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Opinion: As the spectre of fascism threatens Europe again - learning history is more important than ever

‘Brexit is a tangible manifestation of the enduring power of idealised versions of history to lead otherwise well-meaning and right-thinking people astray,’ writes Matthew Murphy.

Matthew Murphy

ACROSS THE WORLD familiar themes are re-emerging.

As Russia flexes its muscles and starts to reassert itself on the world stage after its long hibernation, and the spectre of fascism threatens to spread across Europe once again, it is perhaps time to remember the words of the Italian philosopher, George Santayana.

 Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

It is only as the final members of a generation that lived through the horrors of a century ravaged by war are coming to the ends of their lives, that these familiar tropes are re-emerging.

As these people leave us and their first-hand experiences are lost, the study of history becomes all the more important. In light of this depressing reality, the announcement by Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, that there is to be a review of the decision to remove history as a compulsory subject for the junior cert should be met with relief.

The decision to remove history as a compulsory subject was taken in order to introduce an increased element of choice, to what is otherwise a rather rigid system.

While this is undoubtedly a commendable goal, it fails to appreciate the reality faced by many schools across Ireland.

If they are to ensure that subjects remain available, and for principals to justify the continued employment of teachers to oversee the delivery of the subject, history must remain a popular choice among the general student body.

False Narratives

While one would hope that Irish students continue to retain an appreciation of the importance of history even if it were not compulsory and that it would remain popular enough to be a choice in every school in Ireland, the pitfalls of a major decline in students studying the subject are too severe to take such a risk.  

In any nation, an absence of a coherent understanding of history can be dangerous. The 20th century alone is littered with examples of the destructive power that a dearth of education can have.

Without an understanding of history, lies about the past can quickly gain traction and in the destructive hands of dictators, false narratives can be presented as fact.

In the modern era, Brexit has become a painfully tangible manifestation of the enduring power of idealised versions of history to lead otherwise well-meaning and right-thinking people astray.

As a near neighbour and a former colonial territory, Ireland has had a front-row ticket to Britain’s inability to come to terms with its colonial past.

This struggle is illustrated by the eternal popularity among a large section of the British public of Jacob Rees Mogg, who recently saw fit to launch a defence of the wonderful achievements of the British Empire. 

Other commentators in Britain also indulge fanciful notions about the good aspects of colonialism, with some even defending the British Raj on the grounds that it gave India a railway system.

Rees Mogg’s defence of the empire came in response to a suggestion by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that students ought to be taught some of the ‘grave injustices’ perpetrated by the Empire.

Never mind the tabloid response to Corbyn, even the fact that he had to suggest they should change their history curriculum reveals that what the British are currently being taught in school must be far from balanced.

The fury exhibited by some at the suggestion that Ireland should have a veto over Brexit negotiations also demonstrates that many have a scant understanding of the complex political history that unites and divides our two nations.

This lack of historical education can easily be exploited by politicians who play upon people’s nostalgic memories of a Britain that never existed, they cloak their real intentions in Nationalist rhetoric and march their people down dark paths.

Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg himself, once jokingly described on Have I Got News For You as ‘the honourable member for the 18th century’, is the physical manifestation of that flawed recollection of the ‘glory days’ of the Empire.

Given such a woefully inadequate understanding of their own history, is it any surprise that a man doing his best impression of a colonial administrator was able to convince millions of his countrymen to wrest back control from a malevolent European elite?

They marched to the polls in their millions blissfully unaware that they had been thoroughly short-changed by an inadequate education system that helped to sell them the tantalising prospect of reviving an era that never existed.

Banishing history

History isn’t something that can be easily banished. It shapes social attitudes and foreign policy long after those involved are gone and wounds are healed. Nor is it forgotten by simply refusing to teach it.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Ireland, where oral history has always been so pivotal to our national story.

Family legends of grandfathers who were involved in skirmishes with British soldiers and heroic tales of local rebel leaders endure passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Without education these stories can become distorted, worn away by the passage of time and altered by bias. If such narratives are not challenged, falsity soon becomes presented as history. 

By ensuring that children study history in school we contextualise these stories and paint them in a wider context. We stamp out myths, biases and inaccuracies and attempt to convey both side’s motives.

It is only through the continued education of our students in the nuanced challenges posed by history that we enshrine the health of our democracy.

If it is true that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, then perhaps Brexit is a cruel case study of what happens to those who never learned it. 

Matthew Murphy is the opinions editor of the University Times and a law student at Trinity College Dublin. 

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Matthew Murphy

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