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Column: We need to produce a generation of independent thinkers – history is the key

TV shows like ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Rome’ show that history is more popular than ever – yet, under proposed changes to the Junior Certificate, history could become an optional subject or short course. It makes no sense, writes teacher Christian O’Connor.

Christian O'Connor

THE NEXT FEW years will see significant changes in Ireland’s education system due to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s reform of the Junior Certificate. As part of this, history will not be a compulsory subject. Not only is history being downgraded to an optional subject, schools will also be given the freedom to make history a short course. For those of us who love history and believe that it is essential to a balanced education, this is clearly a disturbing development.

Learning from the past

At present, we are in the midst of an economic recession. Unemployment and emigration are, for now, an uncomfortable reality. There are no easy, short term solutions to these problems. In order to emerge from our current difficulties we must make a long term investment in our youth. This investment should, in my view, involve encouraging students to study history.

We need to produce a generation of independent thinkers who are disciplined, open-minded and good at analysing problems as well as suggesting solutions. These are exactly the traits that history sets out to instil in its students. They are traits that that can be applied to any type of employment. A generation with these characteristics is a generation that can lift Ireland from the mire it currently finds itself. It is a generation that will not repeat the mistakes that led to our current economic predicament.

Overcoming bigotry

History at secondary level enriches the minds of our youth by exploring the past, not only in Ireland but Europe and the wider world as well. Under the existing syllabus, history students are exposed to a variety of topics including Ancient Rome, the Reformation and the Rise of Hitler over three years of study. The current compulsory nature of Junior Certificate history ensures that students have no choice but to investigate this wide range of personalities and events. Indeed, by studying the rise of dictators such as Hitler, students are enlightened on the dangers of bigotry and discrimination. In an increasingly multicultural society, such enlightenment is essential.

By allowing history to become optional or a short course we are denying some students a wealth of knowledge. In the case of a short course, students may only be exposed to one hundred hours of history over the three years. This limited time will lead to narrow content and failure to fully develop historical skills such as identifying bias.

It’s a time of commemoration – downgrading history is a travesty

Ireland is now in the midst of a decade of centenaries. The period from 1912-1922 has left an indelible mark on our history. Events such as the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising and the Irish War of Independence have seeped deep into the Irish psyche. At such a time of commemoration, the downgrading of history is a travesty.

Our youth must be allowed to investigate these events in the history classroom where in-depth, non-biased and balanced discussion can be easily facilitated. In this setting, untruths, myths and exaggerations can be safely dispelled. If we allow our youth to acquire their history outside the classroom, untruths, myths and exaggerations will, I fear, be proffered.

The government’s future vision for history has no support from those who are responsible for the teaching of history at secondary level. I have yet to meet a history teacher who supports Minister Quinn’s downgrading of history. Indeed, the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI), of which I am a member,  are strongly opposed to history becoming optional or a short course.

In my own experience as an educator I have encountered many fellow history teachers. I have always been struck by their collective passion and enthusiasm. To downgrade history, is to strike a harsh blow to a group who wish only to make the maximum contribution possible to the balanced education of our students. The message from history teachers to Minister Quinn is clear: we do not support you.

History is more popular than ever

The downgrading of history at Junior Cert level will have a negative impact on history at Leaving Certificate level. Surely students who do not experience history during the first three years of secondary school are unlikely to choose history as a leaving cert subject.  As a result, if the proposed reforms are implemented, it is highly likely that there will be a significant fall-off in the numbers studying senior history.

What is more perplexing is that the downgrading of history comes at a time when history is more popular than ever. Indeed, in the context of TV shows such as ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Rome’, history has become mainstream, even ‘cool’. Students now enjoy history not just as a subject in school but also as a pastime. For many students it becomes a passion for life.

The downgrading of history could not come at a worse time. The pursuit of economic recovery, knowledge of the wider world, ending bigotry, commemoration and popular culture demands that history remain a compulsory subject at Junior Cert level.

Minister Quinn, we need history, now more than ever.

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About the author:

Christian O'Connor

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