Why history is a subject for the future

Opinion: Junior Cert history helps students make sense of State visit

‘Ruairí Quinn said the vital skills will be the ability to find, use and re-use knowledge.’  Photograph: Frank Miller

‘Ruairí Quinn said the vital skills will be the ability to find, use and re-use knowledge.’ Photograph: Frank Miller


As the state visit to Britain was happening, teachers at second level were seizing the opportunity to discuss with students why it was so significant. They could do so, because the vast majority of students in the country have studied history to Junior Cert level.

We live in an age of amnesia, where floods of information ironically have the side effect of diminishing the amount of knowledge held in common by citizens.

Yet because the vast majority of students will have studied history to Junior Cert, they will be able to access stored knowledge that will help them make sense of the state visit. Imagine trying to do that if the study of history ended at 12?

History teachers have been highly vocal about their fears for their subject now that the Junior Cert is to be replaced by the Junior Cycle Schools Award (JCSA).

As Prof Ciarán Brady of TCD has said, it is particularly ironic that history is under threat, given that “thanks to the internet, the smallest rural school has access to more historical sources than the greatest universities did 20 years ago”.

What is it about Labour and wanting to downgrade history from a core subject? In the mid-1990s, Labour Minister for Education Niamh Bhreathnach proposed removing history and geography as core subjects, but introduced two new obligatory ones – civic, social and political education, and social, personal and health education.

In the 1990s Breathnach was forced to reverse the decision to downgrade history and geography as a core subject in voluntary secondary schools. Understandable, given that almost everyone can instinctively understand the truth of philosopher George Santanya’s dictum that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it.

Teachers of history are right to fight for their subject as yet another Labour minister fails to see the importance of it, but even as they do so, the ground is shifting. The question is not just the survival of history as a discipline, or indeed of any subject, but about a battle for the soul of education.

Minister Ruairí Quinn began his speech to last year’s MacGill Summer School by looking at children who would leave full-time education around 2030. He said that the “education system has to be flexible and adaptive enough to equip them with a range of skills and competencies”.

No one would argue with that. However, children do not develop skills and competencies in a vacuum, but through wrestling with specific subjects.

Quinn also said that “in equipping our young people for the future, we know that the acquisition of knowledge itself will no longer be a key skill. Instead, the vital skills will be the ability to find, use and re-use knowledge”.

I don’t know what he means by that. How do you find, use and re-use knowledge without acquiring any knowledge in the process? Surely that would be, as the teenagers say, an epic fail? It is a very mechanistic vision of what learning is all about, a world where knowledge and skills are not intimately entwined, but quite separate.

Contrast the way President Higgins spoke about knowledge last June. “Knowledge of history allows us to debunk myths and challenge inaccuracies as well as expose deliberate amnesia or invented versions of the past. It enables us to understand the formation of identity and the significance of diversity, nuance and context.”

“It is thus knowledge we can bring to all experiences and walks of life.”

In other words, knowledge and skills are intrinsically linked. The President also said that to have no knowledge of the past was “to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom”. He, at least, seems immune from the Labour problem with history.

Tapestry of past
The current Junior Cert history syllabus says the subject should “provide young people with a wide tapestry of past events, issues, people and ways of life through which they can come to perceive patterns such as cause and consequence, change and continuity. It is in the past that they will find the roots of the contemporary world”.

How could the proposal that some schools might replace a serious study of history with a short course on say, local history, or the role of women in the 1916 Rising, possibly provide that “wide tapestry” from which to “perceive patterns”?

History teachers acknowledge that the subject needs reform, but teachers participated in a report on needed reform 10 years ago that to date has never been implemented.

The Junior Cycle as a whole needs reform, but in a way that allows our students to participate more deeply in the various disciplines, not one that allows them to skate along the surface.

History as a discipline has vocal advocates. Other disciplines, such as religious education, a way of looking at the world that encourages people to search for meaning, and to develop critical thinking skills, have few such advocates.

But anyone who values education should be concerned, because debate about the Junior Cycle Schools Award is no longer about the survival of one subject or another, but about which vision of education will prevail.

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