News and events
MARCH 15, 2013
This year, history made it to the Oscars as never before. Four of the nominees for best picture were about historical events: Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained. All four unleashed debates over the films’ accuracy and the role of movies in shaping our knowledge of the past.
Does it matter if Argo turns the rescue of Americans into a CIA rather than a Canadian operation? Yes, it does. But as a historian, I see another problem. The debates over these films emphasize factual accuracy and completeness. In doing so, they reinforce common misunderstandings about what history is and what it is for.
A common view is that historians are mere fact-grubbers. Occasionally, they enter the real world to correct errors made by people doing important things, whether in politics, war, business or movie-making. The real world moves on, whether corrected or not, and the historian returns to her burrow in the archives.
Can we please throw such notions into our garbage cans where they belong? History is not the past, dead and gone for all but a few fact-obsessed zealots. History is the past that exists in the present: It is the social memory that guides us between past, present and future. Without it, we have amnesia, and we cannot see our way clearly.
History is also a set of skills, a big toolbox that is applied to problems in the real world. It is what some people call “soft skills,” although the skills are hard to acquire. They are skills that employers value: fast and comprehensive evidence-gathering, systematic analysis, clear reasoning, teamwork and effective communication. Above all, history is about change over time: how to understand change, how to evaluate multiple causes, how to put change in context. History is these things.
Consider the testimony of Tamara Vrooman (MA in history), CEO of Vancity and former deputy minister of finance for B.C.: “Much of my work requires making sound, reasoned and objective arguments based on evidence and data which are often incomplete and difficult to interpret. Often, this requires the ability to explain and defend the assumptions and the analysis publicly. If this isn’t the practice of history, I don’t know what is.”
On the value of the skill set of historians and other humanists, consider what Google did in 2011. Google vice-president Marissa Mayer announced the projected hiring of 6,000 people — “probably 4,000-5,000 from the humanities or liberal arts.”
Consider the pattern of job growth in Canada. Statistics Canada tells us that job growth between 2007 and 2011 was fastest in health-related occupations (a 16 per cent increase). Job growth was also strong in “art, culture, recreation and sport” (13 per cent), which was ahead of “natural and applied sciences” (eight per cent). Of the million job openings expected in B.C. between 2010 and 2020, 78 per cent are likely to require post-secondary education, and there will be a demand for graduates in all fields.
Of course, a bachelor’s degree in humanities does not get you a job by itself. The BA is what a high school diploma was generations ago. Today, it is one stage in a long education pathway.
History is not a job ticket. It is a mental discipline, a strengthening of specific muscles that we all use in seeing and knowing. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” wrote the novelist L.P. Hartley.
History takes us to that other country and back to the present, where we see our world with the empathy of an experienced traveller, with a new respect for people of different cultures, with a keen eye for the trivial and the transitory, and with a renewed sense of the goods we should value and the evils we should discard.
It may be that Lincoln got some facts wrong about who voted for or against the amendment to abolish slavery. Such small errors detract little from an entertaining film about the Lincoln that Americans know and even revere.
Elsewhere, history was doing its work. A week after Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln, Andrew Preston, a Canadian, won the Charles Taylor prize for his history of religion in American politics. Among other achievements, Preston’s book gives us a new portrait of Lincoln: a Christian for whom the Civil War was a moral crusade. In a small but important way, Preston has changed the world as we know it. He gave us not just facts, but a necessary wisdom about the enduring religious roots of American politics.
Eric W. Sager is a member of the University of Victoria’s history department.
On June 3rd, Victoria's Congregation Emanu-El will be celebrating the 150th Anniversary of its downtown synagogue, the oldest in Canada (for information on the celebration, see:
In this panel discussion, the current Rabbi of the shul joins scholars to discuss the significance of this anniversary in the history of the community, the city, and Jewish memorial projects.
Date: Monday, June 3
Place: It will take place in the sanctuary of Congregation Emanu-El at 1461 Blanshard Street.
This is a free event that is open to the public.
Harry Brechner, Rabbi, Congregation Emanuel: The place of the 150th Anniversary in the Spiritual Life of a Community
Zhongping Chen, History, University of Victoria: Victoria's Chinatown: A Gateway to the Past and Present of Chinese Canadians
Faith Jones, History, UBC: Jewish Identity and Memory: The Online Yizkor Book Project
Richard Menkis, History, UBC: Weaving Together Heritage, Identity, and Memory
This panel is presented jointly by Congregation Emanu-El, the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies, the Canadian Historical Association, and The City Talks. Richard Menkis and Jordan-Stanger-Ross, co-convenors.
Monday, June 3rd
Legacy Gallery, 630 Yates Street at Broad and Yates.
Moderator: Dave Obee, Editor in Chief of the Victoria Times Colonist.
|Wayne Axford||Former President, B.C. Social Studies Teachers
|Jim Clifford||Co-editor ActiveHistory.ca|
President of the Canadian Historical Association,
|Greg Kealey||Retired Professor of History and former Provost
and VP Research, UNB
Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Political
|Tina Loo||Canada Research Chair in Environmental History UBC|
|Michael Marker||Associate Professor of Educational Studies, UBC|
Co-sponsored by the Canadian Historical Association and the Department of History, UVic
Intersections and Edges/Intersections et limites
June 3, 2013 – June 5, 2013
The University of Victoria is proud to host the 2013 meeting of the Canadian Historical Association.
Thinking About Grad School in History?
Prospective Graduate Students for Sept. 2013:
We will continue to accept applications on an ongoing basis.
UVic's History Department is described by external reviewers as one of the best in the country and the university has consistently ranked in the top two Canadian comprehensive universities for the past six years (MacLean’s). UVic is the top-ranked Canadian university (without a medical school) in the Times Higher Education’s 2011 World University Rankings.
The department offers both a one-year course work and a two-year thesis MA option. The department includes 33 historians, with national and international reputations. We are particularly strong in a range of subjects in Canadian history and in early modern and modern Britain and Europe, and also have considerable strength in American, World and Asian history. The department also offers particular expertise in Indigenous, military, digital and public history. Among the course options available are three field schools (Ethnohistory with the Stó:lõ; the Holocaust Field School; The Colonial Legacies Field School: South Africa to the 21st Century); other options include Co-op (which alternates school and work terms) and a congruent Diploma in Cultural Heritage Studies for those interested in museum or heritage work.
For more information visit http://www.uvic.ca/humanities/history/graduate/index.php or contact Dr. John Lutz, Graduate Director, email@example.com.
Spend three weeks in South Africa and learn on-the-ground about impacts of colonial histories in everyday life and on rural and urban landscapes; sustainable rural development; apartheid and reconciliation; grassroots anti-poverty initiatives; community responses to HIV/AIDS; gender and development; land, labour and global economy; modes of historical memory.
Field school faculty: Dr. Elizabeth Vibert and doctoral candidate Megan Harvey, UVic History
3rd and 4th-year students from all disciplines are welcome to apply
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