The End of History?


Couldn’t resist that title/groan-inducing pun for a post about the precipitous decline in the numbers of schools teaching history at A Level, and even at GCSE in Northern Ireland, as reported by the Irish News (link will probably soon require subs). In a country as obsessed with its history as Northern Ireland, it seems incredible that a quarter of all secondary schools are opting out of A-Level history, while 20 schools, around 10%, are not offering GCSE history. Although history remains a strong subject – about 8% of pupils sit it for A Level – its future (and the future of those who teach it at both secondary and tertiary level) is obviously endangered if schools continue to cut it. There is also a class divide emerging, with history weakest in the non-grammar schools, where it seems students are being encouraged to take vocational qualifications and perceived softer subjects, like media studies.

This raises a number of issues for the Left. The first relates to the question what is an education for – is it, or should it be, mainly for the production of technologically proficient and compliant workers who never think about broader societal issues, or should it be to create more rounded individuals who can function as good citizens. There is also the issue of how young people come to political consciousness. In this day and age, when politics is presented purely as managerialism, when political, let alone class consciousness is low, and the left has difficulty getting its message across in a culture saturated with the likes of Lindsey Lohan’s sex life and the X Factor, it is less likely than it has been for decades that young people will think seriously about politics. The study of history – of issues like the Russian Revolution, Hitler’s Germany, the French Revolution, and Irish history – exposes them to the ideas that have motivated progressive forces in the past, and often gives young people their first introduction to the political and social factors that have shaped the world they grew up in. If large numbers of young people – especially working-class young people – no longer encounter these ideas during their education, then the left will suffer for it in the long run. In a place like NI, where the left already struggles desperately, this is a very worrying trend.


9 Responses to “The End of History?”

  1. WorldbyStorm Says:

    That’s an horrific indictment of the school system. Is it societal, in the sense of an aversion to history and/or the contemporary or is it something else?

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    I think it is probably reflective of the developing cultural aversion to reading books, quite frankly, rather than aversion to history as such. Many people who would never read a history book could name you the hunger strikers. Also perhaps because things like tourism are seen as the key to jobs by naive youngsters (encouraged by careers advisors), whereas most employers treat them as a joke. Having said that, a high proportion are in post-16 education, and many go on to university. But I do think its societal in the sense of the education system being skewered towards the middle class in grammar schools, with the other schools being seen as less intellectual. And less important.

  3. Hugh Murphy Says:

    You are dead right, History is very important. Young people need to know why and where they came from – if they are to go anywhere.

    I think the reason it’s not being taught, is, because the ‘Powers that Be’ don’t want the children to get ideas – that they could possibly change present day events, or events that will happen in the future. With knowledge denied, they become and remain Wage Slaves.

    The Left – and you – are guilty as anyone else, in this respect.

    SIPTU will teach anyone prepared to listen, about Larkin, Connolly The Lockout etc – but not a word about the corruption of Larkin and Connolly’s working class philosophies by the people who replaced them in ITGWU, at Belfast Docks. This is being covered up by Jack O’Connor and SIPTU with not a word about it from the Left.

    I’ve written to the Champagne Socialists, Fintan O’Toole, Vincent Browne
    and others too numerous to mention and have been ignored. I wrote again and asked them this question: “When those, whose job is to expose corruption, ignore corruption, is that not also corruption…?” Needless to say, I never received a reply.

    When you (rightly) accuse others of ignoring History, look to your own shortcomings.

  4. Mick Hall Says:


    I wonder if you are correct when you write that there is a “developing cultural aversion to reading books,” are book sales really that low? It seems to me they may well be on the rise and if anything, history is more popular than ever.

    You yourself reviewed a recent prime time TV serial which dealt with Stalin’s role in WW2, etc. When I go into the major supermarkets there are books on sale, admittedly many are imo rubbish, but there is also good stuff there. This is something comparatively new. They even review book on shows like Richard and judy. (I thing that is what it is called)

    True there is a down side to this in that small, more speacialist book shops have closed, but one only has to look at some of the supermarket titles to see they are aimed at people who just a few years ago rarely read books.

    I feel one of the main reasons history is not being taught in ‘some’ schools is the progressive left wing educationalists have been to sucsessful. Historians like Hobsbawn, EP Thompson, Chris Hill, Raphael Samuel, Brian Pearce and others won the day and teaching history from the bottom up, with the role of the masses being given precedent became the norm.

    Those who opposed this way of teaching still hold sway in reactionary outposts like the six counties and some shire counties in England,( I do not know about the south) and knowing they have no acedemic answer to oppose such teaching, prefer to take it off the agenda entirely.

    Could this be the answer.

  5. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi Mick,

    I think you are both right and wrong. And so am I. Perhaps what I ought to have written was a decline in people reading the “right” books, i.e. the heavweights of literature, politics, philosophy, and history that formed part of the programme of self-improvement/self-education among working people for most of the last 150 years or so. I don’t think that is the case anymore in anything like the numbers of the past. Though when you put it in terms of supermarkets selling books – which I hadn’t thought about – then clearly my version is too pessimistic.

    Your point about educationalists is also interesting, and I’d certainly say that educationalists in NI are very traditionalist. But we cannot ignore the fact that schools don’t take subjects off the list they teach if the demand is there for them. So I think it does go to the attitude of the young people themselves. And if the story is correct, and there is a class divide in the people interested in history as well, that may apply to the booksellers. How often do you see anything that isn’t from Richard and Judy’s booklist or by Jordan or a footballer in the supermarket?


    As it happens I have been asking around about the events you refer to. My attitude to the trade union movement is this. There are and have been some very problematic elements to the union movement, both in terms of how it as a whole or people in power within it have treated some of its own members, and in its relationship with employers on many occasions. The recent events in Belfast Airport seem to be another occasion where a union has not necessarily covered itself in glory. Nevertheless it has also had done some extremely positive things, not least in its role fighting sectarianism and promoting peace in NI.

    Moreover, whether we like it or lump it, workers are by and large supportive of it on things like social partnership, so I will not write the whole thing off because of some of the bad things it has done, bceause to do so is to cut people off from the workers. This is my attitude to cooperation more generally – on issues like the anti-war movement, or defending the welfare state, or water charges, people on the left have to work with people they mightn’t like but it is necessary to do it.

  6. yourcousin Says:

    Damnit I was hoping to get in on this while there were just the two comments, but I had to go to work and as we can now see, its all been lost. I think that we are missing the point of socialized history. The idea that vocational education is somehow is contrary to learning is extremely flawed. to my mind the problem is that the old social networks that once taught social history to the youth has been dismantled. The average age of the carpenter in Denver is in his late 40s (probably early 50s now) and most of my friends from the trade are closer to (if not over) 60. Most of these guys did have family in the trades from the turn of the century and have a collectivized memory of class struggle. I doubt you’ll find a recollection of the Homestead strike in typical history book but my foreman from Ohio knows all about it (amongst many other things). It used to be that young teenagers (13-16) could work on the job as carpenters helpers (during the summer) and that the old timers would come back to work during the summer. Obviously the teenager had to do the grunt work while the retirees would do skilled work and show the youngster the ropes. This extended far beyond the typical craft skills to things such socialization in their evironment and things such as history and politics. This was the way in which in history and politics were taught. Removing this model from the job site and relgating it to the university level (especially the labor history part) has had an extremely detrimemtal effect on the working class. I remember reading a biography on big Bill Haywood in which he was schooled in labor theory by an old railroad hand during his early years in mining (which were a refuge for the old hands of the KOL & ARU). Taking history and politics off of the job and putting them into the university setting has been far more detrimental than the decline of history classes in non-grammer schools could ever hope to be.

  7. yourcousin Says:

    Please pardon my numerous typos.

  8. Garibaldy Says:


    I must admit you make very valid points about the transfer of social history and class consciousness, that I had not considered when writing the above, and points that I would happily mostly agree with. Although of the kids I was thinking about when I wrote this, very few would be likely to end up in the type of employment you are talking about. Although the structural employment in NI may no longer be as massive as it was, a lot of the employment that there is for young people is in the non-unionised service sector, and especially in call centres, which are the great white hope for the NI economy that both the British government and our local executive have placed a lot of faith in. For people working in such atomised and insecure work, politics is unlikely to come from the shop floor, or its modern equivalent. So I still consider the creation of a culture of self-education in history, politics etc as vital for the left, and for a proper education system.

    I should though have thought more about what you said as the building trade in Dublin saw a lot of activity by people I know who were radicalised by the type of thing you are talking about, as well as the deaths of workers sacrificed to unsafe conditions for profit.

  9. yourcousin Says:

    The points I was making are rather narrow but fairly specific and can’t be said to be anything close to universal in their application. But true enough so that the gist of the argument is solid. I would agree that most first world countries are moving into the post industrial era and that with the triumph of globalism the service sector with all of its numerous and obvious flaws have been on the ascendent. Indeed even the areas of traditional unionized workplaces are not immune from contradictory and reactionary politics such as the ships yards of NI and the building trades (everywhere) and their ever prevelant xenophobia.

    In regards to the call centers and other non-unionized sectors. We would do well to remember that there was a time when the factories with their teeming multitudes of women and foreign workers were considered unorganizable by the craft unions of the times. And that factories had an incredibly high turn over rate as well as an abhorring accident and fatality rate (and lets not even go into child labor). I think of the difference between Wal-Mart where they lock immigrants in for the night to do cleaning and rate full time employment 28 hours a week with grocery chains such as King Soopers and Safeway that have union contracts. There’s inherently no difference in the work except the fact that one is organized and whose culture reflects that and one who is not and who feels that it is easier to pay off lawsuits than to right the wrongs. And I’m speaking as someone who has had organizing experience in call centres (that campaign failed by the way).

    My contention with class history and the education system is that by relying on the educational system to oversee the process is that inevitably it is filtered throught the state’s lenses which are always contrary to that of our own. I view class history very much the same that
    I view religious schooling. It ought not be left to an overburdened and underfunded educational system that would only mangle it anyways. And on the “Left” the teaching of history is filtered through an extremely narrow ideological as to make it almost meaningless. It must have some real root in the community, which is as ever extremely difficult thing to achieve, but never the less, what is nessecary IMO.

    Anyways, I’m just glad to be back online after almost three weeks off.

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