Is Leaving Cert history fit for purpose?

Published in Issue 5 (September/October), Platform, Volume 22

Is the ability to write at breakneck speed crucial to heighten students’ analytical capacities, to grasp the intricacies and nuances of past events? (Eric Luke/Irish Times)

Is the ability to write at breakneck speed crucial to heighten students’ analytical capacities, to grasp the intricacies and nuances of past events? (Eric Luke/Irish Times)

Last March (2014) I had to write an essay for my Leaving Cert history class with the given title of ‘What factors from 1912 onward led to the partition of Ireland?’ For this kind of assignment we are required only to regurgitate information from our textbook, Sovereignty and partition by M.E. Collins. I had recently, however, come across a 1980 pamphlet—Peter Hadden’s Divide and rule: Labour and the partition of Ireland—which convincingly rebuts the standard interpretation of this topic. It uses a host of private letters from unionist leaders, statistical data and historical analysis to counter the claim in the textbook that ‘the only way to avoid a civil war was to exclude Ulster from Home Rule’. There is, in fact, a plenitude of authoritative writing that rates the ‘unionist threat’ as minimal, and poses that national division was not born out of already existing material conditions or sectarian tensions in Ireland. Yet, when I used these sources for a class essay, the teacher informed me that my work could not be marked in accordance with the Leaving Cert system. An examiner, she said, would be perplexed by any such deviation from the mainstream narrative, and could likely award it zero marks.

Regardless of which text (Sovereignty and partition or Divide and rule) is more accurate, it is indisputable that partition remains a controversial issue, with near-infinite room for discussion, revision and critique. So to present one version of events as definitive and unquestionable, to penalise those who reject the view that unification was always (in the textbook’s words) ‘unrealistic’ or an abstract ‘dream’, strikes this writer as deeply worrying. It is indicative of a trend that permeates our current education scheme: priority is given to the memorisation of certain (specially selected) facts, inconvenient or subversive ideas are shunned, and critical thought is almost entirely supressed. The Leaving Cert history programme is a direct embodiment of these shortcomings; it is structurally conservative and biased, and must be radically overhauled if we wish to preserve history as a subject of genuine debate and scholarship.

The history syllabus is awash with enlightened-sounding phrases about ‘understanding . . . the human condition’; it states that students should be taught to ‘look at a contentious issue from more than one point of view’, ‘evaluate evidence’, ‘study history from a variety of perspectives’, ‘develop an informed and critical awareness of their historical inheritance’ and so on.

Unfortunately, these guidelines rarely translate into practice. They are rendered impossible by the layout of the exam and the nature of the prescribed material. During the test, candidates have roughly 110 minutes to churn out three essays (usually 4–6 pages in length), which make up the largest portion of their grade. This cramped time-slot often leaves students’ work rushed or incomplete (one can easily browse on-line forums to gauge the frustration at last year’s paper), yet the syllabus gives no justification for such highly pressurised conditions. Is the ability to write at breakneck speed crucial for heightening one’s analytical capacities, for grasping the intricacies and nuances of past events? Aren’t historians usually applauded for the opposite tack: a slow, meticulous process of inquiry? This patent reversal of norms within the discipline of historical writing is baffling until we consider that (a) history is forced to conform to the overall Leaving Cert format, in which exams rarely exceed the 150-minute mark, and (b) time restrictions make it difficult to adequately develop any line of reasoning that goes beyond the Leaving Cert-approved outlook. One might affirm concisely that ‘half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant, therefore the North could never have been included in a Republic’, yet it takes longer to present the counter-argument, since this would necessitate a study of Unionist–Tory Party relations, the former’s waning influence after the Battle of the Somme, and the potential for a cross-religious independence movement prior to 1922. In order to gain traction, non-traditional opinions must be supported by a volume of evidence and elaboration for which the current exam does not allow. If students wish to do well, they are forced to channel only the textbook’s bite-sized portions of information.

A format that expects one to rapidly spit out facts leads to an overarching emphasis on the set material. If candidates can prepare for the exam’s ‘Later Modern Europe’ section by mindlessly learning off bullet points from Stephen Tonge’s Dictatorship and democracy, then that is exactly what they will do. Though the Document Question strives to engender some critical insight—asking students to comment on the objectivity or ideological standpoint of a historical source—textbooks are rarely treated with the same degree of scrutiny. As part of my research for this article, I conducted a survey of 30 Leaving Cert history students (from schools including Blackrock, Sion Hill, Blessington Community College, St Andrew’s and the Institute of Education). When asked, ‘Are you encouraged in history class to question, challenge, or read outside the confines of the textbook?’, two participants responded with ‘Yes’, one with ‘Somewhat’, and 27 with ‘No’. This demonstrates that 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. No school, public or private, can elude it completely. As one respondent observed: ‘It’s ironic how we’re told that history is all based on opinion and that there is no right or wrong answer, when we are forced to stick to a particular opinion for our exams’. His remarks serve to illustrate why my own essay was deemed ungradable: as far as the curriculum is concerned, Peter Hadden’s findings are opinion whereas M.E. Collins’s are fact. Thus it becomes apt to inspect the supposed infallibility of these textbooks, viewed as beacons of exactitude and detachment by the system’s apologists.

While Dictatorship and democracy doesn’t contain a single footnote, it is littered with references to, and quotes from, Niall Ferguson, a self-proclaimed ‘member of the neo-imperialist gang’ and lifelong proponent of colonial war. Orlando Figes also features heavily during the section on Soviet Russia, making it onto the ‘recommended reading list’ at the back of the book. Figes is an eminent anti-Bolshevik historian who, aside from facing repeated accusations of plagiarism, had his definitive work on the Stalin era rejected by Russian publishers for ‘numerous inaccuracies . . . factual errors [and] misrepresentations’. Uncritical reliance on these writers leads to a string of dubious assertions, all of which hint at Tonge’s political bias. For example, we are told that after the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) won the Russian Constituent Assembly elections in 1917, ‘it became clear . . . that Lenin was determined not to share power. When the assembly met in January 1918, it was closed at gunpoint.’ This brief analysis glosses over the fact that the SRs split subsequent to the 1917 vote, with their (hugely popular) left faction joining the Bolsheviks. Lenin therefore requested a second ballot in order to account for this political changeover; however, the right SRs denied his appeal, at which point he called for the Assembly building to be locked. No truly objective or rigorous historian could omit such crucial details. Yet this pattern of selectivity is seen throughout the textbook. It marks a conscious attempt to downplay any information that contradicts the conservative, Ferguson-inspired narrative.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with students reading interpretations from the right of the political spectrum. But they must be presented as interpretations, not irrefutable truths, and equal weight must be given to their progressive counterparts. The International Baccalaureate programme achieves this through a study of ‘Historiography’: pupils examine how ideologically disparate historians construe the same event, and form their own conclusions as to whose position is more verifiable. I discussed this matter with Nicola Carter, a Ph.D student at Trinity College who has been teaching history—both Baccalaureate and Leaving Cert—for the past fourteen years. She concurred that the latter’s structure ‘fails to create critical thinkers’, and further affirmed: ‘If you challenge some of the perceptions, especially of Irish history, you could do badly [in the exam]’. This is due to the lingering influence of ‘parochial, Civil War politics’ in books like Sovereignty and partition, which are highly reluctant to criticise the ‘heroes’ of Irish history (Collins, de Valera, Griffith, etc.) or mention the misdeeds of the Catholic Church.

While it would be rash to endorse any alternative education system (since systemisation is, I believe, part of the problem), the Baccalaureate’s more balanced, project-based approach is undoubtedly superior in creating informed, open-minded and interested students. The recent changes to the Junior Cycle (though far from perfect) prove that reform is not some distant ideal. It can be achieved through the coordinated action of teachers, students and parents. Those who believe that learning is not synonymous with the dry recitation of facts should seek to improve our current model.

Oliver Eagleton is a Leaving Cert student at St Andrew’s College, Dublin.

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