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Yes, but what kind of history?

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

The recent safeguarding of the status of history in the Junior Cycle curriculum by Minister for Education Joe McHugh has been mostly met with positivity.
Joe McHugh’s decision to grant history ‘special status’ was, however, in direct contradiction to the recommendations of the body charged with curriculum reform, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and debate about it continues.
Many questioning the decision work in the trenches in the education system, and suggest that this move does nothing to cater to the specific needs of harder-to-reach students who might respond better to alternative subjects. However, some understanding of where we have come from and how we have got here is essential for future progress. So if history is here to stay, maybe we should be questioning whether we are learning the right history, in the right way.
Disclaimer: a couple of decades of rainwater have passed under the bridge since my schooldays, and I can’t claim any real knowledge of the current history curriculum. Today, I am fascinated by the past and its people, and how it has led us here. But – far too frequently – I wake up in a cold sweat having just dreamed that I am about to sit a State exam with no recollection of anything I have learned for it. The subjects that haunt my dreams? Irish, maths and ... history.
Why? Well, I struggle greatly with the retention of information. In fact, I suspect, that if anyone were to investigate what lies under this hair, they may discover a sieve where there should be a head.
I am also allergic to numbers on pages; they just dance around in front of my eyes, taunting me and evading all attempts to commit them to memory. My main recollection of my history studies in school is fretting about mixing up my 1655s with my 1711s and being penalised for same.
In my ignorance, I also felt history a bit of an irrelevance, failing to understand the real connection between the events of years ago and the current state of play. Now, instead of recalling all the exciting stuff – the stories of people, of events, revolutionaries, mistakes made, crimes committed – as lessons learned from my schooldays, I have the Leaving Cert Dream.
I wonder whether things have changed, and whether the current curriculum places less emphasis on dates, and more on movements, precedents and influences? I wonder if it brings our incredible stories to life in a way that engages young people on an emotional level? And I also wonder if we are focusing on the right parts of our history?
A recent article on by Caoimhín De Barra, an assistant professor of history in Gonzaga University, Washington, offered food for thought on this. In it, he maintained that perhaps we are not placing enough emphasis on certain events while we over-emphasise others.
For example, he suggests, it is possible for Junior Cert students to study history with barely a mention of the Famine. This is quite extraordinary, given the scale of the event on a global level, let alone an Irish one, and the impact it has had on our journey as a small nation and on our psyche as a people. Indeed, it is only in recent years that the ‘famine’ narrative has been questioned, and been gradually replaced with ‘genocide’.
Similarly, De Barra suggests that we over-emphasise the early Christian period in Ireland, and its links to our supposed Irish-ness, at the expense of the pre-Christian period. We barely acknowledge our rich Gaelic past where we spoke our own language and had our own distinct cultural norms – many of which would, incidentally, directly contradict more modern Catholic beliefs.
History is important because we should learn from it, but in order to do so, it is essential to be able to join the dots and connect our past – particularly the most painful parts – with our present. And in order to do that, we need to be able to empathise with our ancestors and keep their stories in our hearts and minds. Making history mandatory is a start, but like most stories, it’s in the telling. And that’s where the bigger challenge lies.