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Future is bleak without the past

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

‘THE Past is Myself’ is the title of the late Christabel Bielenberg’s book about her experiences, and those of her husband and friends, who were involved in resistance circles during the horrors inflicted by Hitler and his Nazi boot-boys during World War II.
The simple title has always resonated for me, and the book, first published in 1968, should be compulsory reading – particularly for all those who myopically undermine the importance of the lessons of history.
Fundamentally, the title confirms that our past informs and shapes our present and our future and, indeed, also saves us from ourselves. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs have undoubtedly deterred trigger-happy despots and even presidents, supposed to be leaders of a democratic world. While the memory and recording of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing and pogroms have not saved all peoples, the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of the EEC, now the EU, have ensured our continent’s relative peace since 1945.
 
Junior Cert subject
AND so the debate about Junior Cert history plays out again in our media, as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is due to publish a report about its status as a core subject for students. Isn’t it rather ironic that this discussion continues as we mark the centenary commemorations that define us on so many levels as a nation?
Minister for Education, Joe McHugh told the Dáil earlier this year that it was ‘vital’ that young people learn from the past – at a time when many schools have chosen to remove history as a mandatory subject form the Junior Cert cycle. A bizarre and short-sighted decision, in this writer’s view.       
McHugh’s remarks in the Dáil seem incontrovertible to me: “At a national, European and international level it has never been more important for people to understand the lessons of history.”
Arguing the case in The Irish Times last week, former Minister for Education Mary O’Rourke wrote that it is ‘only by studying history that we learn who we are’.
Continuing, she opined: “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.”
Ms O’Rourke was addressing the question, ‘Should history be compulsory for Junior Cert students?’.

Now is the time
IF ever there was a period in human history – in this time of instant gratification, self-obsessed selfies, clickbait and ‘snowflakes’, whose social media addiction means they float so far out in the cosmos they cannot cope with the stark realities of the world on their infrequent back visits to earth – it is now that we need to defer to its cross-generational, cross-century lessons.
Long before technology infected our lives, our forebears bravely faced challenges that would shame us today. Just because they weren’t as rich in material wealth does not mean they were any less sophisticated; any less passionate or knowledgable about the ways of the world.
Surely, shouldn’t we all be compelled to defer to the lessons of history in this decade of commemoration of centenaries marking the poetic and bloody foundation of our State, the sepia-tinged stories of heroism and betrayal, conviction and idealism, schisms and civil war?   
As President Michael D Higgins has observed, the knowledge of history is ‘intrinsic to our shared citizenship, to be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom’.