Breda O’Brien: History is a pillar of society’s wellbeing

Educationalists marginalise history as a subject out of short-term utilitarianism

People who know their history are far less easy to manipulate and are much less susceptible to propaganda in all its manifestations.

People who know their history are far less easy to manipulate and are much less susceptible to propaganda in all its manifestations.

 

A letter writer to this paper recently described a very young student in secondary school innocently inquiring whether the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement had anything to do with pub opening hours.

Such howlers are nothing new in classrooms but one of the unintended consequences of junior cycle reform may be to make them more and more common due to the downgrading of history.

There has been justified disquiet about the impact of junior cycle reform on the study of history. Minister for Education Joe McHugh, who seems broadly positive towards the subject, asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to produce a report on history for the end of March. It has not yet been published.

The 2015 framework document for junior cycle reform specifies that the only mandatory subjects are Irish, English, maths and wellbeing. The latter is an amalgam of civic social and political education; physical education; and social, personal and health education.

By 2020, wellbeing must be allocated 400 timetable hours over three years. In contrast, Irish, English and maths have a minimum of 240. All other subjects have a minimum of 200 hours. Short courses of 100 hours, for example in digital literacy and Chinese, are also being introduced. 

Wellbeing is important but is it so important that it needs double the hours of every subject other than Irish, English and maths?

Thinking abilities

The framework document declares that junior cycle reform is “designed to provide students with learning opportunities that achieve a balance between learning subject knowledge and developing a wide range of skills and thinking abilities”.

However, it is clear because Irish, English, maths and wellbeing are core subjects, that there is already a hierarchy of importance among subjects. This will have inevitable knock-on effects.

It is also increasingly clear that competing visions of education are really what is at stake. The downgrading of the invaluable discipline of history is only the most visible symptom of this clash.

The downgrading of the invaluable discipline of history is only the most visible symptom of this clash

A utilitarian view of education preaches that its primary purpose is the production of skilled, adaptable and amenable workers for an increasingly precarious “gig” economy based on short-term jobs.

Therefore, science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects should receive priority as being the most useful to the economy.

A second educational viewpoint is more subtle but possibly even more influential. It believes that what is important is “learning how to learn” and that all learning skills are transferable. 

A utilitarian view of education preaches that its primary purpose is the production of skilled, adaptable and amenable workers for a precarious “gig” economy based on short-term jobs.
A utilitarian view of education preaches that its primary purpose is the production of skilled, adaptable and amenable workers for a precarious “gig” economy based on short-term jobs.

At its most crude, this viewpoint posits that subjects as academic disciplines do not really matter. All subjects can be dismantled into a number of components and once you know how to use the appropriate learning skills, the idea of diving deeply into subjects like history is seen as somehow outdated.

Of course, learning skills are important but people also need mental frameworks based on profound familiarity with subject knowledge.

These kinds of mental models are not developed by superficial dipping in and out of a subject. It demands the gradual development of a perspective that allows people to see patterns.

While studying history develops invaluable skills of empathy, analysis, evidence-gathering and so on, that is a side-effect

Equally, while studying history develops invaluable skills of empathy, analysis, evidence-gathering and so on, that is not the point of the subject. That is a glorious side-effect.

Susceptible to propaganda

The point of history is to become wise about the ways that human beings throughout time have failed, fought, compromised, built and created.

It is to become aware of the deep roots of the present, to perceive how events from centuries ago still influence and shape us.

People who know their history are far less easy to manipulate and are much less susceptible to propaganda in all its manifestations.

The irony is that the new history specification at junior cycle is excellent. It will be a wonderful experience for those lucky enough to experience it being taught by enthusiastic and professional teachers.

But in schools that are under pressure in many ways including allocation of time, resources and staff, the easy option is to provide a short course in history instead of implementing the whole specification. This is already happening.

A short course can be as simple as a planned trip to and reflection on a particular historical site. No doubt it will be a valuable experience but it will not be teaching history.

Any teacher, qualified or not, can teach a short course. For many Irish learners, being taught history by a professionally qualified teacher will end at the age of 12.

Junior Cycle Reform is the NCCA’s brainchild. Given that the NCCA is responsible for the educational vision underpinning the new junior cycle, it is unlikely that it will change its mind and endorse making history a core part of the curriculum. 

Ultimately, however, bodies like the NCCA are meant to be advisory. No matter what is in the forthcoming NCCA report, the Minister and the Department of Education should pay attention to the energetic and articulate championing of the issue by the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland, not least because it reflects the concerns of many voters.

The priority given to history as a subject has implications not only for current students but, at a profound level, for the future wellbeing of our society.

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