Social Classes, Storied Lives, and History Writing

I’m going to stray a bit from strict history into the personal today, and ask about the inevitability of storied lives that originate in storied beginnings.

This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing several candidates for full scholarships to the University of Toronto. It is the most inspiring activity I participate in all year. The criteria for the award are originality, creativity, leadership in various activities in school and the community, breadth of interest and intellectual curiosity. The students – all in their final year of high school – are delightful: bright, motivated, and full of ideas and energy. One can’t help but be excited by their futures, whether they win the scholarship and come to Toronto or not. Just interviewing them is humbling.

Reading over their applications, I am struck by another similarity that binds them: the majority are from private or specialized high schools that excel at producing legions of talented young people just like these. Of course, this is not to take anything away from the clearly exceptional students I meet every year – but I can’t help but wonder at the opportunities presented to every student in these schools: newspapers and art reviews in four languages, classics clubs, near-professional yearbook facilities, annual plays, musicals, and shows, Reach for the Top teams, Model United Nations, biodiversity labs, expensive and exclusive sports, IB programs, AP courses – and any number of others you’ve probably never even heard of. And they all have the benefit of funding, teacher support, and a legacy of (in some cases) decades of school tradition behind them. It’s no wonder students succeed.

I won’t go into questions of whether it is “fair” that some students are given these opportunities and some are not, because of course it isn’t fair. I also won’t speculate about whether it is possible to be greatly successful from humble upbringings, because that too is an obvious answer, as many before have proved.  But I do often wonder the effect schools like these have on the futures of the students who attend them.

Now, I adored my high school – the teachers were admirably talented and dedicated, and the classes and activity selection was above-average for a public school – but we didn’t have windows in a lot of our classrooms. Our auditorium doubled as a cafeteria, fondly dubbed the “cafetorium” (try producing a Shakespearean production with meatball smells and spirited games of Euchre going on in the background). And I’d never heard of Model UN until I got to university. It isn’t a school that will ever be famous in its own right for having educated some of Canada’s greatest scholars or politicians; it’s just an average suburban high school.

I wonder, how much more likely is sustained success in life amongst those who attend these exclusive schools? How much less likely is it for one of my peers? Here is where I define “sustained success” as achievement, and notability, and expertise. Prime Ministers, writers, public intellectuals, leaders of organizations. Let’s talk for a minute about one of my favourite Canadian historical figures, George R. Parkin, tireless promoter of imperial unity and designer of my favourite map ever . He went to Oxford, was the first administrator of the Rhodes Scholarships, and served as headmaster of Upper Canada College (one of those storied schools I’m talking about). Parkin’s daughter married Vincent Massey, who would become the first Canadian-born Governor General, and who was himself from the storied Massey Ferguson family (of tractor fame). Another of Parkin’s daughters married George Grant, renowned Canadian historian of the 1950s (and also a UCC grad). Parkin’s great-grandson is Michael Ignatieff, who is current and controversial enough to need no explanation.

Aside from showing how delightfully incestuous early nineteenth-century, upper-class Canadian society was, it also shows the near-inevitability of some of these individuals becoming notable. (And here is where I veer off into Whig history, never to be seen again outside of grand, teleological narratives with bad sourcing.) With parents, networks, and educational experiences like they had, how could they not be? Even today, though it is subtle and often disguised, the class divide in Canada is alive and well. And in Canada, it is propagated and advanced by educational institutions.

I truly believe Canada is more of a “land of opportunity” than other countries: these schools, for example, encourage diversity of background and even offer scholarships to those whose parents can’t afford the steep tuition.  Some other storied institutions (I’m looking at you, UofT) are inclusive by virtue of size alone. But how can we even think of parity among students in first year university when some arrive in first-year history knowing only the vague contours of major wars and great figures, and others have in-depth knowledge of realpolitik that would rival that of a Master’s student? How does one address that as an educator?

Arriving in Toronto was an experience for me, as I was pushed into networks that included all classes and backgrounds.  I feel as though I have the benefit of a relatively objective view of them, coming from such an average educational upbringing. I wonder if historians who grew up within history – the storied walls of UCC, or Cambridge, or a home in Rosedale that has appeared in several books on Toronto history – look at things differently. Does it make them more empathetic, or less? Do they have biases that I don’t? Do I have biases they don’t? How does it affect how we each see and explain the world?

Ongoing questions all. For now I’ll focus on my delightful students – perhaps I’ll ask them what they think.

How about you? How do you think your background shapes the way you see things? What impact did your education have on your current success? Do you think the class system in Canada is as restrictive as in other countries? Post your thoughts below!

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