Modern World History

Teaching children about the Modern World

The conflicting principles of democracy and free trade illustrate the difficulty of reconciling global 'solutions' with local conditions. Nevertheless they remain subject to argument and debate and indicative of a confidence that solutions to the world's problems do exist providing we use our intelligence to find them. Educationalists are bound to endorse this view even if they admit that the problems are huge. The alternative is a deep pessimism that either undermines the value of education altogether or results in the kind of education that isn't education at all but indoctrination. As Orwell demonstrated so long ago in '1984', successful indoctrination can only be achieved by destroying the ability to think.

We have therefore to commit ourselves to a positive view of the future. Modernity is a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle without the kind of global catastrophe that would make nonsense of all our efforts. Idealism is necessary to structure our efforts and give them purpose. Ethnicity is something we can be proud of without it becoming a reason for others to fear us. What we have to show children is that it is the misapplication of these things that is the cause of evil. We have to give them the tools of enquiry that enable them to question ill-founded certainties that are the enemy of reason; most of all we have to wean them away from seductive forms of escapism that deny the value of explaining altogether.

How to do it? Firstly we have to do something about fear: the fear of being isolated, a loner, or a victim which causes even bright children to deny the value of knowledge. Then we have to do something to counteract the influence of the media for whom fear is a great generator of income. Neither goal is easy to achieve as they have to be pursued in the face of the natural human wish to be accepted and an equally natural fascination with the extremes of human behaviour. We don't want to breed a generation of ostriches, only a generation that knows when it is being exploited rather than informed.

We can begin by helping children to understand risk, comparing the odds against winning the National Lottery with the odds against being the victim of a terror attack. Both pale into insignificance when compared to the day to day hazards of travelling in a car or operating ordinary household electrical equipment. A second approach is to try to explain the causes of terrorism. Children seem to be born with an innate sense of fair play. Given a knowledge of the circumstances they can readily understand the anger and injustice that makes high-minded young people into suicide bombers, blind to the humanity of their victims. If an understanding of the origins of terrorism leads children to try to break down barriers within their own school community then it will have had positive results.

A third way forward is to help children understand the way they learn about current events. As has been said many times 'terrorism is the child of the media'. Newspapers and television channels require big audiences in order to attract advertising and terrorists know that violence sells. Children should be very sceptical about anyone trying to grab their attention. If they demand 'the story behind the story' this too is a more positive response to fear. Finally we can try to remind them that - terrible as terrorist outrages are - the real danger they pose is that they distract us from the much more important issues of climate change and environmental degradation.