Past caring about history

2nd February 2007 at 00:00

"i wasn't born then!" is not just a tiresome quip from students presented with a historical event. It reflects their contemporary psychological state. Eric Hobsbawm says that most young people now "grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in". New lecturers are the same. Many have no idea, for example, that FE colleges were once not businesses but local-authority controlled. It isn't only a historian's lament, but the recognition of a real loss of meaning.

The way I try to illustrate the importance of having some knowledge of the public past is to reflect on the idea of New Labour's politics being a "third way" that produces "policy churn". Every day there is a new report or initiative that is quickly abandoned. Why?

Any attempt at explanation must begin with the question: "If New Labour's politics represent the `third way', what were the first and second?" The first refers to the politics of consensus after the Second World War: the welfare state and debates about such things as comprehensive education.

The second way is associated with Thatcherism. It did away with the welfare state (or what Mrs Thatcher called "socialism"), but put nothing in its place other than the ideology of the market. "There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families," she told Woman's Own in 1987. By the time she lost power, she was right.

The politics of the third way is an attempt to develop social and educational policies without relying entirely on the market or harking back to the time of social consensus.

But seeking a third way leads to artificial policy-making. Policies are thought up in think tanks, rather than arising out of political debate.

They have one defining feature: fragility. Easily extracted from clever people, then just as easily dropped after consulting different clever people. Policy churn is not an accidental feature of the third way, but its essence.

Opportunistic FE colleges may gain short-term financial advantage by supporting third-way initiatives, but they can't plan. FE policies in the medium and long term depend on intellectual whim. Fragility is the only certainty for the foreseeable future.

Someone asked me if a fourth way would develop. I said no: the third way is a dead end. Now I'm not so sure. We haven't yet had a Jamie Oliver telling students what to eat, but he is the model for an authoritarian fourth way in which untouchable "saints" tell staff and students what to think.

We do have the Institute for Learning demanding that we all convert to the green religion. All they need is a moral authoritarian to impose it. I believe there is a Saint George in waiting.

Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional learning, Canterbury Christ Church university

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