Monday 16 September 2019

History to become a thing of the past?

History lockout: James Larkin in 1913
History lockout: James Larkin in 1913
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

One of the great shibboleths of our time is that we are living in an era of fake news. Fake news, along with fake outrage designed to elicit fake apologies, is now the order of the day.

The only problem with this assertion is that it has always has been thus.

Whether it's propaganda, urban legends or simply a party political broadcast, fake news is hardly a new phenomenon, it's just that we've given it a new name.

The best way to protect yourself against such dubious information is to know how to discern the real from the bogus, the factual from the fatuous.

It's actually not that hard once you have the basic tools in place.

That's why the announcement that history will be dropped as a compulsory topic at Junior Cert level from September is so baffling.

It's easy to resort to cliché when extolling the virtues of history - you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you're from; you need to know your past to best decide your future and a variety of stock phrases have all been dragged out this week. But like many clichés, they happen to be true.

We might like to fret about the phenomenon of fake news, but it's real ignorance we should fear.

In a news cycle which now seems to refresh itself twice a day as opposed to every 24 hours, it's easy to get bogged down in the matters most current, but everything is interlinked and without a basic grounding in historical facts, people are more prone to making ill-informed decisions.

That's not to say that history makes you a better person, or we should all reach the same conclusions.

It's perfectly possible for two people to look at the same historical incident and arrive at two very different conclusions, but the point is that they arrived at their position after becoming versed in the relevant facts.

There is a cultural battle currently being waged which will, one day, form part of future history courses and it's the battle of feelings over facts and the way so many people think the strength of their emotion is more important than the strength of their argument.

At least when people have a vague grasp of what shaped the world around them, they can imbue their precious emotions with a semblance of understanding and a kernel of objectively verifiable knowledge.

There will always be concerns about how history is taught, of course. One bad teacher can ruin a whole class. But that is a problem with the process, not the principle and, equally, one good history teacher can genuinely change your life for the better.

But more than that, history is fun and fascinating and it seems cruel to deny anyone the chance to learn about it.

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