Mythologised history has no place as a subject in our schools

Column: Soon we’ll be turning out university graduates who have no idea of what happened in the past

Mural in Sandy Row, Belfast: “We accuse politicians of perpetuating division and sectarianism in Ireland, but their role has been minimal in comparison to that of the historians.” Photograph: Alan Lewis

Mural in Sandy Row, Belfast: “We accuse politicians of perpetuating division and sectarianism in Ireland, but their role has been minimal in comparison to that of the historians.” Photograph: Alan Lewis

Thu, Apr 25, 2013, 12:00

One might be tempted to dismiss as outlandish Fintan O’Toole’s fear (Culture Shock, April 20th) that history is set to be marginalised in the education system. But only in the unlikely event that one has remained unaware of a much more important subject being all but dumped a few decades ago. Remember when educationalists, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it was no longer necessary to teach the basic rules of written English (the proper use, alignment and punctuation of words) to schoolchildren?

Consider the havoc that decision has wrought.

Not so long ago, all but the most intellectually challenged could write well enough to at least make themselves understood. Nowadays, through no fault of their own, the recipient of a master’s degree is liable to struggle to write a coherent paragraph.

First it was English, then geography, and now history. Soon we’ll be turning out university graduates who have no (accurate) idea of what happened in the past. And even if they do, unless everything took place within a few miles’ radius of their homes, they will struggle to find the locations of important historical events on a map (presuming they still know what a map is, and how to use one) and will not be able, therefore, to take into account the geographical relationships of many of those events to one another.


Sick-joke symmetry
Even if, by some miracle of endeavour on their part, a few do manage to garner a working knowledge of both history and geography, they will be incapable of properly documenting what they have learned. There is a kind of sick-joke symmetry to all of this, except no one should be laughing.

I am fortunate to have gone through an education system that placed enormous value on teaching children to communicate clearly and precisely in written form. I was fortunate, too, to be taught British, Irish, European and world history and their various interconnections by, as I later came to appreciate, some of the most dispassionate teachers in Ireland.

However, excellent as my teachers were, they were not entirely dispassionate, and fell down in one respect. They neglected to teach us anything about the history of Lisburn, where my school was located, or its surrounding area, within which I was born and grew up (at Blaris).

It was only years later, upon reading The Summer Soldiers by ATQ Stewart, that I learnt of Henry Munro of Lisburn and the sad fate of him and other similar-minded townspeople, and the even sadder tale of Daniel Gillan, Peter Carron and the McKenna brothers, who were shot to death and buried at Blaris.

This is only one small example of the largely one-eyed view of past events in Lisburn (and Northern Ireland in general) that I grew up with. What I wasn’t told by my teachers mattered much more than the partial, often wholly inaccurate, versions of Irish history I picked up on the street (but not at home, thankfully). It was the same throughout Ireland. For instance, how many Wexford people who have tramped up Vinegar Hill and been inculcated from a young age about the important role their county played in the 1798 rebellion were taught the true story, or much at all, of what happened at Scullabogue?

One has only to read the written work of many Irish historians to realise that this is how history is still being taught in Ireland. There are a few laudable exceptions (such as the late ATQ Stewart), but the large majority of professional historians in Ireland make no effort at being the scrupulous researchers, documenters and purveyors of historical fact that their profession demands.

Rather, they are mere performers, playing constantly to their own and the public’s prejudices. They are like scavengers picking diamonds from a dunghill, rummaging about through history to find the bits that suits, rather than presenting the totality as they find it, smells and all, regardless of who it offends.

It is one thing for historians to disagree on interpretations of events, quite another for them to act as though certain events didn’t happen. Propagandists, purveyors of mythology, highly selective storytellers, term these people as you will – except they are not historians, in any true sense. That they consider “revisionist” to be an insult rather than a compliment, says it all.

It would be better in Ireland, North and South, if history was not taught at all. But, of course, that is impossible. Regardless of whether it is taught in our schools, a multitude of invented stories will continue to be handed down by families and communities to poison the minds of succeeding generations.


Historical disgrace
It is a disgrace that, instead of seeking to counter mythologising, for countless generations supposed historians have been central to it. We accuse politicians of perpetuating division and sectarianism in Ireland, but their role has been minimal in comparison to that of the historians. Aside from the credibility gulf between those two professions, where did the politicians first learn their history?

I would argue that, far from downgrading history, the biggest contribution the Irish education system can make to the future is demand that the subject be taught properly.

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