A teaspoon of reason helps the referendum row go down

8th February 2013 at 00:00
Now is the time to encourage pupils to take part in serious debate and express their own opinions

I really should start doing the lottery. I know, I know, I've more chance of being hit by lightning than winning the big money prizes, but would you stand under a tree, seven iron in hand, during a storm? Well then.

The reason my glass is half full is that fresh from making some predictions in my January column, the tectonic plates of happenstance and serendipity are grinding together to make one of them come true. OK, it wasn't a long shot but the demands for independence referendums in schools are now being heard and, this being Scotland, there is already disagreement. If there's one thing we like, it's a stair-heid rammy - or a school corridor disobligement.

I don't know what all the fuss is about. We entrust to teachers the task of explaining the world is round - even though it looks flat when you are only 5 years old. We ask teachers to help pupils believe in Newton's laws of gravity and motion, even though you are later taught they are nothing like the whole truth. And possibly most important of all, we entrust Miss Armstrong in domestic sciences to impart the secret of a contented life, that macaroni cheese is not perfect unless you put a teaspoonful of mustard in it.

So why not encourage projects, personal assignments, class discussions and full-scale debates in that 1980s basketball court? The referendum's an opportunity to encourage, to inspire and to express.

I collect hats, mostly wide-rimmed fedoras or Borsalinos, but one of them is my involvement in the English Speaking Union and I can say without fear of correction that some of the best argued and passionately felt debates I have witnessed have been between pupils aged 13 and 14.

The ESU Scotland Juniors competition, and others like it I have seen in Japan or Botswana, leave me quite sanguine about the ability of pupils to analyse arguments, challenge their own formative prejudices and not accept everything a teacher says.

I wonder why so many politicians fear exploration and discussion of political issues in schools. There are few certainties to be taught in life. Is Newton not debated and turned upside down when, in our ivory towers, one finds his laws are confounded by the behaviour of semiconductors and the orbit of Mercury?

Having witnessed the standard of debate in Scottish public life, might it just be that our pupils are better equipped to employ reason than the grumps? If anyone brings that teaspoonful of mustard to our discourse, it's the pupils of S2. Let's encourage it I say.

Brian Monteith, Political commentator and a former Conservative MSP.

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