A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of fighting D.C. rush hour traffic a with one of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media. For anyone who doesn't know D.C. rush hour, that means we had a really long time to chat.
She is a Russian foreign exchange student; when I found this out, I instinctively went over everything I knew about Russian history in my head (I know, only a history buff would do something like that).
I recalled the book I read about Catherine the Great for a first year history essay; the battle of Stalingrad, which "Enemy at the Gates" brought to life; the communist regime which dominated sections of nearly every 20th century history course I've ever taken, and a dozen other facts.
When I mentioned that I was a Canadian foreign exchange student she said, "You know, I hate to say it. But, I know nothing of Canadian history." "We don't learn any of that."
This surprised me a little. I figured since we both shared soul crushing winters, that might evoke some interest in how we had coped with the bitter cold. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. That very same day at the George Mason University bookstore I had noted that you could buy history books on everywhere from Eithiopia to Finland, but not one on Canada. Last time I checked, even Harvard doesn't teach anything about Canadian history.
She probably thought of most of it as British history, I informed her. Prior to 1919, Canada had never even signed a treaty in its own right. That doesn't leave for much history to know, really. We found some common ground in the 1972 summit series between Canada and the USSR, and shared a laugh that Americans take so much pride in the 1980 "miracle on ice" (a tournament in which the best hundred or so Canadian players were too busy being paid in the NHL to compete).
I felt a bit wounded that this Russian girl knew nothing of my nation's history, but then I recalled that I know almost nothing about New Zealand's history. Even less about most sub-Saharan African, South and Central American, Scandinavian, Adriatic, South East Asian, and South Pacific countries.
In fact, I really only know the histories of a dozen or so nations. And perhaps only three or four well. The ones I do know tend to have had rather unwelcome influences on the world at some time or another, be that British colonialism, German expansionism, or American cultural dominance. So maybe no publicity is good publicity when it comes to history? Maybe we're just not obnoxious enough to be studied.
At least, that's what I'll tell myself.
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