Patricia Feehily: Is history really bunkum?

What is the point of studying history if we are just going to repeat the mistakes of the past
THERE’S a big debate raging at the moment about the relevance of history on the second level curriculum, and I have to say I’m a little bit bemused. Deep down, I suspect that most curriculum changes these days are nothing more than an attempt to dumb down any major challenges to our pampered iPod generation of scholars - like too much hand writing for instance – or to pander to the demands of foreign investment. But then, being of the Henry Ford school of thought, I’ve been veering for some time towards the notion that history is bunkum anyway, especially if you can’t handle it.

THERE’S a big debate raging at the moment about the relevance of history on the second level curriculum, and I have to say I’m a little bit bemused. Deep down, I suspect that most curriculum changes these days are nothing more than an attempt to dumb down any major challenges to our pampered iPod generation of scholars - like too much hand writing for instance – or to pander to the demands of foreign investment. But then, being of the Henry Ford school of thought, I’ve been veering for some time towards the notion that history is bunkum anyway, especially if you can’t handle it.

I started learning history in primary school myself in fourth class. Now, I have to admit that it was a very long time ago – ancient history almost – and maybe things have changed considerably since then, and maybe the prescribed texts aren’t as rabid as they used to be. All I know is that by the time I left the school three years later I was on the way to becoming a raving suicide bomber, fired up with nationalistic fervour and an ardent desire to avenge ancient wrongs, and especially the Battle of Kinsale, where Feehily the chess player perished, I’m told. What I should have been questioning, of course, was how a chess player got himself into a situation like that in the first place.

I was also, thanks to the history lessons, harbouring a deep loathing of absentee landlords who had evicted our ancestors during the famine. I don’t know what I’d have done if I had come across one of them. No-one, however, told me about the gombeen Irishmen who had also exploited the misfortunes of their starving countrymen, and it was a long time before I learned that many of the evicted tenants lost their homes and their lands due to shop debts rather than non-payment of rents to greedy landlords. The shopkeeper vultures are still not mentioned in any school text books on the famine. The national psyche, which draws sustenance from our troubled history, nonetheless prefers to keep reality at a distance. What Irish history has in store for the Troika should be interesting, even if the subject by then is no longer studied by the majority of school pupils.

By now you’ll have guessed that history was not my favourite subject in the Leaving Cert. Apart from a feeling of having been taken in by spin doctors like the Maigue poets who were forever extolling the questionable virtues of the Gaelic chieftains and their extravagant lifestyles in the middle of my socialist period, I couldn’t get my head around the balance of power in Europe at all. I couldn’t even remember dates, not to talk of the family tree of the Hapsburgs.

Really I shouldn’t be bothered too much about whether history is to be taught, or not, in the future. It has been the cause of too much personal disorientation.

But if history is no longer to be a core subject for Junior Cert, how are we going to learn from the mistakes of the past? Those opposed to the downgrading of history claim that we will simply go on repeating those errors. This, to quote Henry Ford again, is bunkum. Déjà vu is all very well, but a knowledge of history has never stopped us from repeating past mistakes, up to now anyway. The real lesson of history is that it teaches us nothing really. It simply repeats itself.

For all that, I feel as if I am committing a sacrilege by disparaging, even mildly, the role of history in Irish education. It is, after all, the custodian of our heritage and our traditions, and I don’t know how we’d cope at all if we didn’t have something to look back on with pride – or with anger, as the case may be.

Apart from the sacrilegious aspect, I’m defending the continued teaching of history as a core subject because, whatever about Henry Ford, I don’t want to be associated with the Ruairi Quinn school of thought and the current scary upheaval in Irish education. Neither do I want to be ejected unceremoniously from the Silvermines Historical Society, which, regardless of my scepticism about history in general, has been filling a void in my life for the past two years. Mention of which reminds me to plug, unashamedly, our second journal in as many years, Mining The Past, 2013, which will be launched on November 22, by a neighbour’s child, Professor Tom Collins, who, apparently holds different views to mine on the teaching of history.

The book itself is packed with history, including a riveting murder story, full of suspense, intrigue, tragedy and, naturally, friends in high places.

You’d be amazed how much we’ve learned about ourselves and our ancestors in a mere couple of years that a decade of learning history in school could never teach us. You’d be amazed too at how refreshing it is to confront the past without feeling any great need to glorify it.