A state of forgetfulness

7th June 1996 at 01:00
History is the key to good citizenship says Martin Roberts. So why is so little being done to nurture it in schools?

"The state is a plurality, which should be united and made into a community by education," Aristotle.

When I think about the kind of community and communities in which I wish my pupils to mature and to which I hope they will later contribute, I find myself asking, whatever happened to citizenship?

One of the least controversial and positive conferences linked to the national curriculum I ever attended was in 1990 about citizenship. John McGregor the then Secretary of State was there. So too, since it was an admirably non- partisan affair, was his Labour shadow Jack Straw.

They were supporting an initiative by the Speaker of the House of Commons to make a success of the cross-curricular theme of citizenship since it was, in their opinion, so crucial to our sustaining a healthy democratic society. The keynote speeches were eloquent, the workshops full of bright ideas but absolutely nothing has emerged from that conference or from the Speaker's project.

In the meantime we have become increasingly anxious both about the effectiveness of our democratic institutions and about the apparent disenchantment of the younger generation. This is not just a British phenomenon. As Eric Hobsbawm put it in his brilliant Age of Extremes (1994): "By the 20th century's end large numbers of citizens were withdrawing from politics . . . the decline of organised mass parties, class-based, ideological or both, eliminated the main social engine for turning men and women into politically active citzens."

Such concerns were never far from the surface at a recent conference in Switzerland organised by Euroclio, the European History Teachers' Association. Its theme was "History, a key to democracy" and it attracted participants from all over the continent. In Eastern Europe the main concern was the threat to recently created democratic structures by more authoritarian forces, encouraged by economic setbacks and nationalism. In Western Europe there were worries very similar to those in Britain: about the apathy of young people towards politics; the conviction of too many of them that politicians were either manipulative, venal or both; that ordinary people were powerless and that the only political activities worth pursuing concerned single issues like opposition to the Newbury by-pass.

All the participants were convinced that a strong historical element was essential in the upper secondary school curriculum if healthy democracies are to survive in the 21st century with young people aware of their responsibilities as well as their rights as citizens. Almost without exception, European governments see their history teachers as having a particular role in the encouragement, not just of a sense of national identity, but of democratic values and human rights. So most European history teachers are seen as civics teachers too.

The exception is England. The Dearing 14-16 KS4 settlement may be a brilliant short-term compromise; not only has it eliminated the cross-curricular themes, it has saddled us with the most utilitarian curriculum in Europe. As schools struggle with introducing a compulsory modern foreigh language, design and technology and IT they know they have little choice but to squeeze the humanities, expressive arts and personal and social education. We now have less humanities in our secondary curriculum than any European nation except Albania. It may be a satisfactory curriculum for greater international economic competitiveness but it is profoundly unsatisfactory if in the 21st century we wish to have a healthy democracy in a peaceful and prospering world.

From this perspective Sir Ron on 16-19 is not much better. While he does at least recognise that there is a problem, his recommended solution is a bland generality: "The evidence of the time we live in suggests there is merit in re-emphasising the need to address moral and spiritual issues and to build the public and private virtues of citizenship and community.

"All providers of education and training should take spiritual and moral issues into account in the design and delivery of the curriculum and programmes for young people."

Much the best way of helping young people both to understand and to value the essential democratic principles of the present is to explain how they were won and at what cost. It is through lively teaching of such topics as the American and French Revolutions, of Chartism, of votes for women and of the defeat of totalitarianism that the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, of "government of the people by the people for the people", of justice for all and the rule of law become meaningful to the rising generation. Such an introduction to democratic values must be provided for the 14-19 age range. The key concepts are too sophisticated for younger pupils.

In the next few years we have a tremendous opportunity to create a genuinely coherent 14-19 curriculum. If it is to help young people make a success of their lives in the next century, it must make them decent democratic citizens as well as economically competitive. To this end a well-devised modular course "Key Moments in the Evolution of Modern Democratic Societies" should be as essential as literacy, numeracy and IT.

If we fail the future is bleak, as Hobsbawm concludes in Age of Extremes: "The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are now great enough to destroy the environment, that is to say the material foundations of human life.

"The structures of human societies themselves, including some of the social foundations of the capitalist economy, are on the point of being destroyed by the erosion of what we have inherited from the human past."

Martin Roberts is headteacher of the Cherwell School, Oxford

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