Why study history? Ciaran Brady responds to Ruairi Quinn.

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(Image author’s own)

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.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

11 thoughts on “Why study history? Ciaran Brady responds to Ruairi Quinn.

  1. I get what you’re saying about the skills historians hone as part of their job, but do you really believe young teens will pick these up from a few hours a week in history class? One thinks not.

    1. Will junior cycle students become fully equipped historians before they sit the exam? Definitely not. In that case, there would be no need for third-level training. Similarly, students won’t be expert mathematicians by third year, but they’ll have the basics. It’s not about becoming experts over-night or picking skills up in a matter of hours.

      The point is, if history remains part of the curriculum for the Junior Cert and is taught in an engaging and lively manner, thus instilling students with an interest that will lead them to continue with it to leaving cert and beyond, then over time they’ll learn those skills. But, given the dull reputation history as a subject has acquired at school level, if students are given the option not to take it, many won’t. And, as a result, the opportunities to build those skills up will be lost.

      1. Perha. I, for one, won’t be shedding any tears for the subject nor will my children. I don’t share your optimism that teachers will incorporate these new on-line resources into their classes. Sure aren’t they under enough pressure as it is to get to the end of the curriculum within each school year? The Internet will just be dismissed as a distraction.

    2. Liam, I take your point but it applies to most subjects. The way the curriculums are going is towards commercialisation. Junior cert science has moved toward commercialised science when in reality fundamental science would probably give kids the best education possible. So its easy to cynical of education reforms.

  2. Not being a secondary school teacher, I can’t really comment on how they use their time. But I am aware that new technology is being brought into classrooms. My godson’s primary school, for example, has been using interactive whiteboards for a couple of years now.

  3. A very nice post except this: “I am keenly aware of the skills — most notably critical thinking and analysis — that the study of the subject can impart on the student”. My problem with this argument – which I keep hearing from historians – is that it seems to imply that other disciplines don’t impart these skills.
    You won’t get very far in science without critical thinking and analysis. I work quite a bit with historians (of science) and while they are most interesting to work with I have never seen any evidence that they are any more skilled in critical thinking than the scientists themselves…

    1. Apologies for delay replying: your comment ended up in my spam folder (which seems overly-enthusiastic, and I really must keep a closer eye on it!!).

      I don’t doubt for one second that other subjects use critical thinking and analysis. For several academic years I taught on the Writing Academy at UCD for in-coming mature students. It was designed to re-introduce them to these skills, and the students enrolled were from across all disciplines in the University. From my perspective, I feel that these skills are emphasised by historians not because we claim our subject to be superior to others, but to show that it is as useful as those subjects seen as having a more ‘practical’ application.

  4. Yes, a very good point and thanks for your reply Ciara. Perhaps we should turn it around and point out to our political masters that the critical thinking skills that historians learn are useful in a great many spheres!

    Please excuse my earlier grumpiness; it happens that I recently found that an Einstein paper often cited by historians has never been translated into English. I’ve just finished translating it but it does make me wonder whether certain chaps ever actually read the paper (as opposed to quoting a secondary source)…this happens quite a bit in the history of science because the papers themselves can be quite technical..

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