Change One Thing: Keep history as a core subject at Junior Cert or risk losing so much

Studying the subject equips students with a range of important analytical skills


If I could change one thing in education, I would rub the genie lamp and wish that history could remain a core subject in our second-level schools.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which advises the Minister for Education, ably chaired by Brigid McManus, the recent ex-secretary general of the Department of Education, has proposed that history no longer be a core subject at Junior Cert level. This recommendation has been accepted by the Minister for Education.

Yes, I know the arguments have been made, and, yes, there have been very powerful ones, but the debate seems to have lapsed somewhat. In my earlier working life I was a teacher of history and English at an all-girls secondary school.

Some months ago there were very good Oireachtas committee hearings on this proposal, and the findings were very strong, the final theme being that there should be more history, not less.

My belief is that if history is removed as a core subject at Junior Cert, inevitably there will be less take-up of it at senior level. There is no doubt that that would be the distinct outcome of that measure.

Many people still regard history as a dry subject, with wars, dates, treaties and the rest all having to be absorbed and regurgitated, but those days of teaching that kind of history are long, long gone.

Over the years, and now at Junior Cert level, history is bright, modern and very much more concerned with social history. It tells of how people lived, where they lived, clothes they wore, how towns were developed – and all in a very interesting way. History has become, for young students, a bright and innovative subject.

So let’s dispel the notion that history is boring and dry and taught in a similar fashion. Not now and, indeed, from the perspective of a former history teacher, to my mind, not ever so. I know the whole move is to do away with rote learning, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Sense of curiosity
Research has shown that a study of history equips a young person with analytical skills, comprehension, realism and understanding. Unless we study the past, we cannot ever relate to the present or to the future. The study of history gives immense skills that later come into play in a person’s life. To my mind, the most important habit a young person can have is a sense of curiosity. This can be given full play through the study of history.

Very young children constantly want to know why, when, where and how. Indeed, their constant questioning often drives their parents and carers to distraction. That is because an innate sense of curiosity is deep inside every young child’s makeup.

After all, it is that sense of curiosity that led the Kinsale three – Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow and Emer Hickey – all the way to the RDS in Dublin to win the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition and from there to Prague to win the EU Young Scientists Award. Now the world opens up wide in front of them. They kept their sense of curiosity, which led them to further study of plant germination.

I know we will be hearing more of these young women in the years to come.

No other subject can reawaken and keep lively that sense of the curious. When studying history, a young person needs to know the how it happened, the why it happened and the where it happened. That leads them on from their study at Junior Cert to the wider, more disciplined fields of study at senior level.

So this is my plea to Brigid McManus, the NCCA and the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn. Please give history a reprieve.

Retain it as a core subject at Junior Cert level, thus ensuring a love and a study of it into senior level. Ensure that a sense of curiosity is retained in young people, which will lead them along so many interesting and different paths as they mature.

Mary O’Rourke is a former Minister for Education

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