An Irishman who teaches British history at third level abroad said to me a while ago that “its very important that there is a curriculum and that historians stick to it”. That struck me as a rather unimaginative comment. But perhaps it is a relevant one. In the news of late, it is reported that history will cease to be a compulsory subject in Irish schools from this autumn and various people have complained about that, with even some national newspapers, which claim to have no agenda and to deal only in facts, arguing that a lack of designed history curriculum in schools will only increase the amount of “fake news” in the world.
I find it a little difficult to identify with these debates. I recall studying history in Ireland up to PhD level without ever being exposed, as part of my studies, to theories of education, such as Dewey’s models of learning outcomes and the like. These are now the best part of a century old and revolve largely around the valid question if there is value in knowledge if it cannot be applied to life circumstances. Just how essential is historical knowledge? Do people need to have a history curriculum shaping their worldview? Or should both the study and awareness of history be something far more flexible than any designed curriculum could possibly reflect, let alone shape?
I have had unhappy experiences in the past seeking work as a history teacher of any kind, as a PhD disqualifies one from teaching in schools and in colleges the framework for interpreting history—in effect, the “curriculum”—is not necessarily as flexible or as imaginative as one might think, or expect, in institutes of higher education. I can recall sitting across an interview desk being faced with a question like “why is John Redmond relevant today?”—a question that, bizarrely, even living Irish statesmen are sometimes asked and speak about on Irish national media (imagine current British or French statesman being asked and actually speaking as if Disraeli or Poincaré are relevant today?)—and, all of a sudden, the interview quickly takes on a vibe akin to that old song “where-did-you-get-that-blank-expression-on-your-face?” My answer does not seem to register with the interviewers at all because I think of Redmond as a man of his own time. If Redmond decided to retire and someone asked him post-retirement “why are you relevant today?” I am pretty sure he would have looked at his questioner with a blank face as if to say “have you got a screw loose?” How, then, did the idea of Redmond not as a man of his own time become so clearly a part of a history curriculum? You tell me.
It is common sense that if history is to be read chronologically then it should be read forwards rather than backwards, or else people’s sense of both life and history would become very queer indeed. Generations exist, but how can the historical imagination reflect that? And if empathy is the basis for understanding, how can one’s approach to history reflect that? Asking questions like “how would life, or the world, have appeared to a Scottish fisherman in 1750, an American munitions worker in 1918, a Persian merchant in 1460, a Greek shepherd in 240 or an Irish hunter in 1620?” are unlikely to inspire essay length answers, but they would force one to attempt to step into another’s shoes and consider just how many vantage points on life may exist across time or, indeed, geography. That is an education, surely. By contrast, “the great men of history who determined the course of international relations” narratives that are the bread-and-butter of old school-history textbooks may seem akin to buying into a “the man who sold the world” idea: a narrative of someone seeking world domination, like Mephistopheles himself, through controlling or manipulating how people think. Is that an education?
Historical narratives of any kind cannot exist without a historical imagination and it seems to me that the broader one’s historical imagination is, the broader one’s sense of history will be. In my experience, people who have never done a history course often have a broader or more mature sense of history, purely out of their own inquisitiveness about life, than those who have for the simple reason that there is no curriculum in place to restrict their historical imaginations. They are not thinking within predetermined boxes. A while ago, I saw an internet commentary about a 1960s American TV show that was re-run on Irish TV during the 1980s, The Time Tunnel, which suggested that the show actually had some merits on an educational level for kids, because every week the two stars were being thrown into a different historical epoch against their own will and literally had to adapt, hitting the ground running, in a sense, within minutes. I remember liking the programme myself as a kid, although seeing parts of it again as an adult was bemusing because a conceit within the show was that wherever the guys were transported was almost always into some historical catastrophe or battle. For instance, if they landed onto a historical ship, it would not be any historical ship: it would have to be the Titanic. If they landed in the middle of a pretty rural village in France, it would not be at harvest time or before a happy village fair: it would be within 24 hours of the launch of D-Day…and so on. As undisciplined as it may seem, I imagine some of the best illustrations of “history for kids” could be an alternative kind of time tunnel: here you are in the town’s school in 2018, but are you aware that the school and the street outside looked like this in 1962 or 1948? It is simple explorations like that bring people’s historical imaginations to life, for any or all age groups, in a manner that literally does not stop, from cradle to grave. By contrast, if historical educations, or public history agendas and the like, have people walking down the street literally with World Wars on their mind, then one might be tempted to judge that the absence of compulsory history educations in schools may actually end up being only a good thing and may even up increasing, indirectly, the level of public interest in history over time by making it the humanist study it is truly supposed to be. From a Dewey point of view, I suspect that that is why departments of education across most countries in the world are starting to reconsider the value of history…and, well, all I can say as a historian is “that’s ok with me”