Should history be compulsory for Junior Cert students?
Minister for Education Joe McHugh is considering reinstating history as a core subject. Two education observers offer the case for and against
A Constance Markievicz 1918 election poster, erected last year to mark a special exhibition. Photograph: Getty Images
YES: “It is only by studying history that we learn who we are”
I want to give two cheers to Joe McHugh for reviewing the decision to remove history as a core subject.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is the deciding body for proposed changes in curriculum. When I was minister for education I set up the NCCA in 1988. One of its first decisions was to merge the old Inter Cert and Group Cert examinations to make one examination, the Junior Certificate.
Through various ministers the NCCA has remained in place, and, indeed, has carried out some very valuable work, particularly on the curriculum and the assessment of the various State examinations.
These moves have been generally applauded and generally agreed upon, but the one exception was where it proposed, and the minister of the day accepted, that history would be removed as a core subject in Junior Cert.
There was an immediate flurry of dissent throughout the country, but the minister persisted, and it looked as if the decision was taken and that was it.
But lo and behold, just before Christmas, Minister McHugh decided that it was time for a review and a look at this decision, resulting in what everyone hoped would be a reversal and a decision to bring history back as a core subject of Junior Cert.
Along the way some very worthwhile changes were made to Leaving Cert history which in general were well received, particularly by the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland, but at that point it felt that the people working in the NCCA had gone far enough with their changes to the history curriculum.
The reader may well ask why all this fuss about history?
To my mind history has always been a subject composed not just of dry and arid dates and places where battles were fought and kingdoms were lost and new alliances formed.
Yes of course that was all very important and very interesting. But much more than that, it is only by studying history that we learn who we are, where we have come from, what our antecedents were like, what led to the various major movements, both nationally and internationally, in history, and, more importantly, what is to become of us in the future.
After all, you cannot know the way forward if you do not know the road that led you to this point in life or in history.
And yet if we don’t keep it as a core subject much of that wonderful vivid tapestry of history and its kaleidoscope of people, event and colours will be lost forever to the young student.
Yes, changes to the curriculum are welcome which will make it more vivid, more relevant, more accessible, all of those adjectives – but keep it as a core subject.
In that way many more students will carry it on into Leaving Cert, and so will enjoy at that level a marvellous discovery in the mind of all that has been and all that can be.
So, I want to record a modest “two cheers” for McHugh, and to add my voice to the many others who have done so.
The readers may well say why two cheers? Why not a full-blooded three cheers? Well, I’ll tell you why.
I’ll retain my last cheer for when Joe finally confirms he has reviewed the proposal from the NCCA, and he has disagreed with its proposal, and has decided to keep history as a core subject at Junior Cert level.
* Mary O’Rourke is a former teacher and minister for education
NO: ‘There’s no evidence that making any subject compulsory supports the quality of learning’
“Draw what you see, not what you think you see” is advice an art teacher would give a beginner.
When a child draws a house, he or she tends to place the windows in the extreme corners because that seems obvious.
When, as more mature students, we draw portraits, we tend to make a mess of the proportions of the face: eyes too high, ears too big, because we are too familiar with how they look.
Artists refer to these unquestioned assumptions that distort our work as “embedded symbols”: we frequently draw the eyes and nose first, without reference to the wider context of the head, the face and the other equally important features.
In curriculum design we tend to make the same mistakes. We are so familiar with what we think a school programme should look like that we don’t question the “embedded symbols”.
So a menu of discrete subjects, separate disciplines, self-contained experiences is uncritically adopted.
The only changes that are considered valid are perhaps some internal adjustments within subject boundaries, or maybe some tinkering at the edges after the “important” subjects have all been catered for.
The issue of history at Junior Cycle is a case in point. This seems to have been reduced to a binary conflict – in favour of or opposed to the subject.
But the alarm expressed at the “dropping” of history betrays a deficit in accuracy, in evidence and in the process of adolescent learning.
History has never been a compulsory subject for all students: ETB (vocational) schools and community and comprehensive schools have regulations that do not include history as a compulsory subject.
In fact, even when history was a requirement for the old Intermediate Certificate examination, it was as a half-subject (a short course): the other half was geography.
Young people learn in different ways, at different rates, at different stages of their lives. There is no evidence that making any subject “compulsory” actually supports the quality of learning.
What does the experience of Irish on the curriculum tell us about compulsion as educational policy?
The identification of any subject as “core” is simultaneously a statement that other subjects are less important. I am uneasy with any such hierarchy – the study of history is indeed important, but is it more important than art, than science, than materials technology?
Where do we stop when we start naming compulsory core subjects?
The idea of a core curriculum is much more complex than this. We tend to think of it as a list of compulsory subjects. But we need to get beyond that.
What the NCCA is trying to do at Junior Cycle is to set out a national framework, guided by clear statements of learning, within which schools and teachers will have some professional discretion.
These statements of learning constitute a genuine attempt to articulate a shared understanding of what Junior Cycle education should comprise. The learning outcomes of this comprehensive Junior Cycle curriculum require all students to have a rich experience of history learning.
The concepts of continuity and change-over-time, the qualities of empathy and respect, the skills of evidence analysis and interpretation are all essential. Crucially and correctly, the NCCA does not prescribe how schools should provide that experience.
Defining a single national syllabus with a single terminal exam to be taken by all students is not a good model for history or for any other subject. Schools and teachers are best placed to interpret and apply these to best effect with their students.
History will continue to be provided as a full subject to most students at Junior Cycle. But we don’t need policed rules and enforced mandates to ensure that highly qualified and motivated professionals do their job.
And as schools, teachers, parents and students come to see the possibilities of different models of teaching and learning, so will they come to accept the validity of different approaches and provision for different learners at different times.
* Dr Gary Granville is professor emeritus at the National College of Art and Design. He was formerly assistant chief executive in the NCCA.