Editorial - A debate that inspires revolutionary zeal

14th February 2014 at 00:00

Geek alert. I have long believed that the life and work of Thomas Paine is underappreciated in the UK. All too often, even those who've studied history andor politics don't really grasp the full, fascinating story of the man who has a claim on being Britain's greatest global revolutionary. Paine penned Rights of Man, was a leading philosophical figure in the American War of Independence and played a major role in the French Revolution. Not bad, eh?

Conversely, I also feel the same about Paine's contemporary Edmund Burke. Another Brit (albeit Irish by birth), this philosopherpoliticianjournalist could reasonably claim to be the founding father of modern Anglo-American conservatism. Without Burke, one could argue, there would have been no Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or George W Bush.

And yet neither appear by name in England's new national curriculum. Should they? My instinctive answer is an impassioned: "To understand Britain, to understand the modern world, truly you must understand the Paine-Burke axis!"

I am not alone - I am just one of millions of people around the world who have an interest in pushing their own agenda on to what is taught in schools. This week, Steve McQueen joins the throng. The celebrated director told TES that he is in talks with the US and UK governments to get the book that inspired his Oscar-tipped film 12 Years a Slavetaught in schools. Not unreasonably, he believes that Solomon Northup's memoirs have as much right to be there as Anne Frank's diaries.

Of course, the thing that McQueen and the individuals and lobby groups who campaign on such matters all too often forget is that the contents of a national curriculum - or a common core or a programme of study - are a zero-sum game. If you put something in, something else will have to come out.

We are not dealing with a magical Mary Poppins handbag here, the experts say. Presumably McQueen doesn't want Anne Frank dropped to squeeze in Northup's book. But here's the thing. It's not McQueen's job to worry about what should be removed in favour of 12 Years a Slave - all he's doing is making a positive case for its inclusion. And all power to him.

Instead of sitting here miserably suggesting that he doesn't understand how national curricula work, we should be celebrating that he wants to talk about it at all. Similarly, we should be delighted by the fact that the debate over the Common Core State Standards in the US has become so impassioned, just as we should count with glee the thousands of contributions to the consultation on England's new national curriculum.

These are people - from the Left, from the Right, from the street, from the chattering classes - who are getting involved with the democratic process of discussing what should be taught in schools. Engagement in civil society is a good thing: just ask the many teachers, school leaders and educationalists who believe that this should be taught in schools.

Certainly Paine would approve, both of McQueen involving himself in public educational discourse and of the idea that all children should learn of Northup's struggle. But what to take out? Answers on a postcard please.



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