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2006-05-17 The real lessons to be learned from history

Learning comes from education : wisdom comes from experience. It might be an idea for our educators to add in an even bigger helping of wisdom while dishing out the learning.

 

I think perhaps the main reason I found history lessons a little trying at school was that, at times, I felt my history textbooks were treating the subject as little more than a thin narrative of events. Years later, I can still tell you what happened in 1066, 1492, 1666, 1789, 1798, 1815 and 1916, but what have I really gained from the information?

 

If learning history could cultivate within us a historic understanding, by perhaps linking together stories and events thematically, by studying the ever-recurring patterns in the build-up to atrocities, by attempting to determine why certain sections of society repeatedly end up as `victims of history', by studying emigration trends and the mass displacement of people, by analysing the factors which give rise to, for example, the horrors of ethnic cleansing (a practice which can not and should not ever be tolerated or justified), maybe, just maybe we might begin to really learn from the lessons of history. Rather than simply rhyme off battle dates, we could discuss what motivated a particular assault, determine whether a battle was ethically justified, and clearly decide whether historical events were `glorious', or horrific. Nelson Mandela said "No one is born hating another person. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love". In the same way extremism, even in our own country, is at times forcefully instilled into our children from a young age, I too believe that hatred can be defeated by education.

 

 

Leaving aside religion, totalitarian dictatorships, and madness, nations are usually driven to invade fellow nations in self-defence, in the pursuit of raw materials, or more recently, in the fight against terrorism. The `Holocaust' was, surely unquestionably, the most extreme expression of racism, intolerance and ethnic cleansing. Was there a point in the 1920s and 30s where the world ought to have seen it coming, and Hitler's horrifically destructive advance might have been halted? One only has to look at the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, to recognise that there are still events unfolding in the world today which are resulting in senseless loss of life, as well as wasting valuable money, money which could well be utilised to actually save precious lives? Should Robert Mugabe be more seriously challenged by the wider global community about his dictatorial Zimbabwean regime, the killing and displacement of millions of his own people, the bulldozing of urban slums, and the country's serious economic decline? When General Thatcher spent her country's millions sending her battleships to fight General Galtieri on the tiny Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic, she seemed, in so doing, to be oblivious to the hundreds sleeping homeless on the streets of her nation's capital.

 

In the same way the American native Indians are now referred to as "First Nation People", maybe more thorough history teaching might truly determine who really own the lands in question, before those far from glorious centuries of colonisation, and essentially `nation theft'.

 

Whether or not we celebrate or commemorate the Easter Rising, or view it as the birth of Irish freedom, or agree that the rebels had democracy and equality as their ultimate goals, or perhaps recognise that it is impossible to view it at all from a contemporary perspective, we must all agree that 1916 is, without any shadow of doubt, very much part of what we all are.

 

As the letters `E R' remain by way of a reminder over Sligo's G.P.O., we ought to teach our young what it was like to live under British rule, learn how Cromwell affected the area, how the Famine changed the face and soul of the North-West of Ireland, by showing our children the derelict famine cottages on our coasts and in our remote mountain areas. We could openly discuss some of the hardships of 20th century Ireland - the trials of pre-Rural Electrification, children walking barefoot in our county's villages, and the end of `island lifestyle' off the North Sligo coast. It is high time we all began to really benefit in a positive way from the lessons of history.