At SSU, we are in the process of identifying what community engagement means for us. We are a university committed to justice, beauty and compassion; how does that aspirational identity interact with the knowledge, gifts and needs of the local communities outside of our walls? What practical partnerships can we foster, on the one hand, to be good neighbours locally, and on the other, to equip our students with the skills and wisdom that will benefit them in their future communities (professionally and otherwise)?
Narrowing the issue down to my discipline – history – one starting point is to identify what knowledge and skills historians have to offer that can benefit a wider, non-academic community. Do historians make good neighbours? A second point to consider is how the work done by historians interacts with the knowledge, gifts and needs of the wider public.
To start with the second point, it is helpful to note that wider society has an evident hunger to engage with the past. That hunger has long manifested itself in popular culture; it is now also evident from the popularity of online DNA tests that promise to help consumers to discover the story of their ancestry. I think a considerable part of this hunger for history is driven by what appears to be a universally human wish to belong, to feel connected to one’s roots. The hunger for history is locally present too; think of the efforts to preserve the historic town hall on Milltown boulevard, the interest in the old Ganong’s factory, or the interest in Open Doors St Stephen, in which SSU participates.
An engagement with history is also often driven by a thirst for justice and recognition. Locally speaking, how this thirst can be a powerful motivating power for grappling with history can be seen from the work of the Peskotomuhkati Recognition Group, that SSU continues to engage with. On a national scale, an example of how a confrontation with the past is necessitated by the thirst for justice and recognition is illustrated by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has sought to guide Canada as it works through the fallout of the Indian Residential School system.
Incidentally, one of the TRC commissioners, Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair, studied not only law but also history at the University of Manitoba – and one strong historical imperative that emerges from much of his writing is the importance of preserving the testimony of those whose voices the powers that be have sought to silence; to make sure, in short, that people are not lost to memory.
As I write these lines, it is 75 years to the day that Soviet soldiers liberated the prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where over the course of the previous five years, between 1.1 and 1.5 million people had been killed. In the days leading up to the liberation, in a frantic effort to hide what had been going on, German camp guards destroyed incriminating evidence, and sent all prisoners who were still able to walk on a ‘death march’ to the West. Despite their efforts, the horrors of Auschwitz were not lost to history, and the desire to not see these events forgotten is still widely felt, especially in Europe.
History is the study of the power of stories, and the art of wielding those stories wisely. My ideal of a historian is someone who seeks to critically but compassionately preserve the memory of the past, who tries to learn of people’s experiences as directly as possible, and who takes these experiences seriously; historians know to critically engage with past and contemporary structures of power, while compassionately engaging those who are affected by them. I believe that students who develop those skills will find ample opportunity to employ them in their practical post-university life.
Laurens van Esch
For more on St. Stephen’s University’s active role in community engagement, check out these opportunities: