Having just written reviews of The History Boys and Ken Osborne’s book on Canadian education, I was delighted to learn that Osborne was an Oxford groomed “history boy” himself, tutored for a while by playwright Allan Bennett.

The Canadian Historical Review (March 2012) recently published Osborne’s autobiographical reflections on his career as a history teacher, which I highly recommend (He now specializes in the history of history teaching in Canada.) As I read it I imagined sitting in an armchair sipping a fine glass of port with the Old Guard of history education, discussing the British class-struggle of the 50s.

It is a reminder of how personal the study of history can be, an outcome of the natural desire to answer the “why?” questions of life. We all have an experience with these questions, which is why autobiography is so meaningful.

In England, Osborne struggled to live as a “dual citizen” of his working-class roots and Oxford academic education,  eventually choosing to teach in Canadian public schools over the English.

He grew up in Coventry, and remembers wondering why the Luftwaffe was bombing,

“not just Britain in some general sense, but the very street on which he lived, and why, later in the war, the Allied forces were bombing German cities to a much greater effect. Such everyday realities as gas masks, blackouts, rationing, meeting German and Italian prisoners of war working on local clean-up projects, talking with African-American troops waiting to follow up the D-Day landings, and many other such experiences raised further questions…All this made it impossible to grow up in the war years without asking the question, why?”

He explains how he painted hammer and sickle flags and took vicarious pride in Soviet victories in 1943 before they were painted as enemies in 1948.

In short, I grew up in a world that presented me with a lot of questions, and the adults I knew did not answer them to my satisfaction. I came to realize bit by bit that my questions could be answered only historically.

As Osborne shows later in his essay, one of the roles of history is to construct an identity, not just to confirm a pre-existing one.

It is this need that resonates so much with my own experiences. I was inspired by his account to write a bit about my own early years in Colombia:

As a “third-culture-kid” born in Manitoba, I spent my formative years in Colombia, South America, where there was no pre-existing identity for me to confirm. Much of my life has been an effort to construct an understanding of what was going on around me and to graft myself in a tradition I could call my own.

Family road-trip from Medellin to Cali, Colombia. (note the awesome waterslide in the background)
Family road-trip from Medellin to Cali, Colombia. (note the awesome waterslide in the background)

I too painted hammer and sickle flags and marched around in my forts, but out of total ignorance of the political  situation around me rather than fascination with a community’s class-struggle.

My family arrived in Colombia two months before the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. Marxist-Leninist guerrilla fighters continued their 35 year revolutionary struggle unabated. I was in first grade.

My parents had originally planned on living in Portugal.  When they were assigned to Colombia instead it was seen by my father as an opportunity for a grand adventure. We arrived in Medellin the night of the momentous political assassination of liberal anti-cartel presidential candidate Louis Carlos Galan on August 18, 1989.

It was then the murder capital of the world. Medellin was home to Pablo Escobar, the greatest drug cartel leader in history (It is estimated that Colombia supplied 80% of the world’s cocaine at the time). Corruption was rampant. Lethal paramilitary groups slaughtered revolutionary sympathizers in the countryside. As a Mennonite, it should have been reminiscent of 1917 and the battle between the Whites and the Reds in Russia.  Anarchist Makhno characters took advantage of the chaos for their own profit.

My parents were working in a Mennonite Brethren church in a very poor outskirts of the city. Houses were rough bricks and mortar. Vendetta murders were common. I remember the day my father came home with a bullet dent in the door of his Toyota Landcruiser for tapping his horn at someone stopped in the middle of the road.

Our American K-12 school was on a coffee plantation, or  finca, up the mountain where we could hear the army hold artillery drills every now and then.

One day my father chased some burglars who were trying to break into a neighbor’s house. When the police picked them up, my dad sat in the back of a van with them. At the station, the police offered my dad the chance to slit their throats in the mountains. Otherwise, they said, they would be back for us. He declined the offer.

On furlough in Canada that summer, someone threw a grenade into our neighbors house in Medellin, blowing out all our windows.

In the first week of grade 3, school was cancelled. We had to leave before the road to the airport was cut off.  Everyone was evacuating to the capital, Bogota. It was a Thursday. So I packed my Legos, and started school next week in the city of 8 million.

In grade 4, a car bomb exploded a couple blocks from our house, blowing out all our windows. Another time, my dad had to pick up his ID from a government office. He was stuck in a traffic jam. When he got there the entire front of the building had been blown to pieces by a truck full of explosives.

The power outages were fun because we got to play hide and seek, and do homework by candlelight. The water shortages were less fun. We stopped watching the nightly news as a family, because it was often graphic, and there was no end to the violence.

Our world was insular – we spoke Spanish on Sundays and after school playing soccer. We gained political opinions from the main TV channels. Some of my fondest memories are of leafing through Newsweek or National Geographic on the couch. But I knew nothing of class-struggle or the exploitation of the countryside, for both oil and cocaine. I remember watching CNN during the First Gulf War in 1991 and wondering whether Saddam’s Scud missiles would fall on us as they did on Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Once we had a big burly man over for supper. He was an ex-comandante of the FARC guerrilla forces. We heard how he would sneak back into the jungle camps dressed as a peasant, carrying medical supplies. He and his friends had been trained in Cuba by Fidel Castro.

My heros were the intrepid jungle pilots. The father of one of my classmates was briefly kidnapped by the guerrillas, and we would come to speak at our assembly times in school.

My father would often take us on vacations to the countryside. On one occasion, we stayed for New Year’s at another American school in the “red zone”. Within two weeks of our departure, guerrilla fighters had stormed the compound and taken two Americans hostage. We knew them because we had borrowed their board games. Later in 8th grade we saw them on the evening news.

It was only until I saw the excellent documentary “The Two Escobars” in 2008 that I realized our favourite soccer team, Nacional of Medellin, won the Copa America because it was Escobar’s personal investment.

So there is a smattering of events that led me to study history in order to answer the question “why?”

I finished my highschool years in Winnipeg, trying to figure out what it was to be a “normal” Canadian. It took about 10 years to figure that out. I found that the discovery of Canada could be just as fascinating as Osborne describes it.

While Osborne’s questions arose from the inevitable clash of two worldviews – that of his working-class family and the gentlemen of Oxford – mine was the absence of a clash, of living in a political vacuum, insulated from the civil war raging around us, but observing its effects. As pacifists, my parents had to make sense of how to react to violence close to home. While Osborne wrote about Winnipeg’s revolution-minded R.B. Russell, I formulated my own views about the effects of the “vanguard of the proletariat.”

A significant moment came when I took part in the 2001 Quebec protests of the Free Trade Area of the Americas during my college days. As we marched, I noticed a man in gumboots waving a Colombian flag. He was a FARC member, handing out propaganda to riled up activists, some who were shouting “death to Bush.” The experience gave a whole new meaning to democratic protest.

How we first come to wonder about our world and how we pursue it determines so much about our lives. It is always comforting to know that throughout history, so many great men and women have been confronted with the same questions.

One of my favourite books is Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Prince Kropotkin, the Russian nobleman turned anarchist. It recounts the social upheaval in the 1860s and 70s. As a page to Alexander II, he saw how the emancipation of the serfs wasn’t as revolutionary as it seemed, and attempted to introduce literacy to the peasants. It is an entirely different view of Russia than I grew up with – that of the plight of the rich landowning German Mennonites near Crimea.

One of the great themes in his book is his childhood education – his philosophic conversations with an older brother, and his teacher of German literature who introduced him to Schiller and Goethe. He became a famous geographer and evolutionary theorist. Later he read Herzen and became an anarcho-communist, eventually denouncing the authoritarian Bolsheviks and predicting Russia’s return to capitalism. His masterful autobiography was unique in that it was written in English.

All this is to say that reading history and autobiographies can be a source of deep meaning and inspiration, and indispensible in the struggle to carry on the work of self-knowledge.

More on Ken Osborne’s view of teaching history later.