I am not an optimist (nor am I a pessimist)

I would like to share a quote from a book I am re-reading with a student and which I think deserves careful study and discussion: Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset .

I offer this quote without comment (for the present):

“Advanced civilisation is one and the same thing as arduous problems. Hence, the greater the progress, the greater danger it is in. Life gets gradually better, but evidently also gradually more complicated. Of course, as problems become more complex, the means of solving them also become more perfect. But each new generation must master these perfected means. Amongst them- to come to the concrete- there is one most plainly attached to the advance of a civilisation, namely, that it have a great deal of the past at its back, a great deal of experience; in a word: history. Historical knowledge is a technique of the first order to preserve and continue a civilisation already advanced. Not that it affords positive solutions to the new aspect of vital conditions- life is always different from what it was- but that it prevents us committing the ingenuous mistakes of other times. But if, in addition to being old and, therefore, beginning to find life difficult, you have lost the memory of the past, and do not profit by experience, then everything turns to disadvantage.” (Take from chapter x, “Primitivism and history”)

“None of the Above”

None of the Above is a “short sheet” I am writing/publishing which connects in many ways with the pedagogical philosophy I use here at DEMOI. You can read it/follow it here:


Amherstburg Freedom Museum

Last Friday I visited the Amherstburg Freedom Museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad and the history of the black communities of Essex County.

I highly recommend making the trip if you can. In addition to a preserved cabin built by a freeman in the 1850s, the museum site also has an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church built in 1848 and which served as a terminus of the Underground Railroad. The museum features an art gallery and exhibit complete with artifacts and narratives of the Railroad, the slave trade and the connection between Ontario and Canada and the institution of slavery. https://amherstburgfreedom.org


Utopia? A discussion of the past(s)

Pleased to share a podcast discussion I took part in at the Central Branch of London Library last Monday evening (January 15th, 2018):


Can young children benefit from independent study in history?

Yesterday I had the privilege of guest teaching a course entitled “Historians, Communities and the Past” which is taught by my good friend Tim Compeau, PhD at Huron University College here in London.

Over the course of 90 minutes we engaged in a Socratic discussion about the question: “Is it responsible to allow grade school children the option of self-directed learning in the field of history?”

The conversation was very engaging in no small part because we reflected on whether one of the chief problems in educating children and young adults is that educators, policymakers, teachers and parents become focused upon names and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of allowing for interdisciplinary discovery, exploration and problem-driven learning. Or, to put it another way: at the expense of creativity.

Here is a scenario:

Imagine an 8 year old student who has become fascinated by schools; she is interested in the schools built by pioneers and how people in earlier times were educated -especially in rural and remote communities- in one room school houses. She decides that she wants to learn everything that she can about one room school houses. After talking with her teacher and her parents, she decides that she wants to undertake a project (independent study) to learn everything that she can about how one room school houses came to be; where they were pioneered; why they have persisted; how they work. She visits museum exhibits, watches movies, reads books and even talks with people who have knowledge of, or personal experience with, being educated in one room school house environments. She is then allowed to undertake her project.

To my mind, a series of questions arises from this hypothetical:

1.) If this project were a school project, what discipline would this child be studying? Do we simply call it social studies, or can we say it is history, sociology, education and economics?

2) Can this project be accommodated as a primary/elementary school classroom project?

3.) Is a teacher/student relationship required here?

4.) If we do not allow the child to undertake this study are we hindering her education?

5.) Is it inconceivable that an 8 year old child could do this or have a desire to do this?

6.) Is this student actually developing an interest in sociology, education and economics (as well as history) by her choice of this project? Does subject (academic discipline) in the conventional sense even matter in this case?

As you might imagine, this type of scenario prompted much discussion. I leave it to you to decide how you might answer these questions or think about this matter.


A new poem appearing

I learned this morning that my poem “Message from Bongo Brown,” will likely appear this coming week over at The Blue Nib. I welcome this news because this poem and some of its siblings, have bedevilled me. By that I mean, it has been exceedingly difficult to find a home for them.

By no means do I expect that any periodical should publish my work: that would be foolish in the extreme. What has been puzzling to me is where a writer who writes about history, socio-economic and ecological-cultural change should send his/her poetry. The market for poetry, as per my limited understanding, does not seem at all geared toward poetry of the style or substance which I find myself writing. Now, this could be the lament of someone who is simply struggling as most writers struggle; so take what I say with a grain of salt. I certainly do. But I have been searching for a proper home for a body of my work which focuses especially on the history of Detroit, Michigan. Therefore, this morning’s news was encouraging.

When the poem appears I will link it here.

Detroit Treasures

I had a tremendously positive experience conducting research at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University this past Thursday.

Detroit has some tremendous educational and cultural resources, especially in/around the Wayne State campus. Not only is the glorious Detroit Institute of the Arts located there, but so is the Detroit Public Library Main Branch (built in the 1860s), the Detroit Historical Society & Museum, the Michigan Science Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and the libraries of Wayne State University.

This is a tremendous resource that is actually easier to get to (from London) than the museums of downtown Toronto (quicker & with better parking). I don’t know how many people know of these institutions, but I would suggest checking them out. The atmosphere around the university campus is lovely and there is good eating, too.


A Detroit Experience

I had an interesting experience yesterday.

I was working in Detroit and when my work was finished, I decided to drive the length of Woodward Avenue from Hart Plaza all the way to 8 Mile Road, the city’s northern limit. I had never done this before and I wanted to have the experience of covering a stretch of this “All American Road,” as it is called.

There are stretches of heavy activity, especially near downtown, where the new arena for the Detroit Red Wings is being finished in time for the 2017-2018 NHL Season. And there are stretches of inactivity, of boarded up buildings, as Woodward passes through the city of Highland Park. I saw an old apartment building whose roof had caved in and whose windows were sealed with wood. I saw old stores with store fronts that looked like they were built in the 1960s but which were no longer open for business. I saw check cashing places and bail bonds establishments. I saw many people who looked out-of-work, though I cannot be sure.

Downtown I saw tourists and gilded bank buildings. I saw an expensive baseball stadium (Comerica Park) and art deco skyscrapers built when the city was flush with money. I saw the People Mover snaking its way around a small stretch of downtown -for such a big city, downtown Detroit really is small. But what I also saw were so many relics of the past, like the boarded up offices of the Michigan Chronicle, a historic African American newspaper (it is still in operation but at a new location). I also saw the renowned Cass Tech High School, one of the best technical high schools in the U.S., which has produced more than its fair share of brilliant musicians and entertainers including the inimitable Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin, Della Reese, Ellen Burstyn, Alice Coltrane and Ron Carter, to name but a few.

I saw (and felt) a great deal of history. But I also wondered, as I so often do when I am in Detroit, about the present and future. I listened to analysis over the radio of the decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement and how General Motors and Exxon Mobil disagree with this decision. This led me back to my earlier days when I would get angry at how both companies seemed like great obstacles to meaningful steps toward a “Green Future.” And yet here I was, with the Renaissance Center (GM Headquarters) literally in my rearview mirror, listening to how the world’s largest automaker disapproves of the U.S. walking away from Paris.

I don’t thinking it is any exaggeration to say that things are changing profoundly. I don’t have to be in Detroit to feel those changes and wonder at them, but there is something about being in that city, the birthplace of the $5 daily wage, the Treaty of Detroit, Fordism and the birth of the modern middle class, to feel a sense of wonder -even foreboding- about present and future. I look at Detroit and feel both hope and hopelessness mingle . . . and then I shake it off knowing that what matters isn’t simply how we feel, but what we do now.


Talking water, water infrastructure & history

I had a great discussion with James Shelley about water, water infrastructure, and history back in January.

James is a local thinker, writer, researcher, podcaster and host of London’s Wolf Hall Debates. In other words, James is one of the people in our city who helps make London a vibrant, thoughtful community. You can catch the conversation here as well as check out his excellent website which is filled with other thoughtful content: