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Head's Blog: Positivity in politics isn’t over; our children are proof of this

Paul Dwyer and family

As a teacher of history and politics I have always felt it important to try and help students see events around them in a wider context or with historical comparisons wherever possible.

However, finding parallels or the right context in which to place recent events in the USA has proven difficult. It is without precedent to see a President of the United States exciting a crowd to violence and insurrection in the way that we have seen in recent days. The King-Assassination riots and anti-Vietnam protests of April and August 1968, or the scandal of Watergate and subsequent resignation of President Nixon in the 70s are perhaps the closest analogies we might refer to. Yet neither offer the insidious combination of a President undermining democratic processes through inciting supporters to violence.

The fear is how such events erodes democracy. Even if they do not succeed immediately, they normalise such behaviour if seen to become commonplace. When seen through the lens of constant attacks on the media, or the narratives that have twisted ‘truths’ to suit the presidential agenda, recent events have felt inexorable.

Our reaction now has a role on the lasting impact of what has played out. Creating memes out of those who stormed the Senate chamber rightfully ridicules those responsible, but might also lessen the severity with which such challenges should be viewed. Perhaps this is also true of the four plus years of Trump memes that have become practically inescapable on social networks.

But we must not simply roll our eyes and ridicule in a manner that allows us to move on and wonder what else this seemingly endless pantomime might offer. Schools on both sides of the Atlantic must raise the level of political discourse and engagement wherever possible and not just see it as something that is to be squeezed into history lessons or PSHE wherever time allows. We must impress upon our students the importance of democracy, for all its flaws, as the cornerstone of modern society. We must not make them fearful of what the future can hold, but instead, encourage them to see the part they can play in shaping society.

And whilst in Trump we see a politician who has tragically used his position of power to spread baseless lies, hate and fear, there are also many current figureheads in politics who are worthy of our admiration and who represent hope and progression. These are the people we need to talk to our children about and these are the people who the younger generation do already look up to. Asking students throughout the school who see as inspirational and I am heartened to hear that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jacinda Ardern and Kamala Harris all feature highly. For me, being a product of a small mill-town in Lancashire, my heroes were much more likely to be found on the football pitch or the cover of NME than in a political office.

There is a zeal for political engagement among our children that was not present in the same way in the 90s and 2000s. For all of its ills, social media has had a part to play in this positive step by making political discussion far more accessible. The (sometimes slow) emergence of politicians from a wider variety of backgrounds and with a broader perspective on the world around them is also a leap forward in helping young people identify with those in power.

We should continue to embrace this and offer our students the tools to feel that they can go out and make a difference in the world for their generation and many others to follow. One does not need to be a politician to effect change, nor to speak up to protect democracy if it is threatened. Consider the words of J.M. Barrie, addressing the students at St Andrews University in 1922:

“Do not stand aloof, despising, disbelieving, but come in and help—insist on coming in and helping. After all, we have shown a good deal of courage; and your part is to add a greater courage to it. There are glorious years lying ahead of you if you choose to make them glorious.”

There is still great opportunity for our young people to make the years ahead glorious. If this is to be realised, our job as teachers, as parents, as society, must be to instil within our children hope, courage and confidence. Hope that the world can be shaped through effort, courage to think differently and act when necessary, and confidence in their voice and the part they want to play.

Our faith in our young people and their capacity should be limitless and unwavering. If we can get this right it will be the greatest legacy we can bequest to them.

Date Posted: 08 January 2021
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