The Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh TD, will soon have to decide on the future of history in the secondary school system. For many people, history was a core subject when completing their Junior Certificate. The experience was no doubt mixed but talking to people there seems to be a general agreement that the study of history is important. A study of history gives people a sense of their place in the world, and an appreciation that our country (indeed all countries) have a past that holds as much hope as grief and has as much to celebrate as to be questioning of. The basic skill of history is to question. Considering the recent experience of the two countries on either side of us, it surely is clear that providing access to historical knowledge and a questioning mind is integral to life in the 21st century.
For the last decade there has been a strong focus on the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. This is to be expected, as our dependence on investment from the pharmaceutical, IT and engineering sectors is vital to our economy and therefore to our ability as a country to invest in social infrastructure. We need to have graduates with the skills to be able to work in these sectors for the investment to continue. The focus on STEM should not however be to the detriment of history.
What has happened in the United States, and in the United Kingdom, could happen anywhere. Where there is a dearth of knowledge on the historical relationship between countries, it is predictable that nationalistic sentiment will strengthen. People will believe misleading statements and blatant lies because they simply don’t have the knowledge to expose those lies. The role of the historian, and the skill that we should all learn, is to look beyond a headline or a soundbite and be able to work out the true story.
Recently the United States produced grainy photographs in order to blame Iran for attacks on oil tankers in Gulf of Oman. It is not that long ago that a US Secretary of State sat at the UN Security Council and told the world that other grainy photographs proved Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Brexit debate has showed how many in Britain have little or no knowledge of the historical relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom, or the reasons behind the founding and growth of the European Union. The study of history would provide that knowledge. The decisions may well have been the same, but at least they would not be made in such a vacuum of knowledge.
Studying history is an opportunity to reflect on the past and help us to understand the present. We never arrive at a destination without having travelled a journey. Many in Britain and the United States seem to have forgotten their journey or have a selective memory of their past. It has not done them well. In Ireland we will soon be deciding on the future of history for those undertaking the Junior Cycle. Is it really a good thing to suggest that the study of your past should end at the age of 12 or 13? I hope Minister McHugh thinks not.