A Logical Paradox and a Historical Quarrel

About 600 B. C., Epimenides, a Cretan, declared that all Cretans lie all the time. This seemed to imply that, if he was telling the truth, he was lying, and vice versa. Philosophers have wrestled with this apparent logical paradox ever since. Some think they have successfully resolved it, by introducing devices like different ‘levels of language’, but it still makes ordinary readers uncomfortable.

The paradox in pure logic disappears if qualifiers are added, instead providing something like this: ‘Epimenides was a Cretan who claimed to belong to the .1% of Cretans who did not lie all the time, and felt himself justified in claiming that 99.9% of Cretans did.’ But this introduces a different kind of problem, one about history and historians. Finding the truth about Epimendes and his fellow Cretans could be just as difficult, and even more complicated. The qualified and non-contradictory statement brings in three new levels, since it requires some kind of documentary source, at least one historian of the Cretans to produce the statement, and at least one reader to assess it. There may not be much real evidence about Cretans living in 600 B. C., or that Epimenides even existed. Unlike the philosophical logician, the historian can not just postulate him, and proceed from there. The historian’s reader has something else to worry about, which is whether the historian seeks above all to increase understanding of life and thought in Cretan antiquity, or is more concerned with pleasing a contemporary Cretan political party or the Cretan chamber of commerce.

This latter problem is a central one, whether in thinking about the remote past or just the last half-century, and in decisions of what to teach about both. A century ago, it was believed that history with temporal remoteness was a real advantage in reaching truth; learning about the Greeks and Romans was seen as the best way to discover the real nature of historical change, in language, thought, and action, undistorted by confusing present noise. That concept of history could not be maintained through the rise of mass public education in the 20th century, which brought demands for the formal study of more recent years, but that also brought more uncertain and divided counsels about just how modern historical studies should be composed. For most of the 20th Century, the usual common replacement for classics in liberal college and university education in Europe and North America has been one or two survey courses ranging from antiquity to the present. Only students ‘specializing’ in history would take more chronologically defined courses, like ‘Europe 1914-45’, or thematic ones, like ‘Science and the Enlightenment’.

But ‘history’, conceived as a required study in public educational institutions, has also frequently been something quite different from broad surveys or broad themes. Governments frequently instead try to impose some kind of ‘history of the nation’. That involves some serious limitations even when the ‘nation’ is a very old and broadly influential entity, like one of the major European countries, or at least a large one, like the United States or Brazil. But applied to small and even would-be ‘nations’, such courses can at most be justifiable as useful instruction in civics or local government. Especially when imbued with political myth, it is pretension and even near-fraud to call such courses ‘history’. Even if well-taught, the initial premise represents the near-opposite of what the study of history was originally intended to do, which was to broaden the mental horizons of students.

Nationalist politicians, however, seldom ponder such distinctions. The current minority PQ government has recently announced that it plans to introduce a compulsory cegep course in the history of Quebec. But this suggests both a short memory and a deficient understanding. The two consecutive majority PQ governments of 1976 – 1984 tried to do the same thing. They claimed public support, the personal enthusiasm of Rene Lévesque and his cabinet, and the initial support of the majority of the history teachers on their provincial curriculum committee, most of them in those days young francophones cheering on the projet nationale. But the compulsory course in the history of Quebec still failed to arrive, even after eight years. The reasons were instructive about the wider history of our own times.

When that previous attempt was launched in 1977, I was one of the history teachers on the curriculum committee, representing John Abbott College, and like all the anglos and a few francophones on the committee, I was part of a minority opposed to such a compulsory course. Our opposition made the case that if there was to be any single compulsory course at all, it should be a broad background survey of our common roots, extending back long before the founding of New France, and taking in more general European history. We were politely received; Aaron Krishtalka of Dawson College drew special praise (“Bonne adresse!”) even from voting opponents, for his eloquent and closely-reasoned argument for European history. We didn’t win over their votes, but over the following years, watched gusto for the ‘national’ course fade, for more ironic reasons.

What stymied the introduction of the course was not so much our case as was a devaluation that had happened to the study of history everywhere, the combined effect of the ultra ‘presentist’ 1965-75 era and of proliferating extreme specialization and multiplication of disciplines, including in the cegeps. With that came the implicit idea that history of any kind was ‘just another course;’, like psychology or computer programming. The space that once would have been available for it was already filled with four compulsory courses in ‘philosophie’ (‘humanities’ in the anglo colleges), and by the additional optional but popular courses in ‘social sciences’. All were now given by unionized teachers, most with immovable tenure. The mercurial flow of the cegeps in their opening years at the end of the 1960s had been swiftly replaced by entrenched silos of hardening bureaucratic concrete, growing harder every year.

Over fifteen years after I first attended the history curriculum committee, I was elected on the West Island for the protest Equality Party. I almost immediately became an independent voting member of the Education Committee of the Legislature, remaining on it for the five years of 1990-1994. The Liberals, like the PQ before them, run through a long series of Ministers of Education, most of them not doing much. However, by the start of the 1990s, a rising roar of discontent with the cegeps was being heard from business, the universities, and the general public. Furthermore, this coincided with the arrival at the Education Ministry of Claude Ryan, who had the intellectual depth, assurance, and firm authority to break through bureaucratic concrete and make things happen. I was happy to find, not only that his own strong preference for a compulsory history course was for the same kind of broad survey that Aaron Krishtalka and I had advocated many years before, but that the change could be implemented by taking a slice from the union hiring halls of philosophie/humanities. Even the PQ opposition was desultory rather than passionate.

My experiences on both the curriculum committee of the 1970s and the legislature committee of the 1990s lead me to suspect that the current PQ government, even if it should happen to win a majority in the next provincial election, will be no more successful with this renewed project for compulsory ‘national’ history than its predecessors. I also doubt that if the change were carried out, it would do much more to propagate separatist nationalism. What is taught in history courses always depends more on who teaches them than on even the most detailed calendar requirements, and Quebec history teachers of the new century are now largely a mixture of near-retirement baby boomers and newly hired 20-somethings. If they have any unified ideological inclination, it is probably represented by Denys Arcand’s trilogy of progressive disillusionment, from The Decline of the American Empire to The Barbarian Invasions and The Dark Ages.

The real weakness of college history teaching today is not local, but universal: that still-existing disastrous notion that history is ‘just another subject’, when it should really be, like language itself, one of the foundation stones of all adult understanding of the world. As Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, you can be provincial in time as well as in space, and that is a besetting sin of this era. Survey mandatory courses, if well-taught, at least reduce some of that temporal provincialism. Mandatory college instruction in the history of Quebec comes closer to offering the historians’ variation of the paradox of Epimenides. All good historians try to tell the truth, but all historians restricted to the narrowly particular are offering a lie about what history should teach.
PAH Twelfth 2013 Article.


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