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Comment & Opinion

Irish history- will it be understood in the future?

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.

THIS country has a fraught history.

A lack of freedom and independence; conflict and war both between ourselves and against other countries; these are aspects of our history that have shaped Irish people and society and continue to do so to this very day.

We’ve recently embarked on a period known as the decade of commemorations — the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Lockout, of the 1916 Easter Rising, of the sitting of the first Dáil, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

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These are all important events whose influence can still be felt in the Ireland of today.

But I’m sad to say that the Irish Education Minister Ruairí Quinn is trying to change the secondary school syllabus in a way that may mean that students of the future may not be aware of just how important they are.

At the moment, it’s compulsory for all students to study history until they have completed the Junior Certificate (when they are usually 15 or 16 years of age).

After that, they make a choice as to what subjects they will study for the Leaving Certificate and history is no longer one of the compulsory core subjects.

Changes to the Junior Certificate syllabus are currently being debated and the Minister for Education is recommending that history be made an optional subject for future students.

He thinks students should have the right to choose because this would be more likely to encourage a true love of the subject instead of forcing them to study it.

He also says that it’s the duty of history teachers to inspire interest in the subject so that young people will be more inclined to choose to continue with it.

But is this really a sensible approach?

Are children of only 12 years of age (because this is the age they will be when they are choosing subjects for Junior Certificate) able to think strategically about the subjects that will stand to them in the future or are they more likely to choose subjects based on how easy they think those subjects are likely to be?

In Britain, a decision was taken making history an optional subject and the numbers studying it fell as a result. Now, survey after survey shows that many young people don’t even know who Churchill was.

They know very little about historical events apart from the Nazis because the Nazis are shown on television more often than any other historical characters or events.

There is now a campaign under way in Britain to make history compulsory again because people don’t want to lose the link between us — the people alive today — and those who went before us shaping our country and society in all sorts of interesting ways.

If the minister succeeds in making history an optional subject, I am absolutely of the opinion that it will be a mistake.

The number of students studying the subject will fall drastically and a generation of children will have no real or deep understanding about where they came from as people or as a nation.

We’ll all be the poorer for it. As I mentioned above, Irish history is a fraught history and we’re still trying to come to terms with how it has shaped the society of today.

If the generations to come don’t have any knowledge of their history, they won’t be able to come to terms with it and I think they’ll be in an even worse situation than we are today as a result.

The minister is standing on a hugely important threshold. It’s up to him whether the schoolchildren of the future will be given knowledge and understanding of Irish history.

In the year 2026, will students know what happened in Dublin in 1916? We won’t know the answer to that question until Minister Ruairí Quinn makes his decision.

Let’s hope it’s the right one.

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