As a professional academic historian I am, of course, biased. But because of my role I not only understand the importance of knowing our history, but also I am keenly aware of the skills — most notably critical thinking and analysis — that the study of the subject can impart on the student. These are vital skills transferable beyond academia. For the last two years I have been teaching history at the Quinn School of Business in University College Dublin. A peculiar place for a historian to work, perhaps, but the skills set emphasised by the assignments for my modules are all of benefit and use to the business majors enrolled in my course: report writing, project management, team work and, arguably most importantly, the aforementioned critical thinking and analysis.
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn is proposing that English, Irish and Maths will be the only mandatory subjects for the Junior Certificate. Although history is not presently a compulsory subject, most schools do require that their junior cycle students take the subject. I’m not the first historian by any means to point out that this downgrading of history makes a mockery of the decade of commemoration which we are currently in and for which the government is planning several state-sponsored events.
In response to the criticism of his plan, Minister Quinn laid down a challenge to historians in his address to this year’s MacGill summer school (read the speech in full here):
There are many historians present here today.
So let me put a challenge to you.
Historians owe a duty to the country to show why their domain of knowledge matters (and it does), and why 12 year olds and their parents should take heed.
Historians must advocate, argue and defend.
But the target of their discourse should not be the state.
Their conversations should be with the students who matter, and their parents.
They should seek to influence, not to coerce.
They should rely on the lure of their subject, rather than compulsion.
They should remember that compulsion doesn’t always work.
He got his response in an excellent piece by Ciaran Brady, Professor of Early Modern History and Historiography at Trinity College Dublin, in today’s Irish Independent.
WHAT other subject insists that we put things in sequence, judge their importance, think about the consequences and hold people responsible for their actions? To study of history is to insist that the order in which things happen is important and explains why we are where we are. History is a kind of cultural alphabet that equips us to understand and discuss the present.
Without having that alphabet, it is impossible to be the sort of critical citizen that society needs. Without forensic skills, it is difficult to take part in the debates that shape our present and future. It is its honing of the mind’s skills of discovery, discrimination and assessment that the true relevance of all history – not just recent history – lies.
Furthermore, acknowledging that ‘History, taught badly, is among the most tedious of subjects’, Professor Brady also pointed out that advances in digital history are opening up new opportunities for the way in which it is taught. Read the response in full here.
I had the same history teacher in secondary school from first year through to sixth year (1995-2000). She was pleasant, but certainly not inspiring. Rather tellingly, she would note in her text book the date on which she read to us from certain pages — each year, she’d usually land on that same page around the same time. There was little or no variation in how the subject was taught. That I continued on with history for the leaving certificate was due only to a love of the subject that was fostered within my family home (As I’ve mentioned here before, I grew up in the presence of history with an 80-foot-castle outside my front door!)
The possibilities now are endless. More importantly, they are fascinating, engaging and exciting. Professor Brady mentioned RTÉ’s excellent Century Ireland project. This is just one example of the many on-line resources available to stimulate interest and to bring history to life. There’s also the UCD School of History and Archives’ HistoryHub.ie, of which I am a co-editor; the National Archives of Ireland’s amazing 1921 Treaty exhibition and Census projects; the fascinating Down Survey of Ireland made available on-line by Trinity College, which allows viewers to visualise the change of land ownership in the 17th century; and the GAA oral history project run by Boston College’s Centre for Irish Programes, to name but a few.
The study of history is important. It can also be entertaining and exciting. Fingers crossed that commonsense prevails.
Note: my observations above are made in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the UCD Quinn School.