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'History shouldn't be a sanitised fable of a nation's glories' | Paul Rouse on teaching nationalism

Ciaran Bradley
Ciaran Bradley

19:36 27 Apr 2020

In the latest instalment of Paul Rouse's history of sport series, he tackled the thorny issue of how a nation deals with its own past - and how both Britain and Ireland have struggled to reconcile aspects of their own histories.

As Professor of Sport at University College Dublin,  Rouse discussed why sport was seen as so key to the proliferation of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As ever, any debate on nationalism and its impact leads to difficult questions about historiography and how any curriculum is able to deliver a balanced and accurate account of what happened and why.

This is a question ordinarily levelled at British education system, but Rouse believes that similar concerns apply to the Irish education system as well.

"Michael Gove - who people will know as being a current member of the cabinet, leading member of the Brexit campaign and general  cheerleader for whoever the Tory Prime Minister is - was Minister for Education," said Rouse of the UK.

"He sought to introduce a curriculum that was all about the glories of empire; he wanted to issue a corrective to TV shows like Blackadder, which had this idea of lions led by donkeys and useless public school kids.

"He wanted to have what he called a 'rebalancing' of things, which was basically a celebration of Britain's achievement in establishing an empire around the world, so there was huge controversy around that as loads of historians pushed back against it.

"But that teaching of history in Britain is really interesting as it really depends who is doing the teaching. The curriculum offers space for that."

Teaching Irish nationalism

However, similar applies for the Irish education system, as Rouse explained.

"You can equally apply that here. What history are people taught about here? There  is a certain glorification of certain parts of our history and a certain ignorance of others. The teaching of history changes all the time and there are battles over what should be taught in a course and what shouldn't."

The comparison was drawn with Germany, whose approach to teaching their youngsters about Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich has been lauded for its unflinching approach to dark aspects of German history.

"It is a badge of honour for the German education system that it teaches history in that manner," said Rouse.

"But it is a very challenging thing to do to establish a history curriculum which criticises your own nation in that manner.

"It is one of those things here that if you say anything critical of Irish nationalism in this country, you immediately get slaps.

"You are seen as being somehow unpatriotic, whereas it is the job of people who read and write history to deal as best you can with facts and create a rounded position, a rounded understanding.

"The idea that history needs to be a sanitised fable of the glories of a nation seems to me to be a nonsense and it defeats the purpose of what a good history course should do."

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