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Opinion: What’s the point in learning about history?

Every History teacher in the country can attest to hearing the Dreaded Question at least once a year: “What’s the point in learning about this?”

Jason Kelleher

I SPENT TWO nervous hours in my school last June, waiting for my students to come out from their Junior Cert History exam. As I paced a corridor, I thought about the work they’d done so far, their time in the school, and everything they’d been through – good and bad – to get to where they are now. My thoughts turned to their future. What would they become? What successes and challenges would they meet? What would their stories be? As a History teacher, I couldn’t help but think of this. I love stories.

The question

Every History teacher in the country can attest to hearing the Dreaded Question at least once a year: “What’s the point in learning about this?” This question became a national discussion with former Minister Ruairi Quinn’s plans to remove History as a compulsory subject in the Junior Cycle and his challenge to historians to show why History should matter to 12-year-olds and their parents.

The Dreaded Question is actually a good one. Sure, there are many dramatic, exciting topics in the History course, such as World War II, the American Revolution, and the Irish struggle for independence, but then there are other, less exciting topics such as early Christian Ireland and the Plantations. Indeed, what is the point in learning about them?

The Story

Imagine reading the third book of the Hunger Games series without ever reading the first two, or watching Game of Thrones from the most recent episode without ever watching the earlier seasons. Sure, you’ll pick up on bits and pieces of the story as you go along, but without reading or watching what happened before, you’ll never gain a complete sense of the story, the events that have happened in it, and what the characters have been through. Every character has an origin and every story has a beginning, including our own.

We live in the longest-running and most complex story there has ever been. Most of us exist in this story as background characters, only a few of us go on to influence the overall plot. Some parts of the story began a long time ago, other parts are just starting now.

Take, for instance, the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the long-running discrimination and bigotry that resulted in decades of death and destruction. It’s certainly a dramatic story, and much more likely to capture the attention of students then, say, the Plantations – but how can one understand the former without the latter? The Plantations may come across as dull and uninteresting, but they’re a prequel to the partition of Ireland and the Troubles. History is full of prequels and sequels. The world we live in today is a sequel of sorts to the events of World War II. It will in turn become the prequel to something else.

The characters

Of course, just because most of us might be background characters in the larger story, that doesn’t mean we’re barely a part of it. We all have our own stories: where we came from, what we’ve been through, and how we came to be who we are. Even if we never turn out to be as prominent a character as Rosa Parks, Michael Collins, Mary Robinson or Barack Obama, we still have our individual parts to play – just as each of those four people did before they were famous, and just as they would have done anyway.

Irish people often tend to cherish our stories. The struggle for independence still captures peoples’ imaginations today, and we have given a great amount of attention to commemorating the many centenaries that take place in this decade – not least the one coming up in 2016. Even Ruairi Quinn himself acknowledges the importance of the story and his role in it – he wrote about it in his 2005 memoir, Straight Left.

The historians

So, how can we expect children growing up today to enter this story as adults if they don’t know what’s already happened in it? How can someone properly understand the economic downturn, the Garda surveillance controversy, or the recent horrible discovery in Tuam without knowing what previously happened in the story that led to these events?

Ireland has developed around that story. Our cities and towns have developed around that story, and we as individuals have developed around that story. The popularity of shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and The Genealogy Roadshow is evidence enough of our desire to know the origins of our part in the story. To answer Ruairi Quinn’s challenge, historians don’t need to convince anyone that History matters. We have always been a nation of historians.

The future

My students came out of the exam centre in dribs and drabs. We chatted about the exam, and I congratulated them on all their hard work and effort. I was still thinking of their future as they walked off: how their stories would tie in to the larger one in which we all live. As they get older, those students will experience the latest twists and turns of that story. How can we expect them to live in it if they don’t know what twists and turns have happened already?

Jason Kelleher is a History teacher at the Cork Life Centre (www.corklifecentre.org), an education centre for early school leavers. I also run a revision site called History Help, and is on Twitter at @historyjk.

Read: 8 iconic photos from history, brought to life in colour

Read: 70 years on, here’s how D-Day was originally reported to the world

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Jason Kelleher

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