The Sunday Tribune reports that so bored are two-thirds of southern school children studying the north that a government report has recommended that comedians be used to engage their interest. I suspect that the authors of this report fail to realise the utter contempt that “interesting” lesson plans provoke amongst those subjected to them, but of more concern than the attitude of bored schoolchildren should be the attitude of the history teachers themselves. Among the reasons given for not wanting to teach the history of Northern Ireland by teachers was that they did not know enough about the subject.
I would like to say I’m stunned by this, but I’m not. It reflects the dominant attitude in the south over several decades, which was to try and ignore the north as far as possible. The report asks “If students do not learn about modern Irish history in a school context, will they be skilled enough to interpret what they see in the media outside school?” And “If in senior cycle, teachers are not supported to take on sensitive issues, are they abdicating an important duty to give impartial information on topics? If we wish to deal with post-conflict situations and empower upcoming generations, we cannot ignore the difficult and sensitive events that have impacted upon us”.
Ignoring the dereliction of professional duty inherent in the attitude of “I don’t know about that, so I’m not teaching it” (were they all experts on, say, Nazi Germany before they did the reading for teaching it?), this raises the question of what education is for, especially in a rapidly-changing society. The Republic, like the UK, France and elsewhere, been trying to deal with the question of educating children drawn from different cultural and religious traditions. In the North, we have seen the damage a badly-organised and divisive education system can wreak not only on individual children but on society as a whole.
Ireland, north and south, needs an education system that meets not just childrens’ educational needs, but also those of society. The education system is a powerful tool in shaping attitudes. As Ireland north and south becomes an increasingly diverse place, the education system must be changed to meet these needs. A secular and progressive education system teaching the virtues of equality has been one of the central planks of republican ideology throughout the world in the last few centuries. This is the model Ireland needs north and south. To teach children that all are equal, all part of the same community of citizens, with equal rights and common interests.
One of the great failures of the Blair government has been education. The promotion of faith schools, academies, and the abject failure to deal with the inequalities created by a massive private sector all condemn New Labour. As does its failure to live up to its rhetoric on citizenship classes, and its failure to inculcate an egalitarian vision. It is important that teachers in the Republic teach pupils about Northern Ireland, all the more so with the recent influx of immigrants. The consequences of prejudice, sectarianism, bigotry and hatred must be taught to all. Elsewhere, the paper reports on a school class with only one native child. The parallels of northern sectarianism with southern racism must be central to explaining to southern children why they must learn about the north. They are more likely to understand why the north is important when being taught in these terms than from watching Patrick Kielty torture his audience with the same old jokes.