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Encourage civic activism, says 'warm-up' man

In a spirit of social inclusion, I have, over the years, shared platforms at conferences with representatives of all the major political parties. Sometimes, my role has been to provide the "warm-up" act prior to the main speaker. One such event occurred a few weeks ago when I preceded Lord Hurd, who served as both Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary in Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.

On the face of it, our topics were very different. I spoke about education for citizenship, examining different interpretations of the citizenship agenda, and suggesting that it might pose some tricky challenges for educational leaders. Lord Hurd gave a fascinating account of his new book (to be published early in 2010) on British foreign secretaries over the last 200 years; his co-author, a young researcher named Edward Young, shared in the presentation. The question-and-answer session afterwards raised issues of direct significance for teachers.

One questioner wondered whether it was possible to pursue an ethical foreign policy, or whether there were always considerations of national interest (military, economic, diplomatic) which had to take precedence. Lord Hurd's answer conveyed a strong sense of the tremendous complexity of many political judgments, the fact that often politicians have to operate in grey areas. He was sceptical of the value of high-sounding moral rhetoric of a kind that some politicians indulge in, but he nonetheless believed that it was important to try to pursue a principled line, at the same time recognising that hard-headed pragmatism would almost certainly require a measure of compromise.

The discussion included references to Iraq, Northern Ireland and Kenny MacAskill's decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing on compassionate grounds. All of these are potentially rich topics for discussion with senior pupils, highlighting as they do questions of the morality of war, the challenge presented by terrorism and the nature of justice. They would, of course, require careful handling, avoiding the simplifications of crude party allegiance, but their potential to stimulate serious social and ethical thinking is considerable.

Related to this, Lord Hurd said with some passion that he deplored the fact that many politicians seemed to have lost sight of their educational role. MPs, he argued, had a duty to inform and explain, particularly when hard decisions had to be taken and the reasons for particular courses of action might not be immediately obvious. Instead of fulfilling this public responsibility, ministers nowadays tended to prefer the quick sound bite, relying on repeated assertion, attacks on other parties and a highly selective account of the evidence.

I suspect part of the reason politicians are currently held in such low esteem is that the public recognises that they often cannot be trusted to provide reliable information. This again has implications for teachers, in that it makes their role as balanced and fair-minded sources of knowledge all the more vital.

Good citizenship education should promote genuine political engagement, not of a shallow partisan kind, but in a form that raises awareness of the great issues of our time. This involves allowing youngsters to hear many different perspectives and equipping them with higher-order skills to enable them to reach their own conclusions. In this way, the civic activism on which Scotland's future depends will be encouraged.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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