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President Michael D Higgins was on the money on Monday last when calling for History to be retained as a core subject up to Junior Certificate level.
From this September, under Junior Certificate reforms, History will no longer be a compulsory subject for students, meaning only Irish, English and Maths will be studied by all ‘JC’ candidates.
In this intense period of centenaries, both North and South, to relegate History in such a manner appears to be an utterly incongruous move on behalf of the Government. That a President with such an acute academic perspective and a deep appreciation of history has voiced his opposition is a welcome move.
And we are relieved that this matter has been afforded the oxygen of publicity by our Head of State, who said a knowledge of history is “intrinsic to our shared citizenship, to be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom”. This matter should not yet be viewed as a fait accompli as a cognisance of our past is of equal consequence to both the indigenous population and the ‘New Irish’.
“Moreover,” said the President, “to be without historical training, the careful and necessary capability to filter and critically interpret a variety of sources, is to leave citizens desperately ill-equipped to confront a world in which information is increasingly disseminated without historical perspective or even regard for the truth, and I refer now not only to social media but to the news industry more generally.”
History is a foundation block for cultural and political knowledge. It tells us where we came from, it explains how we differ from other nations, and what defined our own sense of nationhood and identity.
And if we need a recent reminder of how half-spun bluff without the benefit of historical context can influence a modern democracy, we need look no further than across the Irish Sea where the slow-motion car crash of Brexit continues to confuse us.
Across Central Europe, electorates in the former Warsaw Pact members such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have drifted towards the right in recent plebiscites. Having been occupied and oppressed between 1939 and 89, these countries are turning away from migration assistance and pluralism. And when people are less informed, extremism can reign.
The social media obsessed younger generation are reading less reliable news sources so bearing that in mind, the good social grounding provided by History has probable never been of greater significance.
Said President Higgins: “In time, if we continue to provide new opportunities for historians, amateur and professional, and if we continue to advocate for history as a crucial element of participatory citizenship, if we keep the study of Irish history alive and vibrant, a new generation – indeed, perhaps some of the younger historians in this room – will come to revise anew these volumes. That, I believe, will be the measure of our success in the coming years.”
We learn history to improve ourselves, to boost our levels of knowledge, to try and ensure that we do not repeat the errors of the past, and to learn more about our neighbours. Our history is surely as importance to us as our language, and we do feel that further debate is needed on the matter of this subject’s future status within the education system.
Let’s hope that this decision will be reversed, because downgrading History will prove a long-term political, social and cultural mistake.