Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The fact that some people deserve a good killing is not, by itself, a persuasive argument for capital punishment. There's no particular evidence that the death penalty deters crime (last year, American states with the death penalty had nearly twice the homicide rates of states without it), and the principle of an "eye for an eye" belongs to the long list of cruel and tyrannical Old Testament injunctions that should give a moment of pause to those who believe that scripture both automatically and axiomatically provides instruction in good morals. But the foremost objection to the death penalty is more straightforward: so long as the sentencing option exists, there is a chance that it will be carried out on an innocent person.

The Innocence Project has a list of over 300 wrongly convicted felons – many of them freed on the basis of DNA evidence, while the Death Penalty Information Center maintains a list of an astonishing 133 convicts released from death row after having been exonerated. Nearly sixty of these cases occurred in the last 10 years. There certainly are some sociopathic killers who seem to have abdicated their right to life, but my concern is with the innocent. The evidence suggests that the probability of sentencing error is very far from negligible, and death is the one form of punishment for which no compensation could be provided in the event of error.

Polls show that most Canadians want the death penalty back , but polls also reveal that people favour all kinds of frightening and undemocratic ideas (such as random police searches of homes) if you ask them in the right way. Fortunately, there is little chance that the death penalty will return. Our Parliamentarians are, I am convinced, mostly incompetent, but there's something to be said for stupid people running things, provided that they're also lazy, because at least they accomplish nothing, whereas stupid people with ambition can do all kinds of damage.

At any rate, I suspect that the death penalty never will return to my country. If it does, however, executions absolutely must be made public again. The people crying for blood don't get to shield their eyes from it when it is spilled.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


A month ago, I had been prepared to tell my senior students that they should under no circumstances go to graduate school, much as this author did in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. (It's worth reading.) I still think that it's a momentous decision, and not something one should choose by default. If you're one of those people who just loves to learn, well, the library and a book club can probably satisfy those cravings just as well as more school. As I've argued elsewhere, it may very well be the case that doing a PhD will actually impede your personal education. Moreover, the academic job market is very tough and getting tougher year by year. Some people are publishing monographs before their PhD is done these days, and I have heard of candidates for academic jobs who have hired personal trainers, wardrobe consultants, and even voice coaches in preparation for their interviews.

Of the past 30 graduates from my former department's PhD program, nine have secured full-time academic positions. Moreover, in the past two years that program alone has graduated more PhDs in Canadian history than there have been academic openings for full-time historians of Canada in the entire country. You heard me right: in terms of numbers, that one program could supply the needs of the every university in the country for new tenure-stream professors of Canadian history. For those graduating with PhDs in American and European history, they are in competition for an equally small number of jobs, but arrayed against them is a potentially larger pool of applicants, including graduates from elite America and European universities.

If you get a tenure-stream position anywhere, it will be because you beat at least fifty or sixty others who applied for the same job. I know of one recent case where there were more than one hundred applicants for a single position. This should give even the most gifted undergraduate, thinking about graduate school, some serious pause. The six or seven years you are about to spend getting your PhD are not a meal ticket, and your chances of getting a full-time academic appointment are probably less than one-in-five. Oh, I know: there's a wave of retirements coming up. And we will all have flying cars and live in domed cities on the moon.

However: over lunch with a former student on Saturday, something occurred to me that made me reconsider my pessimism. In 1999-2000, the year I began my Master of Arts degree, my program at the University of Western Ontario accepted five M.A. and two PhD students. It was a remarkably small cohort, even for those days, and I got to know the others in classes of just two or three. Of those seven people, I know not the whereabouts of two. Of the remaining five, an astonishing four now have full-time university appointments. Lynn, whose dissertation won a major award from the Organization of American Historians, is associate professor of history at Lethbridge; Amy is an assistant professor at the same institution, and has an accomplished new book out; Andrew is assistant professor at Laurentian, has a book out and another under review (I know that none among my cohort will object when I say that he was the brilliant one); I am myself at King's University College at UWO. And the fifth? Well, he's doing what he wants to do, too: Peter's a high school teacher, which was his plan all along.

Not bad. In fact, staggeringly good. I doubt if any cohort from any graduate program anywhere in Canada in the past decade can claim to have done so well: of the four people who entered wanting academic appointments, all of us got them, and very shortly after our respective graduations, too.

But there was more to it than that, even, at least for me. I entered graduate school both professionally and intellectually unprepared, and the shock of encountering serious people such as these, while studying under the tutelage of senior professors with decades of experience, helped me to realize that I had a great deal of work to do if I was going to make it through.

In the mega-cohorts of today — my former program will accept approximately seventy new graduate students this fall —I would almost certainly have come to a bad end. Instead, I emerged from my course work and field exams incomparably better off than I was before – and in large measure for having been in the company of a cohort of such excellent people, people who were far more generous of spirit to me than I was to them. I realize that a gesture of thanks, however sincere, can seem somehow hollow when it arrives ten years after the fact, but I offer it nonetheless.

For my graduating students, then, I offer the following reconsideration. I know that you are probably quite uncertain and perhaps even afraid right now. After so many Septembers of school, the prospect of something different must be very unsettling. And it is undoubtedly true that when you enter the workforce, it may very well be near the bottom, and you will have to spend some years paying your dues and climbing the ladder. We all have to do things in life that we do not want to do; in measure, doing them can ennoble us, and is part of leading a good life. But we also live in what most certainly is the healthiest and wealthiest society in the history of the world, and yet so many of us seem to endure rather than enjoy our lives. If I have had one truly staggering realization over the past ten years, it is this: life is short. We have four thousand weeks, if we are lucky. So if you feel that you must do more school – not in the sense that you don't know what else to do, but in the sense that you would not enjoy your life if you didn't– then do it. Do it. Life is too short to live in alienation from yourself. Find a good school – a small school, if you can; get to know people; make friends; be generous; work hard; read outside your field; go for beer sometimes; pass on what you have learned; accept the reality of the job market, and hope that chance will favour you with classmates such as those that I had.

Monday, May 4, 2009


This column will be of interest to history teachers only, and I don't think that many of them will like what I have to say. But I've been thinking about this for a decade now, and it's time. If it makes you feel better about me, take note: what I'm about to say is far, far less radical than a lot of what you'll read in most pedagogy journals that are available in your libraries.

If you have not yet read my columns entitled "Teaching", "Learning", and, especially, "Reflecting", or if you have forgotten them, you should read them before this one, as they form part of an extended argument about what I believe to be a much-needed curricular reform in my profession.

I contend that the manner in which history typically is taught to first and second year undergraduates, with its emphasis on "coverage" of the historical narrative, serves neither the purposes of imparting a sophisticated and lasting understanding of history, nor of fulfilling the loftier purposes of a liberal education. Those lofty purposes aren't discussed; the history is forgotten in short order. Such are the consequences of adhering to "coverage" - of demanding breadth over depth.

Most disciplines have survey courses, but in history they are considered the backbone of an undergraduate education – "Plato to NATO" courses, they are sometimes called. Surveys are designed, in theory, to provide students with a foundation upon which further, more specialized studies can be built. In my last three entries I argued that that the unavoidable tendencies towards superficiality in survey course coverage, combined with the well-documented inadequacies of our attention spans, of memory, and of our ability to apply lessons outside of their immediate curricular context, present serious queries against the standard justifications for why and how we teach history.

What, then, is the solution? The first step is to discard the whole notion of the survey with its emphasis on "coverage". Rather than trying to survey a whole field— which will in the case of all but the most unusual student lead to superficial understanding — we should reduce drastically the number of topics covered. A mentor of mine once joked that he had fifty lectures and fifty decades to cover, so it worked out well. I propose, instead, that we examine a very small number of topics in great depth rather than many in surface detail for the sake of doing so.

In American history this might involve, say, a careful, lengthy, multifaceted, and indeed interdisciplinary examination of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the social and political upheaval of the 1960s. Everything else would be left aside. In this way, weeks rather than an hour or two could be devoted to each topic. In Canadian history, it might involve the conquest of New France, Confederation, the First World War, and a thematic topic such the creation of a social welfare state or dominion-provincial relations. It needn't be those topics, of course: the point is to promote deep and lasting understanding of a few important issues, as a means of teaching the real lesson. The real lesson is not "the narrative" (this can be learned by anyone willing to a read a textbook.) The point is to teach students disciplinary methodology by exposing them to different approaches to a single subject, to encourage them to approach the subject in an interdisciplinary fashion, and, perhaps most critically, to offer them actual opportunities to apply what they have learned outside of the confines of the classroom.

At this point, I know I have lost many of you. You're wondering, "But what about all the other important stuff that they won't learn if I don't lecture about it?" My response is that they're not really learning it anyway, and I'm willing to bet that you saw ample evidence of this on your last set of final exams. I'm sure that, like most professors, you spend much of your time these days not sure whether or laugh or cry over exam answers such as, "the Emancipation Proclamation was Woodrow Wilton's idea to give women the right to vote." (Yes, I actually got this.)

While the emphasis on coverage will only produce a marginal and short-lasting understanding, an in-depth examination of a few topics could have an entirely different outcome. As Howard Gardner argues in The Disciplined Mind, "Only a rich, probing, and multifaceted investigation of significant topics, makes it reasonably likely that more sophisticated understandings will emerge." If "gaps" between the topics covered in depth really need to be filled — and in some cases they will be — they could be covered by the simple act of having students read from a good textbook. This, too, will produce a surface understanding, but it will be sufficient to support the immediate curricular needs , and the students will graduate from the class better equipped and, hopefully, more willing to explore those other topics in greater depth on their own. The purpose of an education, after all, should be to equip students to go on learning for their entire lives - not just to prepare them for the final exam.

Imagine history classes where we could say, "Next day, we're going to take an hour to discuss how differing historical perspectives on the New Deal might shed light on the Obama's administration's bailout plan" or "One of the stated goals of this institution is the building of moral character - let's go beyond a recitation of the mere facts of the bombing of Dresden, and spend some time assessing them in the light of moral philosophy. Get on your laptops. After the break, I want you to tell me what Utilitarianism is, and why it might be useful for this discussion."

Needless to say, the approach I am proposing will require us to reduce the number and length of lectures that we give in favour of other instructional approaches. This should not alarm us. We have not years, but decades, of research that has by now demonstrated quite conclusively that even well-designed and expertly delivered lectures are only about as good as solitary reading for conveying raw information and not much good at all for engaging higher-order thought processes. Study after study has proved conclusively that students need to be engaged actively in their own learning: at times, listening, but also and predominantly discussing, debating, reading, researching, writing about, and teaching the subject to themselves and others. Much more than lip service needs to devoted to these approaches.

The allegation will be made that I am saying that students have no responsibility for their own education, and people will protest that the old methods worked just fine for them. I'll leave aside the obvious observation about anecdotal evidence, and merely note that the approach that I am proposing hugely increases students' responsibility for their own education by reducing the emphasis on the professor as the fountain of all knowledge. But it also involves a proportional and somewhat intimidating increase in the responsibility of the professor. No longer a sage upon the stage, the professor becomes a fellow traveler, pointing the way ahead, as Shaw put it in another context, ahead of ourselves as well as of our students.