The Emperor's New History

I remember watching World Vision infomercials as a kid and understanding that something was very wrong. Images of emaciated children, some much younger than me, were scary to a seven year old. Although I may not have completely understood the subtleties of post-colonial Africa, it was a natural revulsion to the injustice of it all, even if I wasn’t old enough to comprehend just what that injustice meant. This is why I sometimes get mad when I visit museums.   

My girlfriend and I go to a lot of museums, galleries, and interpretive centers because we are two bleeding-heart academic liberal-types. As two twenty-somethings, we are always in the minority. These places, from my experience, cater exclusively to tourists, retirees, and families. The latter is the most popular, with the majority of attendees being groups of two or three tired adults promising a whole host of children Dairy Queen if they can behave themselves.

The subject matter of these cultural centers reflects a family friendly nature. There tend to be more interactive exhibits, simple language on interpretive placards, and multiple rooms dedicated solely for classroom style events. I don’t mind any of these adaptations in the slightest if it helps connect kids with information, but I can’t stand the sanitization that happens in the process.  

I recently went to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. As far as museums go, it was decent: the exhibits were relevant and fresh, the interpreters were charismatic and knowledgeable. However, near the end of the exhibit on indigenous history and culture, I read a placard that made my stomach drop. It was on the subject of Residential Schools.

"For some, attending residential school was a positive experience that taught useful life skills."

I don’t want to speak on behalf of the entire Canadian pan-native community, but as an aforementioned bleeding-heart liberal-type, I think it’s safe for me to say that Residential Schools are universally reviled across the country. They were nothing less than a humiliating form of ethno-social-genocide. If you’re the sort of person that reads liberal blog posts on the internet, I don’t have to convince you of this fact. What is worth thinking about is how we can teach children about the horrors of our nation’s past. 

To some, this might be a tricky balance. They don’t want to frighten their children, and history is filled with terrible, awful things that have been committed in the name of nation, god, or science. These are often the three things we want to teach kids that they can trust implicitly. 

This was part of the main animal exhibit, less than fifteen paces from a children's center. How is this any less graphic than the absolute truth about residential schooling?

Moreover, we romanticize childhood innocence, the idea that kids are somehow more pure for their ignorance of such matters. However, this is just that, a simple romanticization of the past. From the day kids watch TV, they know that the world is filled with terrible events and awful people. Knowledge of these things without understanding will only serve to coddle them. 

Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and they always have been. It’s not anything new, it’s not because of iPads, or the internet, or Miley Cyrus, or a thousand other timely references from which I could choose. Kids have always had a thirst for knowledge and understanding that we underestimate. What might be harder to explain is how we’ve made things right. That might require a quick subject change and trip to Dairy Queen.