Friday, April 24, 2009
Warning: History ranting.
This photo has nothing to do with this post. Though it does look like it's going to launch into a rant, perhaps like the one to follow
So I was reading the excellent Brian Busby on historical plaques in London, comparing their excellent and thorough programme to the more haphazard state of such things in Canada.
I realize that both of last two posts reference historic markers of one sort or another. Strasbourg has markers all over the place – most of the major sites have brown metal posts with a trilingual (though not always consistent) explanation of major buildings. Strasbourg has no shortage of statues honouring its favoured sons, from Kleber, as in my previous post, to Louis XIV, tucked up high and almost out of sight on the façade of the Cathedral.
Wandering through the city, it seems that roughly one house in ten has a plaque of one sort or the other. Very few seem to be official – some are solid stone markers noting the birthplace of one notable or another, others are weathered, barely legible copper disks of the “Washington slept here” variety (except Louis Pasteur, in this case). Some honour artists, or politicians, but there are one or two that I’ve seen that honour professors – and not even famous ones like Pasteur. I halfway suspect that some of these markers were put up by the people themselves (“Mark Reynolds, ecrivain Canadien à habité ici en 2008” seems particularly suspect).
We have considerably less history in Canada, of course, and generally aren’t interested in the meager amount we have. But we don’t even try.
Before I left Halifax, I recall a debate in the local schoolboard over a new elementary school’s name. One faction wanted to name the school over (if memory serves) a Second World War pilot. Another group, led by a school board trustee, wanted to stick with the current policy of naming the school after whatever street it was on, saying “No one knows who this person is anyway.”
Not all monuments are, strictly speaking, attractive
Ignoring the fact that this woman had evidently forgotten exactly what schools are supposed to do: teach. My first school was named after one of the early settlers of Cole Harbour Nova Scotia. I know who he is, and what his family did, and how they lived, because I was taught it. I remember it because the name had meaning for me. My friend Félicie recently told me of the pride she felt to attend a university named after Robert Schumann, a French statesman integral to the development of the European Union. Meanwhile, Canada’s three biggest universities are named after Toronto, British Columbia, and Montréal respectively.
Worse than the failure of imagination, is that it abdicates responsibility for our cultural environment to property developers. Most new schools are built in suburbs. Suburb street names are anodyne in the extreme: land developers are not in the history business, meaning children in my old neighbourhood went to schools with names resonant in meaninglessness, such as “Astral Drive Junior High” and “Auburn Drive High School” (a name mocked even by that connoisseur of bland, Jay Leno).
Here, meanwhile, schools and new streets are almost invariably named after someone or other: every French village has a General de Gaulle street, but most major cities has a President Wilson Boulevard. Strasbourg even has a new-ish street named for Sir Sanford Fleming*. Meaning, by current trends, French children have a better chance of going to a school named after a Canadian than Canadians do.
* Link not historically accurate, but very, very funny.