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Philosophy of an Ethical History

History will have to be justified. We cannot go on teaching the same humdrum, plain-vanilla, without an explanation, or justification. We will need to know if history can ever do good, and by what criteria we are to judge its success.

There are some things we know that history cannot exist in the sake of. Yet it is “in the sake of” them anyway.

It should not be our source of pride or solidarity. The nature of these two powers is to eliminate reflection. “Solidarity” only entails groupthink, and “pride” just means a lack of self-criticism. However, in a democracy, we should always be critical.

Love is good because it is impermanent and is instinctively universal. Solidarity and pride have trouble disappearing – they exploit love, make it private.

Solidarity with US troops was demanded from the population, as they ravaged the country of Vietnam. Love composed the countercurrent beatnik artistic and humanitarian movement. Not coincidentally, the prideful abided by the myth of US greatness perpetuated by the schoolhouse. The lovers sought to correct their history.

To understand what should go into a history requires that we imagine some morality to guide the system of picking and choosing. I have already accepted love and democracy and refused solidarity and pride. This is a good start. The shared goal of love and democracy is to better mankind, this planet, and its birds. Both would be directionless if they misunderstood how to do so. Therefore, it becomes imperative that people comprehend “right” and “wrong”, and integrate them into a cherished system of values. It is only through an understanding of justice that love and democracy can flourish.

What is taught in history becomes what will guide people to better the world. “Make them passionate about right and wrong,” I order. History finds its utility in being able to stir emotions. “Show them human tragedy and evil. Show them human triumph and righteousness.” This is the only way that we become passionate, and are moved to acting for others.

What would this entail?

First, it must mean that no facts are distorted. History is full of actual tragedies – there is no need to invent them.

Secondly, it would not entail that we be absolute about something’s goodness. If there is any confusion over the goodness of some old French practice, discuss it. Discuss and cite the expert opinions on a contentious issue. The teaching of history as though it is one large consensus is a perennial mistake.

Thirdly, yes, it would mean abandoning our “linear” narrative, which places too much importance on influential events. The battle of the Plains of Abraham, although it altered the course of our history, does not deserve more than one whisper. The details of the battle will change the lives of too few.

Too often, the description of politicians, armies, commerce, and infrastructure projects, fuel the same crime. Interesting events like the arrival of the Filles du Roi will be cut along with much of the excess. That’s fine. Any history will be full of anecdotes. It is only in an ethical history where situations are both intriguing and inspiring.

History will become a conversation on the real people that have walked this earth. History should disclose the liveliness of Little Burgundy’s black community, the resilience of the First Nations. It will be the story of feminist rallies, speeches, and thinkers. Of workers who unionized, and picketed. Of veterans that marched in peace protests. Of poets, artists, writers, and philosophers that moved the hearts of our nation.

It will do all this, for creativity and the soul’s direction, and then it will condemn. But only by revealing.

The disgusting history of genocide, 4,000 slaves, too many residential schools, the intolerant tyranny of Duplessis, the abuse of the working class, the gobbledygooked corruption of politicians, the suppression of the right to protest and free speech (always respected dubiously), the racism, the black-face, the calamities of the present: all of it a cautionary tale on human nature. All of it will be revealed.

Only if these stories are told can we be inspired. Under these circumstances, one becomes critical of our institutions. This is a scary thought to most governments. It is why so little of political discussion on education pertains to its substance.

In the writing of a history, all national loyalties should be abandoned in favour of a clearer conception of what is good. “Solidarity”? “Pride”? I wish I never heard those words.

The alternative is so much better. An ethical history spreads love in all its fullness.


Written by: Samuel Helguero

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