Leaving Cert History—what is it good for?

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

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The recent release of Leaving Cert results reminded me of my own exam experience—a two-week marathon of fact-regurgitation and writing. That was nearly 40 years ago but, if current Leaving Cert student Oliver Eagleton is to be believed (Platform, pp 10–11), very little has changed. One of the positive educational developments over that period has been the ‘knowledge revolution’, yet in an age where information is so accessible the Leaving Cert’s focus on rote learning is at best a waste of time.

At worst it undermines the stated aims of the History syllabus—revamped just a few short years ago to great fanfare—to ‘develop an informed and critical awareness of [students’] historical inheritance’ and to ‘evaluate evidence’. Yet it is not uncommon at third level (and this is borne out by colleagues) to find students who don’t know the difference between ‘describe’ and ‘analyse’. And away from the hallowed halls of the academy, if the abuse that passes for ‘debate’ on on-line forums is anything to go by, for example in relation to the current ‘decade of centenaries’, then we’re in big trouble.

Neither teachers nor textbook-writers are to blame for this state of affairs: they are all on the same exam-focused treadmill. Plans to abolish the exam at Junior Cycle from 2017 should therefore surely be welcomed, yet debate has focused instead on the removal of History as a core subject at Junior level. But what good is History as a core subject if it continues to be taught in this narrow and counter-productive way? Perhaps it is time for teachers—and students and parents—to engage more positively with current proposals for Junior Cycle reform. And while we’re at it, why not extend the process to the Leaving Cert?

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