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.