Alberta’s pursuit of a new K-12 public school curriculum has been a long slog. An ambitious curriculum re-development project was initiated by a Progressive Conservative government in 2008. The project was continued by the NDP government after it defeated the Conservatives in 2015. With the defeat of the NDP in 2019, the work accomplished was trashed by the incoming UCP who would have nothing to do with “socialist indoctrination.” The UCP then presented its own hastily constructed version in 2021.

It was not well received. Criticized harshly by parents, teachers, and scholars who argued that the social studies programs in particular were developmentally inappropriate and full of errors, school boards across the province refused to even pilot it. Back to the drawing board.

We now have the 2024 social studies version. It has not been received with overwhelming enthusiasm either. Larry Booi, former president of the Alberta Teachers Association, refers to it as “misguided, unsophisticated, and actually embarrassing,” adding that the history parts are “randomly and arbitrarily arranged.” 

Indeed much of the debate centres around history, what to teach and how to teach it. No doubt everyone has there own idea of what historical knowledge our budding citizens should have as well as how they should approach the subject.

I certainly do. I look at Canadian culture and I ask myself what is the most important part of it, the truly valuable part. It isn’t the food, or the music, or our accomplishments in science or business. We do well in all these areas, but they don’t really get at the soul of what we are about. What makes this country special is its freedom, its democracy and its human rights. There aren’t a lot of other societies in the world past or present that meet our standards in these areas. Personally, I would trade pretty much anything else we have to retain this part of our culture.

And why do have it? Because of the Enlightenment, of course, the intellectual and philosophical movement that occurred primarily in Western Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Not only is the Enlightenment the most important period of history for lovers of freedom and democracy, it is living history. Much history we teach is locked in the past, dead and gone. But Enlightenment ideals—liberty, progress, tolerance, democracy, freedom of expression, constitutional government, separation of church and state, and so on—are very much alive. We live this history every day and I dearly hope we will live it long into the future.

Enlightenment history even carries with it an answer to the question of how it should be taught. The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, emphasized reason, thinking for yourself and skepticism of traditional authority, i.e. critical thinking. Out of this came a belief in the inherent rights and equality of all human beings, the idea that all should be free and equal.

If we owe our British heritage anything, it is this core belief. Wherever the British Empire went it left the seeds of democracy behind, an inheritance from the Enlightenment.

The failure to appreciate the empire’s dispersing of Enlightenment values often results in us misunderstanding its contribution to the best of who we are. Consider, for example, the Atlantic slave trade. This was a wicked practice indeed, but when the empire began, slavery was universal and had been since before the dawn of civilization. It was practiced in what is now Canada long before the Europeans arrived. But then the British did something quite remarkable, something no empire had ever done before. They not only abolished slavery, they campaigned globally against it. They raised the bar of human morality, again acting out the influence of the Enlightenment. Lacking that influence we would not be judging slavery today, we would be practising it.

But we don’t. Our constitution demands that we treat all people equally and that they all have the right to share equally in making our laws and governing ourselves. We are children of the Enlightenment. Now this is history worth teaching, n’est-ce pas?

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