Monday 14 October 2019

Frank Coughlan: 'History opens doors to the future - if it's taught well'


Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

I always loved history at school. Battles, invasions, pillage and assassinations were much more to my taste than Pythagoras's Theorem with the sum of a whatsit being equal to the area of some other yoke.

Geometry went right over my head or, perhaps more accurately, in one ear and out the other with little in between to inconvenience its travels.

I did history to Leaving Cert and it earned me one of my two honours, the other being English. Both, after all, give bluffers a royal charter to take liberties that aren't on the menu with more rigorous disciplines.

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In the sciences you either knew your stuff or not and I'd have to admit the honest effort required to actually learn things didn't really suit me at a time when I was a lazy, back-of-the-class teacher's worst nightmare.

But I'm wiser now, though it took a while.

My affection for history never dimmed, which is why I am now a final-year mature student at university. Bluffing doesn't get you very far at this level, but I'd have to admit that muscle memory means I have tried.

As I had to sit the subject for the old Inter Cert I was suitably smitten by the time the Leaving came around.

It was the start of a life-long friendship. Over time it forgave me for my occasional lapses into indifference and I gave it a pass on all its boring bits.

There is a lot of hand wringing and brow furrowing at the moment over the decision not to restore history to its traditional compulsory status in the redesigned junior cycle.

Education Minister Joe McHugh had ordered the review from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment last November and there was every hope it would be reinstated.

It matters, of course, but not as much as some as the predictable public keening would suggest.

My recollections of how it was taught back then resurrect memories of a course that seemed content to reinforce a received historical orthodoxy rather than in any way challenge it.

I remember in national school during 1966 how, as an impressionable 10-year-old, the concept of a glorious blood sacrifice, and its overt religious connotations, was offered as the core message a child was to take from the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

In Inter Cert history a few years later, I recall an overwrought Presentation Brother who used to dab his eyes with a handkerchief as he indulged in his anguished and genocidal interpretation of the Great Hunger.

Neither of these, looking back from decent remove it must be admitted, had much to do with historiography and plenty about turning us into honours-student Anglophobes.

This approach had consequences.

I'm sure the curriculum has moved on considerably since, because we certainly have as a nation.

We still have those who prefer a comic book historical narrative, but all countries do. Across the sea, much of the great Brexit delusion and empire fetish can surely be put down to how history has been mistaught, hijacked and abused.

The great historian Eric Hobsbawm accurately, if cynically, commented that a nation is a 'people who share a common misconception as to their origins and a common apathy towards their neighbours'.

If all classroom history lessons do is reinforce those self-serving myths, then its loss to the Junior Cert would hardly be incalculable.

History is too important to be taught badly. To do that is worse than not teaching it at all.

But every generation needs to have a handle on yesterday, if only to make sense of tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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