Without history, we have no future

8 May 2018

Ancient Poulnabrone dolmen, The Burren, Co Clare, Ireland. Image: littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

Removal of history as a core subject in the Junior Cycle could be perceived as a ‘dumbing down’ of education, writes John Kennedy.

“Geography is history,” is one of my favourite catchphrases to come from an Irish entrepreneur. They are the words of one Liam Casey, the founder and CEO of PCH International who has built a global business by interpreting the design ambitions of major brands such as L’Oréal and making them digital.

The ambitious nature of people such as Casey – and, more recently, Leonara O’Brien’s Pharmapod in winning a major deal to reduce medication errors in Canada – is a far cry from the way many young Irish people would have looked at the world in the 1980s and 1990s. We didn’t really dare to dream. If we did, we had notions.

‘To be without such knowledge is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom’

A worldliness fostered by generations of emigration and recent decades of inward investment have meant that, despite the grim economic drubbing of the 20th century or economic downturn, today’s young students have fewer limitations on their ambitions. If you look at the Collison brothers who founded Stripe, these students now have role models.

We are living history. And the lens through which we live it via social media and the wider internet gives us a clarity we have never seen before. However, it also can dim our senses if we fail to detect truth from lie.

This is history

Growing up in Ireland, it is impossible to escape the past. History is everywhere and you can’t walk a mile without tripping over some historical monument or link to the past.

We have always been acutely aware that our education system equipped us to navigate the world with a confidence that often belied the economic realities we grew up in.

But, in recent months, more questions than answers have been raised about the direction of that education system and if it is fit for the needs of the 21st century.

Questions about digital education, sex education and whether we are equipping kids with the life skills to live safely in the 21st century are constantly being asked. In recent weeks, I wrote how I suspected digital education, similar to our taboo-like approach to sex education, is being swept under the carpet.

And now, to my dismay, it has emerged that history will no longer be a compulsory subject in the Junior Cycle. This is a done deal, has been years in the making and will become a reality in September this year.

According to a recent article in the TheJournal.ie, this will make Ireland the third country in the world to remove history from its core subject curriculum after the UK and Albania.

As I pointed out, we are living history. Without history and a sense of the past, you have no sense of the traps that the future will have in store.

I grew up in a little town that resembled what would happen if a giant threw all of its history toys out of the pram. Not far from where the author of Gulliver’s Travels and the father of satire, Jonathan Swift, was a dean, Trim boasted Norman castles, Templar monasteries, a pillar for the Duke of Wellington (the statue had a sword shot from his hand by a Black-and-Tan soldier, but that’s another story) – you name it. Tara, the home of the High Kings of Ireland, was nearby, as was a round tower in Kells. It was a place to explore, but also wonder about the people of the past, feel a connection with them and ponder what kind of people we would be in the future.

I grew up witnessing IRA and Bobby Sands graffiti on walls, bomb squads checking suspect devices, hunts for the Border Fox, and hearing stories about grandfathers and granduncles who fought in World War I and the War of Independence. I remember where I was when I learned of the Good Friday Agreement. I also remember where I was when I heard of the terrible Omagh bombing. I knew then, as I do now, that this was history in the making. And it mattered.

We are history

Much of today’s narrative has been shaped by the tragic events of 9/11, the War on Terror and, increasingly, Trump’s America and Britain’s headlong descent towards Brexit.

We are witnessing the rising tide of feminism making its mark on the business and geopolitical world, and the prospect of a diverse and better world, where all are equal, is potentially within our grasp.

We are within weeks of a historical and pivotal referendum in Ireland that could see the Eighth Amendment repealed or maintained. This is history.

Our sense of the looming disaster that could be Brexit and talk of a hard border is often irritated by some UK politicians’ poor grasp of the history of these islands.

In the UK, it is understood that only 40pc of students in their junior cycle have opted to study history. Its loss is keenly felt insofar as educators are trying to backtrack on this policy and make history and geography compulsory until the age of 16.

Some of the remarkable feats of technology in recent years, if you ask me, have been the creation of Wikipedia by Jimmy Wales, effectively giving everyone on the planet a free encyclopaedia; and the arrival of Google Maps, which has transformed navigation and potentially business forever.

Some of the most compelling content on YouTube or digital TV for that matter is informed – and centres – on history. Many of the dramas, documentaries and movies are inspired by history. And it is becoming business, too. There is a rising tide of Patreon-backed filmmakers developing content for legions of fans with passion and dedication. A personal favourite of mine would be The Great War series on YouTube, which has faithfully documented every week of World War 1 precisely as it was 100 years ago every week since the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 1914.

The thirst people have for knowledge about who they are and where they come from is the reason that the online genealogy business is booming.

It is ironic and perhaps sad that history could be removed as a core subject from the Junior Cycle in the Irish curriculum just a couple of years after the pomp and pageantry that marked the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

The most important lesson about history is that it is often written by the victors, and true historians take a critical view to unearth the truth. At a time when critical thinking, telling the difference between truth and lie online, and understanding the narrative that is unfolding before us has never mattered more, it would be a mistake to remove history and even geography as core subjects.

It is understood that, from September 2018, just three subjects – English, Irish and maths – will be mandatory core subjects.

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins recently expressed “deep and profound concern” at the development and, during the launch of the new The Cambridge History of Ireland, remarked how 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”.

At Siliconrepublic.com, we write about the business of the future but often, it is anchored in the lessons of the past.

Without history as a core subject, I feel we will all be poorer for it. Because, without knowing your history, you can never imagine your tomorrow.

Ancient Poulnabrone dolmen, The Burren, Co Clare, Ireland. Image: littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years