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Clio, the muse of history - Pierre Mignard

Clio, the muse of history – Pierre Mignard

It has taken me longer than I had hoped to get around to writing this post. There are a lot of other things going on that occupy my time at present, but I also wanted to try to think this through properly before writing about it. I’ll set it out at the start: as someone who does history for a living, and who has an often fraught, but essentially unconditional love for history as a subject and an idea, I’m completely biased. I have a vested interest in defending history.

Back in April the Irish government announced plans to reform the Junior Certificate curriculum, which would involve the removal of history and geography as core subjects for the Junior Cycle. Challenged by Diarmaid Ferriter on history’s (and geography’s) relegation to the ha’penny place, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn defended the proposals by suggesting that history teachers could develop ‘short courses’ based on historical monuments or sites in their own locality. Trips to Vinegar Hill to learn about 1798 or to Trim Castle to learn about the Normans were among the snazzy, innovative ‘short courses’ the minister proposed.

As has been pointed out by others, this ‘short course’ concept of history doesn’t really work in practice. Take Vinegar Hill, for example. Would the battle there have happened without the events of 1789 and after in France? Unlikely. And that’s before one considers the influence of the American Revolution on events. So how do you try to explain all this in a ‘short course’? ‘Short courses’ with a focus on local history cannot convey to students the all-important bigger picture. My point here, however, is not to critique the proposed new system for teaching history. It is to defend the subject in a more general sense.

Since then Minister Quinn, his plans questioned again by Ferriter, has thrown down the gauntlet to historians. At the MacGill summer school in Donegal this summer, he stated that: ‘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.’ Intriguingly, he added that the ‘target of their discourse should not be the State’, which seems to suggest that history should not be used to question the State: but that’s a matter for another discussion.

Some Irish historians have taken the minister up on his challenge. Writing in the Irish Independent, Ciarán Brady warned of a future crisis in history in Ireland were the subject to be sidelined in the proposed manner. He also highlighted the many ‘transferable skills’, to use that much-vaunted phrase, that history can give its students: critical thinking, research skills, analysis and the ‘art of deduction’. Brady’s response also raised the issue of how history is taught, pointing to the vast amount of freely accessible, fascinating material now available online. Ciara Meehan picked up the question of history teaching, referring to her own experience of a secondary school teacher who relied purely on a well-worn textbook.

When this whole debate first reared its head, I too found myself thinking about how I was taught history at secondary school. My Junior Certificate teacher was wonderful, taking us through the wide-ranging curriculum (everything from Irish monasteries to the Renaissance to the French Revolution) with enthusiasm and good humour. She even threw in some additional local history for good measure. At Leaving Certificate things were rather different, with a teacher who stuck closely to the tried-and-tested ‘learn off X amount of essays, and underline as much as you can in your textbooks’ method. As a result, the life was sucked out of some of the most interesting periods in both Irish and European history. We followed the ‘modern’ Leaving Certificate syllabus, studying topics like ‘Crises in the French Third Republic’ and the Russian Revolution. It was like being serenaded by a bad Beatles cover band: the original material was brilliant, but the interpretation ensured it lost all meaning. By comparison, studying European history as a first-year university student was like being at Abbey Road.

More recently, Colm Toibín made his own contribution to the debate in a column for The Guardian. Toibín’s article, reflecting on how Quinn’s planned reforms seem entirely at odds with a country as obsessed with specific versions of its history as Ireland, is perhaps one of the most convincing pieces I have thus far read on the issue. Like others he points to the fact that young people in Ireland now have the opportunity – with online resources – to revisit and question the grand narratives of independence and the ‘fight for freedom’. He correctly concludes that history is essential because:

there is no country free of the need to find new ways of reading the past as an inspiring way of thinking about everything else, including the present.

Just before this conclusion, however, Toibín also notes that: It may be enough to study history in all its nuance and ambiguity for its own sake.

That, in a nutshell, is also the basis for my defence of history. Others have and will continue to point to the skills you can gain from studying history, so there is no need for me to rehash the same arguments here. Of course, I am biased. But to my mind there needs to be a place for ‘education’ to be seen in a more old-fashioned or ‘classical’ sense – as something that equips children and young people on a social, cultural and intellectual level, not just something designed to get them a job. History is a crucial part of this conception of education.

No doubt there will be some who see this as the opinion of an academic in an ivory tower, comfortably cut off from the hard realities of a post-Tiger Ireland where there is simply no room for a broad education, because it isn’t specifically tailored to the job market or the ‘demands of industry’. Education now – and the choice of each subject – has to be justified in quite restrictive and economically-based terms. Even Ruairí Quinn’s challenge to historians had the air of a Dragon’s Den appearance, where historians are expected to rattle off expected turnovers and overhead costs and market share.

History does equip students with transferable skills. There’s no doubt about that, and this should be promoted. However, history deserves its place in a curriculum worth its salt for its own sake. In an increasingly globalised world, history shows you that on some level, everything is connected: that, for example, the actions of men and women on the eastern fringes of Paris on a July day in 1789 can have a direct impact on the actions of men and women in Wexford nine years later. History reminds you that good times come, and good times go. It gives you the ability to find out how the people who went before you – in Ireland or elsewhere – responded to the bad times. It consistently seems to prove that short-term thinking doesn’t work in the long run. And with that particular knowledge in mind, a better appreciation of history – and not just Irish history, I hasten to add – might help Ireland to work through a messy present.