History is NOT bunk — so it’s bonkers to drop it from schools

Anyone who thinks there is no place for history in our school curricula is living in cloud cuckoo land when they should try living in the past a little more, writes John Dolan in his weekly column
History is NOT bunk — so it’s bonkers to drop it from schools

THE CAP FITS: The people who dropped history from the junior cycle deserve a dunce’s cap, says John Dolan

Q: “What happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963?”

A: “I don’t know, I wasn’t watching it then.”

THE above was a genuine answer offered by a contestant to a radio phone-in quiz on the GWR station in south-west England.

The correct four-stage response to reading it is as follows:

1. Allow yourself an indulgent chuckle.

2. Pause momentarily to ponder if the contestant was joking.

3. Realise they were deadly serious (since presumably there was a prize at stake).

4. Shake your head and wonder what kind of godawful education system can cough up someone so ignorant of basic knowledge after spending a bare minimum of 11 years in its sphere.

As a product of that same British system myself — albeit more than 30 years ago, when education tended to be more rigid and stuck to the basics — and with my own children at school here in Ireland, I am well placed to compare and contrast the two systems.

And I really feel that education at all levels is one area where Ireland is streets ahead of Britain.

I get prickly and defensive when I hear the Irish have a cut off Britain on lots of issues, such as Brexit, perceived attitudes to immigration, and the attractions of test match cricket.

But have a dig at its education system and I am right with you. When it comes to the woeful lack of knowledge displayed by far too many of my compatriots, I can only hang my head in shame.

And of all the subjects where the UK schools system most obviously flounders, the dunce’s hat goes to History.

I was spoilt for choice in seeking the above JFK example of the type of pig-ignorance that is too often displayed on UK TV and radio quiz shows.

In a similar vein, on the TV show Pointless, host Alexander Armstrong asked one contestant: “Who was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas?”

To which they replied “JR.”

A University Challenge competitor — yes, really — was once asked “What was Gandhi’s first name?” And came back with “Goosey”.

While a caller to a quiz on BBC Radio Merseyside, asked Hitler’s first name, came back with “Heil”.

For some, a little knowledge is clearly dangerous.

One contestant on a London radio show quiz was asked: “How many kings of England have been called Henry?”

They replied: “Well, I know Henry VIII. So, um, three?”

While, showing there is no English north-south divide when it comes to ignorance of history, a caller to a Newcastle radio phone-in was asked: “How long did the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel last?”

Their answer? “Fourteen days.”

Perhaps the Brits could introduce a rule that states anyone who fails history at exam level is doomed to repeat it...

They say you shouldn’t mock the afflicted, but I figure the terminally ignorant are often fair game — although there is a case for arguing that I have probably picked the wrong target here.

Clearly, if millions of people are exiting Britain’s education system lacking even the rudiments of history knowledge, the blame lies further up the chain. With the governments, councils, schools and universities which can appear obsessed with political correctness and introducing bizarre subjects, at the expense of core ones.

A few years ago, 3,000 undergraduates in the UK were polled on what they felt were the daftest subjects available at third level.

They were spoilt for choice: Some of their answers included surfing, stained glass window studies, brewing, gambling, and comedy. One university had a course in electronic gaming, another in the ‘science of adventure’.

These are barely worthy of being taught part-time at night school, never mind at university — and are often taught at the expense of real subjects such as history. Then again, we recently learned that there were more UK applications to appear on TV show Love Island than there were to enter those bastions of global expertise: Oxford and Cambridge.

The problem is, history has not been a mandatory subject in the UK for some time, and the cycle of ignorance becomes self-perpetuating.

You can picture little Johnny and Mary asking their parents: “Where was the Magna Carta, signed, Dad?”

And him shrugging back: “Dunno, kids, at the bottom, I imagine.”

Once the darkness of ignorance encompasses a generation, it’s very hard to switch the light of knowledge back on again.

Look — I appreciate I aspire to be something of a history buff myself, and am therefore biased. I also appreciate that maths, sciences, and technology are probably the most vital tools with which a student can arm themself when entering the jobs market these days.

But anyone who thinks there is no place for history in our school curricula is living in cloud cuckoo land when they should try living in the past a little more.

Henry Ford famously said that history is bunk — but then again, his company came up with the Edsel, a car so bad that its grille was compared to a toilet seat.

Ford was wrong, and thankfully, the Irish education system has long cherished history as a subject — indeed, I’ve heard it said that if the Brits learned more about their history, and the Irish forgot more of theirs, the world might be a better place.

But, from this month, all that is to change. In our leaders’ wisdom, they are dropping History as a compulsory subject in the junior cycle. From this new term, just three subjects will be mandatory — Irish, English and Maths.

That is bonkers. Ireland is only the third country in the world to remove History from its core subject curriculum — after the UK (like, duh?) and Albania.

Fianna Fáil leader and Cork TD Micheál Martin — a history teacher in a previous life, lest we forget — has taken up the mantle and insisted he will reverse this decision if he gets into power. And that’s a vote-winner in my book.

He described the junior cycle reforms as a “catastrophe” for the subject and told an audience at the West Cork History Festival last month: “If you don’t (have it as a compulsory subject), you will have no follow through in the Leaving Certificate and it would eventually lead, in my view, to the elimination of History.”

His has been joined in his opposition to the reforms by President Michael D Higgins, who said history was the “inheritance of all our people”.

Well, this month, our young generation has been disinherited.

Then again, in 20 years’ time, we’re unlikely to see evidence of the ignorance of our people in the shape of TV and radio quizzes. By then, any query on knowledge will be met with a simple reply: “Google it...”

PS: Oh, and while the schools in the UK are tackling their nation’s woeful lack of history knowledge, they might also tap on the shoulders of the people in charge of teaching geography.

Perhaps, then, we might eventually see an end to Ireland’s sporting stars being hailed — even by the likes of the BBC — as ‘British’.

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