Monday, July 18, 2011

Threatened Identity: What do We Lose When We Lose the Sense of Place? - Congress 2011 Big Thinking Lecture Delivered by David Adams Richards

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick
As a writer of historical fiction, David Adams Richards is best known for his ability to explore elements of humanity within characters who "come from the fabric and the soil of the Miramichi." During Congress 2011, he spoke about this sense of place and what it means to those who identify with New Brunswick’s past.

Drawing upon the historical experience of mechanisation in the forest industry, Adams Richards explained how such concepts of modernisation are not new to Atlantic Canada. Here, he said, generations of people have weathered the sense of inevitable progress that is associated with global change. Often, such progress carries with it what Adams Richards describes as a "great anonymity" that threatens individual identity. It undermines a shared sense of belonging that comes from being part of a particular place and a particular way of life.

Within the abyss of anonymity, a sense of place is often regarded as a label of misfortune or unknowing ( "that people who live where we live would not know about what more successful people know about the world."); and so, to have a sense of place is thus to be restricted from being part of another more cosmopolitan place.

Yet, a sense of place can also be empowering. It carries with it a unilateral freedom that is grounded in a temporal sense of shared humanity. In the authors’ words:

Even on a patch of frozen soil, a solitary man is his own true nation, and free as he chooses to be. No moment or comfort is ever secure, no matter where we live; or future certain for any of us, no matter where we live. How we respond to this is up to us alone. Each one of us can choose to be free.

So, what does this have to do with history education? (You may be asking yourself right now). I see this Big Thinking lecture as very relevant to our discussions on the teaching of history for two reasons. Firstly, Adams Richards touches upon the imaginative element of history. His highly descriptive style of writing makes it possible for the reader to empathise with people in the past. This emotional layer adds a vibrant richness to the past that cannot be found in empirical evidence alone. But is it history? Indeed, in my humble opinion, the best historians are those who are able to fill in the spaces between the lines of evidence and contextualise the past in vivid, rich, detail.

A second reason why I feel this lecture is very relevant to discussions on the teaching of history, is that Adams Richards describes a particular sociological phenomenon whereby history intersects with collective memory. Indeed, through his writing, the author presents a darker side of life in Atlantic Canada: "a world of hurt and alarm ... a world that has faced globalisation for years and years.” Such a world is not unique to Atlantic Canada; yet it has become deeply embedded in our collective memory. Even so, it need not cage us in, because memory can be fluid and ever-changing.

The role of history education should be to enable each of us to look critically upon the narratives that shape – or threaten – our individual identities. As David Adams Richards has pointed out, how we respond depends upon us alone.

Listen to David Adams Richards’ entire lecture  here: