Inuvialuit "to make a point." I also got caught up with a couple of my old profs from Carleton who are on the Council. And that was great; I missed them! I talked with a woman from the Manitoba Ministry of Education who is one of three people who are now coming up with the grade 11 history curriculum. She thinks about philosophy and history and deals with teachers and issues of pedagogy on a daily basis. How exciting. Former Senator Laurier LaPierre was there, vigorously and passionately opposing what he saw as the academic takeover of the foundation! A former chancellor of York University was similarly unimpressed, though less agitated. I could go on. (And see me if you want my personal assessments of these people.) Oh, and I should mention that I came home with a "swag bag." Nice, if a little silly.

Tomorrow, another conference!


Anonymous said...

You talk about using critical thinking, yet you link to Wikipedia. Do you really think this is a reliable source of information?

AG said...

Oooh, zing. It's like y'all's not listening to her. Critical thinking is precisely why JP can link to Wikipedia; it is A SOURCE of information, and as long as you approach it with reserve and a critical mind (ie. without assumptions of reliability) it is a fine source in this venue. Oh yeah, and JP sure does have an A-number-1 knack for criticism.