Last night, my eldest son, who is preparing to do his Junior Cert this year, asked me a question. Why should he study history, he asked, wanting to know what jobs might be available after doing it.
In truth, I don’t think there are many directly related jobs, unless you fancy being a historian or an author, but I think that’s missing the point. History is a vitally important subject for reasons that transcend basic job market economics.
First of all, it gives us a sense of who we are, and how we came to be. It tells us stories about our locality, our country and our civilisation that in turn, give us an insight into why things are how they are. Great historical events don’t die quickly. They create echoes that last to and through our present day. History is there in everything we experience. By understanding this we enrich our minds.
Secondly, the stories it tells can often be related to decisions relevant to the present day. History is bubbling over with stories of people who had great decisions to make, and the consequences of those decisions are often described in gruesome detail. History is probably the only laboratory in which many of our decisions can be tested. In history we find context, and from that context we can move forwards, mindful of the mistakes made in the past that lead nowhere, or even to disaster.
Thirdly, history can do wonders for our critical thinking skills. Where there is a narrative, there are often one or many counter-narratives. We learn from our past that nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and that the stories we are told often have gaping holes or mind-boggling complexities. We discover that that simple stories often deliberately overlook or distort events in order to push a particular viewpoint or ideology. Being sensitive to these distortions is no bad thing. A careful reading of history asks us to look beyond propaganda and to seek out the untidiness, while also valuing expert consensus where it exists.
History is a powerful subject. It would be a pity to see it commoditised or deprecated simply for its job-winning value. History has to be seen as more than the means to an end, as there is so much to be learned beyond our first job. It’s a type of learning that can accompany us throughout our lives.
It’s a friend to the grave.