Is Leaving Cert History fit for purpose?

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Letters, Volume 22

Sir,—I feel I must respond to Oliver Eagleton’s ‘Platform’ piece, ‘Is Leaving Cert History fit for purpose?’ (HI 22.5, Sept./Oct. 2014). I hold an MA and a Ph.D and have taught History for a number of years, and have also examined the subject at Leaving Cert level. The article makes reference to sources which disprove standard interpretations on a topic and mentions that his teacher commented that an examiner ‘would be perplexed by such deviation from the mainstream narrative, and could likely award it zero marks’. It would be very unlikely that an examiner would punish an answer containing alternative views from the textbook.

Mention is also made of the memorisation of ‘certain (specifically selected) facts’ and that ‘inconvenient or subversive ideas’ are ‘shunned’. History teachers and examiners should not be—and I don’t think many of them are—in the habit of penalising candidates for expressing revisionist views based on material with which they have come in contact, when structured and laid out in a coherent, strong argument. Most, I would hope, encourage an analysis of both sides of an argument, and the use of any material properly evaluated is surely welcomed by both teachers and examiners.
Leaving Cert History can be the basis for further investigation and the study of alternate views; it is a platform from which to work and not, as Mr Eagleton argues, ‘structurally conservative and biased and must be radically overhauled’. Many teachers may depend entirely on the material in textbooks, but others will use it as the starting point to work from and will encourage their students to read more widely and work hard to source material that enhances the subject.

It has been argued that the exam exists as the fairest way for students to present information and be assessed. This is an important skill in itself and promotes time-management and the logical ordering of facts and arguments in a short time-frame, something that is important in any workplace. Summarisation and presentation in the most efficient manner possible is what employers are looking for. The truth is that the marketplace is highly competitive, with an increasing number of people with advanced qualifications; it favours quick thinking under pressure and it will not wait for people to go and look up basic information while they wait patiently. Memorisation will always have a strong place within the education system if it is to prepare individuals for the workplace. The ‘slow meticulous process of inquiry’ mentioned in the article should take place in the two years before the examination, not during it.

The survey mentioned in the article of only 30 students can hardly be expected to reflect the views of the majority of history students in the country, and the conclusion that it demonstrates that the ‘narrowness of thought, uniformity of ideas, is not merely a product of shabby teaching but is integral to the Leaving Cert’s straitjacket exam set-up’ is unfair. The remark of one respondent, that ‘we are forced to stick to a particular opinion for our exams’, amazes me and is the opinion of one respondent probably originally coming from a teacher who has no real passion for their subject.

As a teacher of history, I would also never believe that the textbooks are ‘infallible’ and ‘viewed as beacons of exactitude and detachment’ and any history teacher encouraging this view should definitely not teach history. I would agree concerning the opinions of Niall Ferguson and others mentioned. However, I would argue once again that these are an encouragement to a teacher to present the opinions and views of other historians.

The writer also mentions that a Ph.D student at Trinity argues that the Leaving Cert ‘fails to create critical thinkers’ and that ‘If you challenge some of the perceptions, especially of Irish history, you could do badly [in the exam]’. There may be some history examiners who are biased towards these views but I am sure that most examiners are keenly aware of material criticising to a greater or lesser degree the ‘heroes’ of Irish history ‘or the misdeeds of the Catholic Church’. Perhaps, as Mr Eagleton suggests, the history programme could include the study of historiography, but this should not be such a difficult thing for history teachers to incorporate into their class.

I think also that the history syllabus and teaching has embraced reform, and no mention is made of the Research Study Report, which accounts for 20% of the history exam. It encourages students to prepare a project entirely of their own choosing, selected from almost any period in history, and allows the student a large scope for analysis and investigation of sources, including varying opinions, revisionist works or unorthodox ideas. The Leaving Cert History exam can be ‘fit for purpose’ if used in an innovative and interesting way by teachers.—Yours etc.,



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