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Matthew A. Sears is an associate professor of classics at the University of New Brunswick.

The obsession with Antiquities of which poet Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his poem To Helen – “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” – will always find its champions. But surely, he didn’t think that fascination would be a topic of going concern in constructing Canadian school curriculums more than a century later.

Last month, leaked draft documents revealed how the Alberta United Conservative Party government might reform the provincial curriculums for social studies, which would affect primary students from kindergarten to grade four. In addition to controversial moves such as prioritizing rote memorization over interpretation and critical thinking, and focusing on “essential skills” – as if education is primarily or only geared to jobs training, and as if the government can predict what “skills” will be “essential” by the time a kindergartener enters the work force – the advisers who wrote the report proposed postponing lessons about the tragic history of residential schools, as well as other Indigenous topics and ways of knowing, until Grade 9, when “learners are more mature.” They would be potentially replaced with topics such as Homer’s Odyssey and the history of ancient Rome.

As a Classics professor, I of course welcome the prospect that even our youngest students could be introduced to the ancient Mediterranean world. But while I’ll leave it to my colleagues who are experts in education to weigh in on the pedagogical implications of such changes, I do have a thing or two to say about teaching kids about Greco-Roman antiquity: done well, it requires no less maturity than is needed to understand Canada’s residential schools.

Unlike the Odyssey’s predecessor, the Iliad, which focuses on war and battle, Homer’s epic poem might at first seems ideal for younger children. It’s full of fantastic tales of monsters and sorcerers, and features a hero just trying to get back to his home. But crucial to this homecoming is Odysseus reasserting his dominance by brutally killing the men who have come to court his wife, Penelope. Odysseus further cleanses his household by torturing and hanging his house’s slave women, who had been too friendly to Penelope’s suitors, as if such enslaved persons had a choice in the matter. In this way, the violence in the Odyssey is in many ways far more disturbing than that in the Iliad, which is outwardly a far more violent poem, though its violence pertains mainly to the sphere of warfare proper.

Primary students are of course going to read an abridged, age-appropriate edition of the Odyssey. Nevertheless, if the Odyssey really does convey the kinds of timeless truths that Alberta’s children need to learn in order to understand their “own culture” (to use the language in the leaked documents, even though a small minority of Albertans can trace their lineage to ancient Rome or ancient Greece), scrubbing it of its most violent elements also scrubs it of its most profound and enduring questions. Indeed, even the most colourfully illustrated and sanitized versions of Greek myths are still full of rape, abduction, murder, and grotesque transformations. As the parent of a former primary-school student and a current one (both of whom learned a lot about both residential schools and the ancient world), I think young students can handle such stories, but teachers need to be thoughtful and careful about how they present them – or else they risk stripping these stories into banal and cute distractions, rather than an opportunity for education.

The leaked documents laud the way that Ancient Rome was supposedly the home of the Four Cardinal Virtues: wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. The story of Cincinnatus, who left his plow to answer the call of his country and then returned to a humble life of farming once his services were no longer needed, is certainly moving; so too are the Meditations, written by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, as an instructional memoir of his efforts to live a properly Stoic life. But Cincinnatus’s story shouldn’t be sanitized of the fact that the state he fought for ruthlessly inhibited the political rights of even its own citizens, despite Rome’s reputation for being generous with its citizenship and rights; Marcus Aurelius, for his part, wrote down his Stoic musings while leading a less-than-Stoic decades-long campaign of violent conquest and Christian persecution in Germany.

There are many things to admire about Rome, and many things to learn from its array of writers, thinkers, artists, and – when we have access to their perspectives – its regular people. But without encountering the full reality of ancient Roman life, such lessons would ring hollow, and give students a false impression of the past and of human nature in general.

In the same way, telling the story of Canada demands teaching the history of our residential schools. It may sully a simple story of glory, but that’s not what education is about. I believe education can also be about young students learning about the complexity of the human condition, that the same humans who helped build societies sometimes do both good and bad things. I imagine many students will have experienced this firsthand in their own lives, and they will certainly experience it as they grow up.

We shouldn’t be afraid to show our young people that ancient societies achieved great things, but that they also wrought violence and discrimination. In that way, this could be a useful companion – not replacement – for lessons on Canada’s past, present and future.

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