We’ve all heard that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It’s such a common expression because it’s such a good one. Our ancestors made mistakes just like we all do every day. Blame is unimportant compared to understanding. We don’t blame the German people for the Holocaust despite the fact that Adolf Hitler was elected. Instead, we understand that a process of corruption, propaganda and fear tactics unfolded over the course of more than a decade to produce the Holocaust.
The March 1933 German elections were rife with voter intimidation spearheaded by the Nazi Party and Hitler, who was already appointed in a powerful role as Chancellor, pushing through the Enabling Act of 1933 to quietly turn the democracy into a dictatorship. Hitler’s reasoning for pushing the Enabling Act was that it would prevent his government from depending on the support of other parties, effectively giving him a majority government despite being elected as a minority government. This doesn’t sound so bad, until one realizes that it eliminated all of the checks and balances in a formerly democratic government. Knowing this piece of history is a valuable lesson in what to look for in a potentially corrupt government or leader, even to this day.
Why are we so afraid of history? It’s completely possible to be ashamed of one’s past without being fearful of it. I am horrified, for example, by the atrocities of the former residential school system where so many Indigenous children were abused. I’m ashamed that it was my ancestors who lacked the compassion and intelligence to realize how wrong the whole system was. I can’t even wrap my head around the trauma that must have been caused by having one’s children literally stolen by intimidating government and church officials. But that doesn’t mean I’m afraid to talk about residential schools or learn about them. As ordinary people, we need to appreciate the severity of the mistakes we are capable of making so that we can also develop ways to avoid making these same mistakes in the future.
One thing that we seem to be most afraid of in the world of 2023 is a lack of inclusion. I’m not complaining – inclusion is important and is the only way forward in a world that works for all – but I often don’t agree with the way we’re getting there.
In Toronto’s Peel District School Board, there seems to be a new “equity-based book weeding process” in place, possibly at the request of the Ministry of Education, as reported by CBC News last week. “[Students, parents, and community members] say the new process, intended to ensure library books are inclusive, appears to have led some schools to remove thousands of books solely because they were published in 2008 or earlier,” says the article.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has stated in a release that he disagrees with this process, coming down hard against the practice of removing books from schools in the name of inclusion. The entire situation is quite complicated, with a full slate of fingers pointed at other fingers. A true spider web of blame seems to be in the weaving process.
When Times staff first came across the news of what was happening in Toronto, all eyes suddenly settled on me, an educator in the local public school system now in my 8th school year. “Does this happen around here?” was the inevitable question. The answer is unsurprisingly complicated. I am relatively confident that books are not removed from school shelves locally solely on the basis of their publication date. It is also true that all libraries – school or public – must have a weeding process. There would never be room for new books to come in if outdated, irrelevant, unpopular, and damaged books didn’t get removed from the shelves.
What is concerning in my view is that over the years, there really has been a disrespect for school libraries in local schools. When I was a UCDSB student, we had packed libraries and full time librarians. In the era of education cuts, one of the most vulnerable positions is that of the school librarian – or “Learning Commons Informationist” as they are now called, in homage to the digital age.
I don’t know of any local school that has a full time librarian any more. At schools I have visited and worked in, libraries seem to be shrinking year by year. This is the time for us to seriously step back and realize that the printed word is true history. We may now favour the internet for research because the information can be updated in real time, but just as information can be updated quickly on the internet, so too can it be faked or altered. Is it possible to print false words? Of course, but a book dated by a historian to be 100 years old is a snapshot of history, and one that can never be faked or altered without detection. It matters not whether the contents are inclusive – it’s important that we know of our human history so that we can learn from it.
I’m prepared to make a bold statement here: if we did not teach our children history in schools, then today’s world would be a truly awful and non-inclusive place. To whom do people give credit for the freedoms and equality of the modern world? Who do we think is responsible for the mindset of diversity and inclusion and acceptance that we now enjoy in 2023? Who gets credit for legalized gay marriage, the abolition of residential schools, and the freedom to live by preferred gender pronouns? Did new, forward thinking attitudes simply materialize like magic after centuries of what we would now deem to be oppressive crimes against humanity? No – we learned and evolved from history.
The only conclusion to draw here is that the next time someone thinks of burning a book, they need to give their head a shake and go buy some wood.