After he became Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was quick to hire historian Patrick Geoghegan to assist him in his new role. In the Dáil in June last year, Varadkar said: “I have hired somebody who is a professor of history. I have a great interest in history which I believe is the study of the future because few things have not happened previously and it is a good idea to fill one’s suitcase with history books because they are a good guide to what might happen on the road ahead.”
I am not sure how many history books the Taoiseach will take on his holidays this year, but he will hardly take the four volumes of the Cambridge History of Ireland, running to over 3,000 pages and published amidst justifiable fanfare this week, as they would require a bigger suitcase and a much longer holiday than would be politically acceptable.
Appropriately, given the scale of the scholarly achievement that the volumes represent – a distillation and analysis of 1,500 years of Irish history by over 100 leading historians of Ireland – the books were launched by President Michael D Higgins last week and he threw a spanner in the works, lest complacency set in, by asserting: “Our history is the inheritance of all our people, its interpretation a matter for all of us, and a republic worthy of the name would seek to organise the material of history to make it as accessible as possible to all the people… At the same time, there has been, despite the prominence attached to history in our decade of commemorations, a diminution in the status of history, and of the humanities more generally, in our universities and in our education system…
“I share your deep and profound concern with the new junior cycle, in which history is now no longer a core subject. A knowledge and understanding of history is intrinsic to our shared citizenship. To be without such knowledge is to be to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom. Moreover, to be without historical training, the careful and necessary capability to filter and critically interpret a variety of sources, is to leave citizens desperately ill-equipped to confront a world in which information is increasingly disseminated without historical perspective or even regard for the truth.”
It was a welcome intervention and the reiteration of a point the president has made before, notably in his Michael Littleton lecture in June 2013 when he sought, not to invoke the cliche about learning the lessons of history, but to emphasise the need to see history “as essential to understanding who we are today” and also as necessary to debunk myths, challenge inaccuracies and expose deliberate amnesia or invented versions of the past.
Deliberately distorted history can be challenged, through good teaching and engagement with the wide availability of accessible source material and in recent years the State, to its credit, has funded many of the projects to make this possible. But this also means that what we have at present is contradictory: politicians falling over themselves to tell us how important history is and how we must value and encourage it; but not following this logic through in relation to the education system by making sure all young people are exposed to history in a structured, sustained and meaningful way.
The past and the evidence relating to it needs to be contextualised, mediated and evaluated to counteract what the late historian Eric Hobsbawm decried as a situation where young people, in the absence of serious exposure to nuanced history, “grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in” with not enough of a shared idea of that public past. Just think of any number of current events – Brexit and the Irish Border, empire nostalgia, the treatment of Irish women by the State – that require historical literacy for a proper appreciation of how these issues have evolved.
We should also be conscious of the ignorance that the downgrading of history has generated elsewhere, including Britain, where in 2014 historian Anthony Beever called for history to become a compulsory subject at GCSE level after it emerged that a large number of adults believed the D-Day landings took place in Germany. At that stage, only 30 per cent of 16-year-olds took GCSEs in history and overall take-up had dropped by about a fifth since the late 1990s.
As underlined in the 2011 book The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, the product of a project spearheaded by historian David Cannadine, once students have completed the compulsory study of history up to the age of 14 as required in state schools, history is taught primarily to more academic and socially advantaged children. Not only is history far too important to be left to historians; it is too vital to be left to the wealthy.