'With toxic politics sweeping the world, we must keep on teaching as we have done – even if it becomes dangerous'

31st January 2017 at 11:42
Teaching critical skills
Now that Donald Trump has been installed as the leader of the free world, it feels like an Orwellian nightmare is becoming a reality. It is therefore up to us, as teachers, to equip young people with the critical thinking required to challenge poisonous authority

There was a time when I actively enjoyed teaching George Orwell's 1984. Yes, it's a miserable, soul-sucking read, but how bloody masterful it is in its miserableness.

Few works in the English canon do such a great job of depicting a world bled dry of hope, gutted of truth. In spare, brutal prose, it shows the dangerous, malevolent power of language to shape reality.

I used to love booming the slogan "War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength" as I read to students in a pantomime of a totalitarian commissar. I revelled in the vivid, hellish depiction of Two Minute Hate and the newsreel that Winston Smith was compelled to watch. It felt a dangerous, vaguely subversive thing to teach.

If I'm going to be honest, however, the thing I enjoyed most of all about teaching 1984 was that I could put the book down at the end of the lesson and escape that hollow, dark world.

Over the past couple of days, many of us will have watched, stunned, as the new US president, Donald Trump enacted several Executive Orders – chiefly, a ban on refugees from predominantly Muslim nations. Before that we all heard White House staff talk of "alternative truth" and the repeated calls of "fake news".

Today we hear that Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the far-right Breitbart website, has usurped senior military staff on the National Security Council.

Suddenly, the world we rooted ourselves in doesn't seem to be quite as stable as we thought it to be. Demonstrable truths are being replaced by repeated, inflammatory, deceitful soundbites from the White House podium. Something very sinister seems to be happening in the United States, something we long thought consigned to history.

It's our job to promote critical thinking

We talk a lot about the role of teachers in imparting knowledge and imparting shared values – it's a mainstay of educational debate.

So the question has to be asked: What is the responsibility of teachers to their students in a world where none of the normal rules seem to apply – where the leader of the free world has taken the epitome of the modern cautionary tale as his playbook?

In Orwell's novel, Winston Smith rebels through writing a diary – a forbidden act in a world where all expression is controlled. He writes of the truth that he knows, records the objective reality disappearing around him. He makes a conscious decision that his truth will be his legacy. 

Ultimately, it is Smith's diary, along with his relationship with a fellow party member, Julia, that has him led to the infamous Room 101 for re-education.

As teachers, we are in a unique position amongst the professions. It is our job to impart authoritative truths to the young, to give them a stable and, arguably, moral framework to understand the world around them.

It is also our job to instil critical thought – to give students the ability to discern the objective truths in a range of statements.

In this strange, shifting world, our number one priority must be to "keep our own diary", to continue teaching as we have done, even as it becomes difficult, even dangerous.

To change our tune would not only be unprofessional, it would constitute moral cowardice.

We must condemn what we see to be deceit and show the hollowness behind xenophobia and isolationism. Young people look to us for moral judgement and it is important we do not flinch in giving our views, even if they run counter to those on the television, radio or poster.

If there is to be an opposition to the flood of toxic populism and nationalism that is sweeping the world, we can't expect it to come from the generation that caused it. They have had their turn and bottled it.

Instead, change will have to come from upcoming generations, school leavers who have the ability to see beyond the hatred and lies we're increasingly being presented with. We can't let them down.

If there is hope, it lies in the kids. 

Mike Stuchbery is a teacher and blogger. He tweets as @MrMStuchbery

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